True freshman Jacob Eason is already a celebrity at Georgia. Now the Bulldogs must delicately determine if he's their starting quarterback in 2016.
Georgia fans are clamoring to see Eason, a five-star quarterback and the No. 5 player in the nation per the 247Sports Composite, one who came cross country from the state of Washington and stuck with the Bulldogs after Mark Richt was fired. He makes throws no other player on campus can make and could be the missing piece Georgia lacked the past two seasons in the mediocre SEC East.
But Eason is also a true freshman. He's the future of the franchise and possibly the present as well. Kirby Smart might not want to rush Eason's development, yet Smart arrives with high expectations to win immediately.
"The options we're going to weigh are going to be what gives us the best chance to win," Smart said at SEC Media Days. "Notice I didn't say ... 'We're going to play the best player.' We're going to play the best player that gives us the best opportunity to win football games. And I don't know who that is."
The answer figures to define the start of Smart's career at Georgia. Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Dak Prescott and AJ McCarron are all recent elite SEC quarterbacks who didn't immediately start as a true freshman. Stafford started halfway through the season. Tebow had a package just for running.
Over the past 20 years, 15 SEC quarterbacks have started at least half of their team's games as a true freshman. Only five of those quarterbacks saw their teams finish with a winning SEC record: Georgia's Quincy Carter (1998), Tennessee's Casey Clausen (2000), Florida's Chris Leak (2003), Tennessee's Erik Ainge (2004) and Arkansas' Mitch Mustain (2006).
Ainge is the only true freshman quarterback over the past 20 years to win an SEC division title. When Arkansas won the SEC West in 2006, Mustain began the year as the starter and later got benched.
Carter holds the SEC record for passing yards by a true freshman quarterback (2,484). He was 21 years old at the time because he had been playing minor league baseball.
|True freshman starting QBs* in the SEC since 1996|
|Quarterback, School (Year)||Yards||Completions||TD-INT||Team record|
|Quincy Carter, Georgia (1998)||2,484||60.7%||12-9||9-3 (6-2 SEC)|
|Chris Leak, Florida (2003)||2,435||59.4%||16-11||8-5 (6-2 SEC)|
|Tyler Bray, Tennessee (2010)||1,849||55.8%||18-10||6-7 (3-5 SEC)|
|Josh Booty, LSU (1999)||1,830||48.6%||7-19||3-8 (1-7 SEC)|
|Matthew Stafford, Georgia (2006)||1,749||52.7%||7-13||9-4 (4-4 SEC)|
|Casey Clausen, Tennessee (2000)||1,473||62.4%||15-6||8-4 (5-3 SEC)|
|Erik Ainge, Tennessee (2004)||1,452||55.1%||17-9||10-3 (7-1 SEC)|
|Wesley Carroll, Mississippi St (2007)||1,392||52.5%||9-7||8-5 (4-4 SEC)|
|Drew Locke, Missouri (2015)||1,332||49.0%||4-8||5-7 (1-7 SEC)|
|Kyle Allen, Texas A&M (2014)||1,322||61.5%||16-7||8-5 (3-5 SEC)|
|Gabe Gross, Auburn (1998)||1,222||44.7%||7-12||3-8 (1-7 SEC)|
|Treon Harris, Florida (2014)||1,019||49.5%||9--4||7-5 (4-4 SEC)|
|Mitch Mustain, Arkansas (2006)||894||52.3%||10-9||10-4 (7-1 SEC)|
|Jalen Whitlow, Kentucky (2012)||801||54.0%||3-2||2-10 (0-8 SEC)|
|Morgan Newton, Kentucky (2009)||706||55.6%||6-3||7-6 (3-5 SEC)|
|Average||1,464||54.4%||10-9||7-6 (4-4 SEC)|
|* Quarterbacks listed started at least half of their team's games as true freshmen.|
This isn't to say a true freshman can't succeed in the SEC. Texas A&M's Kyle Allen had a promising rookie year in 2014, though the Aggies went 3-5 and he later transferred. Leak had a very solid true freshman year and later won a national championship. Yet even Stafford, a future No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, was a 53-percent passer with seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions as a Georgia true freshman 10 years ago.
If Eason does become the starter, whether it's in Week 1 against North Carolina or later in the season, he could be helped if running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are healthy. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is going to try to create mismatches through formations and use the running game to take the load off the quarterback, whether it's Eason or senior Greyson Lambert.
But Georgia, ranked No. 19 in the CBS Sports 128 preseason rankings, must regain balance on offense with the passing game. Last season, 51 percent of the Bulldogs' yards came on the ground. Alabama won the SEC with 47 percent of its offense from rushing. When the Bulldogs won the SEC East in 2012, 39 percent of their yards were rushing.
The Bulldogs' quarterback play was so rough in 2015 that Richt bizarrely started the mobile Faton Bauta against Florida and used him as a traditional passer. He threw four interceptions while Brice Ramsey shifted to punter after previously struggling at quarterback.
Smart comes from Alabama, which didn't immediately have clear-cut starting quarterbacks to start each of the past two seasons.
"I've sat through a lot of meetings the last few years at the University of Alabama making that same decision," Smart said. "I think a lot of that is how that person affects the rest of the offense. Does he make every player on the offense better? That's hard to measure."
On the one hand, it's possible that rushing Eason onto the field could impact his psyche and progression if he struggles. You don't truly know how a freshman quarterback will react to the speed and pressure of the college game that differs from high school.
Look at Jeff Driskel's five-game woes at Florida as a true freshman in 2011 as Exhibit A. If a team doesn't have the right parts to support a freshman quarterback, the results could be disastrous. Driskel became a misfit in the Gators' offense and only thrived once he transferred to Louisiana Tech.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, only 13 true freshman quarterbacks at Power Five schools finished in the top 100 nationally for passing efficiency over the last five seasons. Only three threw for 3,000 yards as true freshmen: UCLA's Josh Rosen (2015), Miami's Brad Kaaya (2014) and Cal's Jared Goff (2013). Washington's Jake Browning (2015) and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg (2013) nearly had 3,000 yards in recent years as true freshmen.
On the other hand, Eason is an elite talent and could join that list as the exception. Sometimes a freshman can benefit simply by not knowing what he should know. Lacking experience can be a good thing because you're confident and don't know any better about what can go wrong.
Maybe Eason is the next Rosen. Or maybe he's the next Driskel. Therein lies the dilemma.
Kaaya, a rare true freshman quarterback to succeed immediately, said knowing how to gain upperclassmen's respect and carry himself in front of teammates was one of his biggest challenges. So was simply understanding the rhythm of the game.
"It seemed like my freshman year it was like every time we were about to go on the field, I'm feeling good, I'm feeling warmed up, and there's a TV timeout right before I'm about to run out there," Kaaya said. "Oh. Got to wait five minutes."
Eason will be Georgia's starter at some point. The only questions are how long Smart waits and the results that decision produces.