Kirby Smart is at a crossroads in his coaching career.
It’s like this: he’s standing in the middle of the intersection, dodging oncoming traffic, looking for safe passage.
Such is the fate of a college football coach caught without a quarterback.
This kind of thing happens to coaches from time to time, even though they try their best to avoid it.
Given that virtually every offensive play goes through the quarterback, it is a pretty important position. Quarterback and high profile are synonymous.
Going all the way back to World War II, pretty much every Georgia coach has at one time or another found himself in a quarterback quandary.
For Wally Butts, it was 1950, when Georgia tried four players at the position in a season that ended with a weird 6-3-3 record. He settled on Zeke Bratkowski the next year, but at a cost. He threw 64 interceptions in three seasons, and that is surely a record that Georgia fans hope is never even approached.
Johnny Griffith had only a three-year tenure, and Larry Rakestraw was the man, even setting an NCAA passing record at Miami.
Vince Dooley often managed dual quarterbacks and never really fielded a team that did not have options. But he nearly exhausted his roster in 1977. Athenian Jeff Pyburn was the starter, until injuries opened the door for Steve Rogers and Randy Cook. Yeah. Not exactly household names in Georgia lore.
In the season finale with Georgia Tech, injuries forced freshman Chris Welton into the game. He completed one pass for 51 yards, but he was then hurt too. Of course, Welton was later an outstanding defensive back on the 1980 national title team. Years later some would champion him to be Georgia’s athletic director.
But that day in 1977, when Welton was hurt, Davy Sawyer was pressed into duty. He had played in the freshman game a few days earlier. Tackle Mack Guest recalled that Sawyer’s eyes were saucer wide. He completed three of 13 passes in a 16-7 loss, never to play again.
Ray Goff’s final year started well enough before Mike Bobo was hurt. Brian Smith was serviceable until he too was injured. Goff’s only recourse was to convert Hines Ward to quarterback. He put up a solid performance on a 6-6 team.
Jim Donnan inherited Bobo and recruited professional baseball player Quincy Carter, who petered out his senior year. Walkon Cory Phillips finished the 2000 season as the starter.
It was not until Mark Richt’s final season that he found himself without a good option. After watching Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta in spring practice, he recruited grad transfer Greyson Lambert from Virginia. A smart athlete with a beauty-queen girlfriend, Lambert won the job without going through spring practice.
He set national accuracy records in the win over South Carolina, but he was no match for Alabama. Lambert watched the Florida game from the sidelines as Richt tried the ill-fated Faton Bauta experiment.
So Smart is not in unknown territory, though curiously enough, injuries have not been a factor.
First, Jake Fromm opted to turn pro. He’s holding a clipboard on a good Buffalo Bills team.
Able recruiter Smart convinced grad transfer Jamie Newman to come over from Wake Forest, a get widely praised. Newman had no spring drills because of the coronavirus.
In what seemed superfluous at the time, J.T. Daniels, a former starter at Southern Cal, boasting a five-star résumé, transferred in too. Like Jacob Eason at Georgia, Daniels had lost his starting job because of an injury. So he arrived as damaged goods, but with rave reviews.
For the first time in years, the quarterback room would be crowded. Newman, Daniels, holdover Stetson Bennett IV, redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, and freshman Carson Beck, the nation’s ninth-rated pro-style prospect.
Oddly enough, a spectator at one of the preseason scrimmages still cast a lingering shadow. Justin Fields was back in town, temporarily untethered to Ohio State, which at the time was sitting out the pandemic season. Given his spectacular sophomore performance for the Buckeyes in 2019, Georgia fans pondered what might have been. They still do, blaming Smart for not picking Fields over Fromm.
Of course, the Newman era never got started as he opted out due to COVID. Surely, Daniels would emerge, right?
Well, by the time of the opener, he was not pronounced healthy enough. Mathis, brain-surgery survivor (you don’t often use that combination of words to describe a college athlete), had showed off some prodigious athletic skills. He was big, strong, agile and fast. They said he could throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet.
What he has shown so far, however, is that he is just as liable to throw it over the roof of the car wash.
It was the forgotten man, Bennett, who rescued Georgia against Arkansas, and played well enough to beat Auburn and Tennessee. His weaknesses were exposed against Alabama. It may not be that Bennett has reached his ceiling, but he is not too far from it.
Meanwhile, Daniels is the mystery man, unseen yet. Beck is just another freshman.
The social-media experts implore Smart to fix the position. Well, the options are limited. There is no waiver wire to claim a veteran. Newman is not coming back. Smart still has the same cast of characters.
Of the two who have played, little Bennett still looks like the best option. And it appears that his teammates follow him.
“It has to better with Daniels,” is the prevailing theme of the critics.
Does it? There is a reason he has not played yet, and it has nothing to do with his knee. Smart has repeatedly said he is cleared to play, and yet he has not. Go figure.
The equation will change next year when five-star Brock Vandagriff arrives from nearby Prince Avenue Christian. He has been spectacular on a small stage, has physical gifts and is the son of coach.
But, man, the leap to big-boy football in the SEC…that’s a lot to ask.