Bennett could add happy final chapter to storybook Georgia career

Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett scrambles for room during the 42-41 topping of Ohio State in the Peach Bowl national semifinal on New Year’s Eve.
Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett scrambles for room during the 42-41 topping of Ohio State in the Peach Bowl national semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

Nine days after quarterbacking Georgia to its first national championship in 41 seasons, Stetson Bennett announced last January that he would use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility implemented during the coronavirus outbreak and return for a sixth college autumn.

Of course, those were nine days too many.

"I really didn't think about not coming back," Bennett said Saturday in Los Angeles at the mammoth media event for Monday evening's College Football Playoff title showdown against TCU inside SoFi Stadium. "In my head I always knew. I was like, 'How dumb could I be to leave this opportunity that I've got here? I'm the starting quarterback at Georgia. I trust in Coach (Kirby) Smart, and I trust in our players. We have a lot of guys coming back on offense, and I'm going to get better.'

"So, yeah, I didn't really think about it that long. I didn't tell people for a little bit, but I had made up my mind."

In Sunday's final news conference before Monday's contest, Smart expressed hope that tight end Darnell Washington (ankle) can play and TCU coach Sonny Dykes explained that running back Kendre Miller (knee) could be a game-day decision. Both injuries were sustained during the New Year's Eve national semifinals.

The Bulldogs have followed up last season's 14-1 record with a 14-0 mark, which has Bennett needing 60 more minutes to become a two-time national championship quarterback. It has been quite the documented fairy tale for a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder from the minuscule Peach State town of Blackshear who began his career as a walk-on and took a detour to Jones College in Mississippi before returning.

While TCU is the clear Cinderella from a team standpoint Monday night, the Horned Frogs (13-1) don't have that market completely cornered, according to Bulldogs offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

"Look at Stetson," Monken said Saturday. "Stetson was at the Heisman ceremony, for God sakes. He was at Jones Junior College eight years ago."

THERE AND BACK

Bennett first gained attention as a Georgia freshman in 2017, when he directed the scout team and was praised for emulating Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield before the Bulldogs outlasted the Sooners 54-48 in double overtime during that season's Rose Bowl national semifinal. Jake Fromm became the starting quarterback just minutes into the 2017 season and was a freshman as well, so Bennett decided that playing time would have to be found elsewhere.

So after Georgia's 2018 spring practice, he elected to transfer, and that remains a vivid moment for Smart.

"His mom and him came into my office and said he was leaving to go to junior college and that he wanted to play and that he felt he was good enough to play," Smart said. "He knew there was no guarantee that he was going to play at our place the next season, but he knew he could play if he went to Mississippi.

"They sat in there with complete confidence, and I didn't doubt him. I just didn't know if it was going to be back at Georgia, but that conviction they had when they sat in my office should have said, 'There's something special about this guy.'"

What does Bennett recall about that meeting?

"When I left, I thought it was deuces out forever from UGA," he said. "I didn't think I was coming back."

Bennett would lead Jones College to a 10-2 record and a berth in the 2018 MACJC championship game, throwing for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns. That performance earned him a scholarship and a second stint in Athens, where he served as Fromm's backup in 2019.

When Fromm bypassed his senior season for the NFL draft, Bennett had the opportunity to start in the 2020 season along with D'Wan Mathis and JT Daniels, with Daniels winning the job for the stretch run that led to a Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati. Daniels entered the 2021 season as the starter but soon battled a lat muscle strain, and that opened the door for Bennett, who refused to look back.

"It's been a little surreal," Bennett said. "It's hard to look at it in its whole entirety. It's a lot easier to break off bite-sized chunks. That's how it all happened, just day by day.

"You just do the best that you can each day, and then hopefully that puts you in a position to be somewhere cool one day."

In last season's championship run, Bennett was praised for his efficiency, as he ranked fourth nationally. This season, it's been more about sheer productivity, as his 3,823 passing yards are just 70 shy of the school standard Aaron Murray set in 2012.

Bennett enters Monday needing 177 aerial yards for a 4,000-yard season -- who could have projected that back in August? -- and Georgia's 494.9 yards per game are ahead of the school record of 484.2 set in 2013.


'GREATEST QUALITY'

Monken certainly appreciates Bennett's career numbers, but what he really savors is Bennett's ability to bounce back from difficult moments. The most notable example was last January's national title game against Alabama, when Crimson Tide linebacker Christian Harris sacked Bennett for a 17-yard loss and caused a fumble that safety Brian Branch would recover at the Georgia 16-yard line with 11:35 remaining.

Four plays later, Alabama took an 18-13 lead, and a seventh national championship for Nick Saban during his time in Tuscaloosa seemed inevitable.

"We went right down the field and scored," Monken said. "That says who he is. Not everybody is capable of making a mistake and then -- it's a little bit like last week (against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl), because his interception led to 21-7, and we battle our way back and get ourselves to where we're actually leading before half. Stetson has a rare ability to forget and get up off the mat and continue to compete.

"I think that's probably his greatest quality, and it's not easy, especially when things don't go your way and you've got a lot on your shoulders -- throwing an interception, fumbling the football, making a mistake. He's always touching the football, and I think he has a rare ability to keep battling. That has been impressive."

Bennett guided the Bulldogs 75 yards in four plays against Alabama, connecting with Adonai Mitchell for a 40-yard touchdown that made it 19-18 in Georgia's eventual 33-18 victory. Those two teamed up from 10 yards out with 54 seconds remaining against the Buckeyes for a 42-41 lead that would hold up.

There are seemingly just as many Bennett runs that have showcased his athleticism and determination, but Monken chose a simplistic route when asked how Bennett would be remembered.

"You'll be hard pressed to find someone who loves the University of Georgia more than Stetson Bennett," Monken said. "Growing up, we all have dreams, right? We all have dreams. 'I want to be the head coach here. I want to be a movie star. I want to fly to the moon. I want to be a fireman.'

"It's whatever the hell you want to be when you're a kid, and Stetson Bennett wanted to be the quarterback at Georgia."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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