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February 5, 2023
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Stetson Bennett never should have been Georgia’s QB1, but he thrived anyway

For the bulk of his football career, Stetson Bennett has been an afterthought.

Bennett was a three-star recruit coming out of Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Georgia, described by 247 Sports as a quarterback “likely maxed out in terms of manageable bulk.” He entertained scholarship offers from Massachusetts and Middle Tennessee State, but decided to enroll at Georgia as a priority walk-on.

After a season with the Bulldogs running their scout team, Bennett enrolled in junior college. Georgia had both Jake Fromm and Justin Fields in the quarterback room, so the walk-on joined Jones County Junior College in Mississippi. He started all 12 games, going 10-2 and throwing for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns. That was enough to return to Georgia with a scholarship, after Fields transferred to Ohio State.

Still, he had to wait his turn. He backed up Fromm during the 2019 season, and then expected to be third on the depth chart during 2020. Jamie Newman transferred in from Wake Forest, and many believed he would win the job. But Newman opted out of the 2020 season due to COIVD, and the Bulldogs named D’Wan Mathis the started.

But Mathis struggled in the season opener against Arkansas, and Kirby Smart turned to Bennett midway through the game. Bennett gave the Bulldogs a spark, completing 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as Georgia came back in the second half for the win. Bennett would make five starts for Georgia that year, but up-and-down play coupled with an injury saw Smart turn to J.T. Daniels, another transfer.

Fortunes changed in 2021. While Daniels entered the season as the starter, he suffered an oblique injury early in the year, and was in-and-out of the lineup, but another injury opened the door for Bennett to take over the starting role. Bennett’s first start of 2021 came against Auburn, where he completed 14 of 21 passes for 231 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and as the Bulldogs kept winning, rising in the national rankings to #1 by October, Bennett stayed in the lineup.

But a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, which included a Pick-Six thrown by Bennett early in the fourth quarter that gave the Crimson Tide a three-score lead, raised questions about Bennett’s status. Daniels was healed and ready to go, and some around the college football world wondered if Daniels would be a better option for the team heading into the college football playoff.

However, Smart stuck with Bennett, despite calls from outside the program for Georgia to turn to Daniels. In making the announcement, the coach talked about his quarterback, and how he gave the Bulldogs the best chance to win:

And I think Stetsons played at a high level, done a really good job with our offense. He has not played perfect by no means. But he’s played well. And it’s it’s a decision that we make as coaching staff. And for whatever reason, there’s fans that may not agree with it, they may agree with it. Media may not agree with it may agree with it. Our team understands that we’re going to give our team the best opportunity to win and we’d like Stetson does that.

He would be proven right, as the Bulldogs won their next two games, including a rematch with Alabama, to win their first National Championship since 1980.

Now they are on the cusp of their second-straight.

With Bennett taking on a much bigger role this season.

As the starter for the full season, Bennett earned an invitation to New York City as one of the four Heisman finalists. While he finished fourth in the voting, the number he put together this year are impressive. He completed 67.9% of his passes for 3,425 yards and 20 touchdown passes, against just 6 interceptions.

Bennett was also at his best when it mattered most. When Tennessee was the hot team in the nation, Bennett completed 17 of 25 passes for 257 yards and 2 touchdown passes in a win over the Volunteers. In the SEC Championship game, Bennett hit on 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards and 4 touchdowns as the Bulldogs won the conference championship.

Still, questions linger. Questions that arose after he was named a Heisman finalist. Questions that will surround him over the next few weeks, depending on how Georgia fares in the playoffs, and into any discussion of him as an NFL prospect. (A common line of jokes when Bennett plays is that he will one day have the best line of Audi dealerships in the state of Georgia, or that he will eventually be a senator. But that the NFL will remain out of reach).

When you consider the context of Bennett’s career path, and his situation in Georgia, those jokes may have a point. He remains an undersized prospect at the position, and with the talent assembled around him — including Brock Bowers, who looks like one of the best tight end prospects in recent history — the case could be made that Bennett is a passenger along for the ride. Some view the quarterback position as a question of whether the player is a tractor — pulling the team along with him — or a trailer, being pulled to wins while enjoying success due to the surrounding talent.

With everything around Bennett in Georgia, you could make the case that he is a trailer.

You could.

And yet, watching him this season, you see clear examples of elite quarterback play.

One of the things Bennett does very well is work through around underneath defenders, even when facing pressure in the pocket. On this play against Vanderbilt from earlier in the season, Georgia runs a dagger concept to the right side of the field, with the slot receiver releasing vertically as the outside receiver runs a dig route.

Watch as Bennett throws the dig route, navigating the underneath defender in zone coverage, trying to read the QB’s eyes:

Here is another example from the SEC Championship game, this time with a little pressure in the interior. Bennett hangs tough in the pocket, hitting Bowers on the quick post while fitting the throw around the hook defender underneath:

Another aspect of Bennett’s game that stands out is what he does mentally. Bennett can use his eyes to move defenders when necessary, and does a very good job at deciphering coverage rotations, even when his pre-snap expectations are not matched by the post-snap reality in the secondary.

Take this play from the SEC Championship, as he hits Ladd McConkey for a touchdown:

Bennett keeps his eyes in the middle of the field after the snap, influencing the safety to squat on the crossing routes in front of him. That creates space for McConkey’s post route, and as Bennett finishes his drop, he flashes his eyes to the right, and gets his feet in place, “setting the hallway” to make a throw to McConkey.

Perhaps my favorite example of Bennett solving a problem post-snap comes from Georgia’s win over Mississippi State. With the Bulldogs facing a 3rd and 8, Mississippi State really tries to muddy the look for Bennett before the play. Here is what the QB sees before the snap:

Mississippi State has two defenders lurking over the slot receiver, and three defenders are lurking over the running back. Every other defender in the secondary is showing Bennett man coverage cues, aligned over a receiver, eyes on the WR. Everything about this look before the play screams to the QB that the defense is going to blitz, and play man coverage behind the pressure scheme.

Instead, Mississippi State drops into zone coverage. Still, they are able to pressure Bennett, but he gets of a great throw on the seam route — away from the rotation of the safety and his leverage — to move the chains:

Also consider this: The anticipation on the throw. Bennett lets this pass fly before the receiver clears the underneath defender, throwing him open downfield. A very good bit of quarterback play.

That leads us to the final aspect of his game that stands out, watching him on film: Ball placement. This season Bennett has made a number of throws into tight windows requiring near-perfect placement. This completion against Florida, as he throws the crossing route, is a perfect example of a quarterback layering in a throw over underneath defenders:

The QB has to navigate the weakside safety rotation, as that defender drops down into an underneath zone. So not only does Bennett have to spot that, he then has to drop the throw over his head, and away from the trailing defender in coverage. He does so to perfection.

Here is another angle of it:

Then there is this completion against LSU in the SEC Championship game, with a defender draped over his tight end:

Hard to make a better throw than that. Here is that connection from the end zone angle:

There will be time to dive into Bennett deeper when the NFL draft approaches. For now, the Georgia QB is focused on making a little history, becoming the first QB in the history of the current college football playoff format to win back-to-back titles. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron won back-to-back titles during the BCS era, and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier won two-straight during the 1990s.

But you can be sure that when those draft conversations begin in earnest, Bennett will be an afterthought once more. You know the names at the top, such as C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, Hendon Hooker, and Bryce Young. You also know the names that will likely move up boards throughout the process, such as Fresno State’s Jake Haener. And Bennett will remain on the outside of the discussion, looking in.

A place he has been before.

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