On the day before Georgia’s game at Vanderbilt last week, the Bulldogs coaching staff took time to celebrate a big win off the field.
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman waved red and black pompons in a video posted to Twitter in which he offered a spirited “Yes Sir!” Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and wide receivers coach James Coley together were seen in a similar clip.
The object of affection was Justin Fields, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Harrison High quarterback who announced his commitment to Georgia at a pep rally at his school in Kennesaw Friday morning with an Atlanta area TV station’s helicopter hovering above.
The No. 1 rated player in the nation in the 2018 class announced plans to join a quarterback room at Georgia that includes current starter Jake Fromm, one of the top players at the position in the 2017 class, and Jacob Eason, the No. 2 rated 2016 quarterback by the 247Sports composite.
Barring any defection, it would be among the most impressive stockpiling of elite quarterbacks for a college program, at least by recruiting rankings.
“If you want to go to a top school, there’s going to be top quarterbacks there at the end,” said Aaron Murray, the former Georgia quarterback who set SEC career records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. “Every coach you talk to, they want to get a top quarterback every year. A lot of times it’s just so hit or miss, you never know what you’re going to get really until you see them live in action going against college talent.”
Fields said Georgia coach Kirby Smart didn’t make any promises about playing time.
“The only thing he’s promised me is he’s going to play the best player and that’s the only promise I want,” Fields said in an interview on WSB-TV. “I just feel like I bring another aspect to the game with my legs. They’re both great quarterbacks. Of course, they were five-stars in high school. They’re just like me, but I just feel like I bring something different to the table with my ability to run the ball. I always like a challenge, I always like competition. I feel like competition isn’t going to do anything but make another person better. I’m not afraid of a challenge.”
Alabama saw Jalen Hurts lead it to the national title game last season as a true freshman, but five-star quarterback Blake Barnett and four-stars David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman each decided to transfer during the season. Hurts’ backup now is Tua Tagovailoa, the No. 32 rated player in 2017.
Second-ranked Clemson’s pipeline after junior and first-year starter Kelly Bryant includes Hunter Johnson, a 2017 five-star recruit and Trevor Lawrence from Cartersville, rated as the nation’s No. 2 player for 2018 behind Fields.
When Fields and Lawrence both were on display at the “Opening,” finals in Beaverton, Ore., in July, Fields stood out like no quarterback has at the 7-on-7 recruiting showcase event since it began, according to Craig Haubert, college football recruiting coordinator for ESPN who has attended it since about 2009.
Fields was consistent the entire week and extremely accurate with his passes.
“He is a legit danger as a designated runner,” Haubert said. “Once he tucks the ball and goes, he can make people miss, he can hurdle guys. Justin’s an athlete to the level that he can play another position and excel as well. What makes him so dangerous is he’s not an `athletic quarterback,’ he’s a really talented quarterback who also happens to be really athletic.”
Smart said in July that he wants to bring in the best players possible through recruiting including at quarterback.
“We tell every player we recruit that we’re going to go out the next year and try to recruit somebody as good or better than you,” Smart said. “We’re very forward thinking in that. We tell them honestly that, hey, you have to come here and compete because we’re going to try to bring guys in behind you that are just as good or better and so would you if you were in our shoes.”
Murray, now a CBS Sports Network analyst, was asked to weigh in on the chances he thinks all three of the quarterbacks will be on the roster next year.
“I don’t think great,” he said. “To have two on the roster is good competition-wise because it’s just you against another guy. You start throwing three in there, there’s just not enough reps to go around at the end of the day. …If I’m a quarterback I want to make sure I’m getting a fair evaluation and get the honest truth from these guys and make sure there’s enough reps to get a healthy competition.”
Smart said ideally he’d like to have five quarterbacks on roster.
“But nobody can do that anymore, because what do quarterbacks do when they’re not the guy?, he said. “They transfer. So you’re constantly losing those guys.”
It can be a fluid situation, of course. Fromm seemed headed for a possible redshirt before Eason sprained a knee ligament in the opener and the true freshman has helped lead fourth-ranked Georgia to a 6-0 start.
“Eason may get his chance again,” Haubert said. “People shouldn’t forget he’s a really talented kid as well.”
Smart said this week that Eason is “doing a great job,” dealing with his role now. He’s played in the fourth quarter of blowout wins the last two games.
“He’s very mature, he’s handling things the right way,” Smart said. “We talked to Jacob, and he’s working really hard to get himself to be back into position to be in position given the opportunity. And I think he continues to grow with that. He had a really good practice (Tuesday) The thing with him is he’s got to stay in tune to it, he’s got to battle and fight, and I think he’s done that.”
Eason’s injury and Fromm’s emergence have slowed Eason’s chance to build on an up-and-down freshman season.
Murray said “the biggest development, the biggest jump you really see is from year one to year two. Eason just has so much talent—big kid, big arm, can make all the throws in the world. Sometimes you need that second year to get rolling. Not to take anything away from Fromm. I think Fromm has come out there and definitely earned the position and been lights out. His leadership, the way he’s commanded the offense and the throws he’s made have been very impressive.”
Murray wasn’t afraid of competition when he committed to Georgia a couple of months after Oconee County’s Zach Mettenberger in 2008. They both were Elite 11 selections and both redshirted in 2009 and were competing for the starting job in 2010 when Mettenberger was dismissed.
Murray started for four years and Mettenbeger emerged as a starter at LSU. They both were 2014 NFL draft picks.
Eason is considered an NFL talent and Fields may be one day, too.
“For next year, they might have a package for him,” Murray said of Fields. “He’s just so much different a quarterback than the other guys in creating with his feet. You never know what they can do with packages in getting him in there and have some fun with not only his arm but his leg as well.”
It will be up to Smart and his coaching staff to manage all of that quarterback talent.
“If you’re Georgia, these things always seem to work themselves out,” Haubert said. “You’d much rather be in a situation where you have too many good quarterbacks than not have enough. You’d love to see guys stick it out—it looks like Fromm is the guy right now but you don’t know—maybe Fromm hits a wall in three weeks. Maybe Eason comes in and he takes over. Then Fields comes in next year and if you’re Georgia you’ve got to kind of start from scratch and see what Justin can give you. Because of what he can do, maybe you do find packages to get him on the field.”
Murray, for one, likes Fields’ not backing down from the challenge.
“Good for him kind of saying, who cares, I want to go in there and compete, I want to earn the starting position,” Murray said. “That’s a great problem to have to have too many good quarterbacks. At the end of the day,all of those dudes want to be the starter and they know they have to work their tail off if they’re going to keep the job.”