Jake Fromm led Georgia to an SEC title and the national championship game as a freshman. Time was, that would have made him, if not quarterback-for-life, then surely quarterback-for-three-more-years. Those days are not these days.
Fromm figures to be challenged by Justin Fields, a freshman from Kennesaw’s Harrison High, in a way Fromm himself didn’t challenge Jacob Eason last season. Fromm became Georgia’s quarterback because he took over when Eason was hurt on the third series of the opening game. That the then-freshman kept the job tells us that Kirby Smart isn’t bound by convention. (Remember when folks used to say you could never lose your job via injury?)
To suggest that Fromm had a solid freshman season is to damn him with faint praise. He’s not just a game manager. He completed 62.2 percent of his passes. He threw for 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions. The Bulldogs won 12 of his 14 starts, the only losses coming at Auburn and against Alabama in overtime. He had the best season by any Georgia freshman quarterback ever, David Greene and Matthew Stafford included.
That said, it’s believed that Fields, who’s a dual-threat quarterback, is the bigger talent. No, talent isn’t everything, but here we consider Smart’s background. The quarterbacks who confounded his Alabama defenses were dual-threat guys – Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, Deshaun Watson.
We note also that Nick Saban’s, Smart’s mentor/model, has dared to make some unusual quarterback decisions in Tuscaloosa lately. In 2013, Saban chose Blake Sims over Jake Coker, a Florida State transfer whom most expected to get the nod. In 2015, Blake Barnett started the Crimson Tide’s opener against USC but was second-string behind freshman Jaylen Hurts in Week 2. At halftime of January’s title tilt, Saban pulled Hurts, who’s 26-2 as Bama’s starter, freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who’s the reason Smart’s Bulldogs aren’t defending national champs.
Gone are the days when quarterbacks expect to serve apprenticeships. If they’re good enough, they expect to play, or else they’ll leave. At Friday’s Media Day here, someone asked Smart if – having had a freshman quarterback start in 27 of his 28 games as Georgia’s coach – he has grown comfortable with what coaches once considered anathema.
“I would never say I got comfortable with it or I am comfortable with it,” Smart said. “It’s an enormous challenge to do that. That’s a burden on a lot of people. In any offensive system, the guy that’s got to have the capacity for the most information is the quarterback position. So that’s not easy. Is it the norm? I think it’s happened more often, and the main reason it’s happened more often is because more kids come in prepared.”
Then: “But never would I say that you’re more comfortable with it. I don’t think any head coach that tells you they’re comfortable with that is going to be telling you the truth. Experience is valuable. I think experience pays off. But I certainly know that there’s talented enough players to come in and take over a team and command leadership. One of ours, it happened kind of naturally, and the other one was forced. For two different situations, we’ve had a freshman.”
Then: “That’s something a lot of coaches are having to deal with across the country. Each year it’s probably going to get more and more prevalent as kids transfer and move. Because you don’t find a guy willing to come in willing to come in and (wait to) play like Hutson Mason did (at Georgia). You don’t find one willing to wait his turn and play like AJ McCarron did (at Alabama). They’re more often gone.”
A bit later, Smart was asked if it was possible Fields could dislodge Fromm as Georgia’s No. 1. The response: “I look at it like, ‘Can (freshman defensive back) Tyson Campbell beat out Deandre Baker? Yeah, Tyson Campbell could beat out Deandre Baker. Can (freshmen) Brenton Cox or Robert Beal have a chance to start over D’Andre Walker? Certainly. Could (freshmen) Jamaree Salyer or Warren Ericson work at center and beat out Lamont (Gaillard)? Certainly.”
Then: “I think when you start thinking about that, you start trying to make it a bigger deal than it is. For me, it’s all about, ‘Who’s going to play with the most consistency? Who’s going to do things naturally and understand and develop and make right decisions at every position?’ That’s the most important thing for us: ‘Are we headed in team-goal-oriented decisions and are you working as hard as you possibly can to out-compete the other guys?’ ”
Then: “We’ve got a ton of competition in this camp. You look across the board, you sit there and say, ‘We don’t really have a depth chart.’ You (media) guys have a depth chart, but we don’t have a depth chart. Every guy’s getting the same reps. Our ones, twos, threes, fours are going to get the same number of reps at practice. We’re going to evaluate them and say, ‘Who’s doing the best job of competing at the standard we want?’ And then we’ll make decisions from there and play.”
Note the one word not included in the previous three paragraphs: “No.”
Fromm has played for the national championship. Fields hasn’t taken a collegiate snap. But Fields wouldn’t have signed with Georgia if he didn’t plan on starting, and surely sooner rather than later. (The D.J. Shockley example of waiting four years to play one seems hopelessly quaint in the era of transfers run amok.) It would be a major upset if Fromm doesn’t start the season opener against Austin Peay. It would not be a major upset if Fields is starting by November.