Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Stetson Bennett’s unique ability to block out noise keeps Georgia’s underdog QB focused on making history

The flip phone story is true. Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett indeed rocks one. The antiquated device is not efficient in this 5G era, but that’s exactly the point.

The prehistoric technology keeps Bennett away from the social media noise that can plague not only college athletes but drill into the heads of the world at large.

“Oh yeah, [he has one],” former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray told CBS Sports this week.

“He pulled it out for me when I was doing the pregame show for the SEC Championship Game and I went to Athens to interview him.

“It’s legit that he is such a pain in the ass to text. He’ll say, ‘Dude I’ll tell you right now I stink at texting. If you need to get in contact with me, just call me.’ … He’s right. He needs to be focused on football and the game.”

Existing without a wireless tether to the social galaxy that praises, judges and damns us on a daily basis is almost unheard of these days — especially for a big-time college quarterback, a position that would usually make one the face of a program. Not Bennett, who shares the spotlight like homes on Halloween share candy.

He has made that more than clear since morphing from backup replacement to playmaking star in these heady days of Georgia’s championship run. We always sort of knew that about Bennett, the senior quarterback who is about to play possibly his last — and certainly his most significant — game Monday night in the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship.  

He’s all about ball to the point that it’s a headline when he deviates from his football script. Bennett revels in being the everyman who got dropped into a unique situation at a football powerhouse. Mostly because that’s exactly how is career has played out.

“Maybe I’m not capable of holding that weight on my shoulders,” Bennett said of the awesome responsibility of potentially leading the Bulldogs to their first national title in 41 years. “But, no, I’m just treating it as a football game. Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people? Yes. Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No, I don’t think that’s my job.”

In some small way, it goes against type that the modest leader trying to blend into the background is part of a significant name, image and likeness rollout this week. Murray is among a group of former Georgia players who created Digitally Generated Dawgs (DGD). The NFT collection will allow fans to create trillions — that’s with a T — of variations of a cartoon-like Dawg figure.

NFTs — non-fungible tokens — are a form of collective cryptocurrency. Think of them as certificates of authenticity for digital assets or collectible electronic trading cards. Half the revenue from these DGD collectibles will go to the players. The other half will go to Murray and his partners. Other Dawgs involved in the DGD NFT are wide receiver Ladd McConkey, defensive back Christopher Smith, running back Zamir White, tight end Brock Bowers and linebacker Nakobe Dean

“We’re created tailgates where you can only come in if you have one of the NFTs,” Murray said. “It’s kind of like joining a club.”

Beyond NFTs, think what a signed Stetson Bennett football will be worth if Georgia wins on Monday. Before that, think where Bennett has come from to have his autograph on a football being of interest to anyone.

The one-time walk-on from Blackshear, Georgia, was redshirted as a freshman in 2017 when the Dawgs last played in a national title game. Like Dawgs everywhere, he could only watch helplessly as Alabama QB Tua Tagovialoa hit WR DeVonta Smith with the game-winning pass in overtime.

From there, Bennett transferred to a Mississippi JUCO before returning to Georgia in 2019 determined to win the starting job. He got his chance last season when he replaced the oft-injured JT Daniels.

“His whole career, he’s been told he’s not good enough,” Murray said. “We talked about it before the SEC Championship Game. He said, ‘Man, I was pretty much told that I can’t compete. I left. I saw what was unfolding at the quarterback position and said, ‘Man, I want to give it one more shot because I think I’m good enough.'”

Fast forward to the task before him. If Georgia wins, Bennett would almost assuredly break a notable streak of national championship-winning quarterbacks.

The last five signal callers to win the CFP National Championship all became first-round picks in the NFL Draft. Not only that, they were all chosen among the top 15 selections in their year.

That’s another reason by Bennett is singular and perhaps blissfully unaware.  

“If he wins, he’ll go down as the greatest quarterback in Georgia history,” Murray said.

Whoa. That would include beating out a group that includes Murray himself, the SEC’s career leading passer. Also, greater than David Greene, Fran Tarkenton, Matthew Stafford, and D.J. Shockley?

“I told him, ‘Dude, if you win, you better be ready to write a book ASAP. You better find an author and capitalize on this,’ Murray added. “Every person in Georgia and maybe in the SEC would buy that thing.”

Bennett understands. This week, he tried to diffuse that awesome responsibility. His next stop — Bennett has one more COVID-19 year of eligibility left if he chooses in 2022 — might be in football, but it probably won’t be coming out of the first round.

A national championship would etch Bennett’s name in quartz (Georgia’s official state gem). He’d never have to pay for a meal (or drink) again in Athens. In the state of Georgia, he could make a public-speaking career out of that accomplishment alone.

Imagine being in the same orbit with Herschel Walker, Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott. In a way, Bennett can’t fathom it just yet.

“I don’t really know why people like me,” he said of his ability to stay grounded. “But if that’s why it is, then so be it.”

Bennett still had the best observation of this CFP. In describing how he blocks out the critics — even a flip phone doesn’t do all that — Bennett said last week he wouldn’t watch himself give a speech on heart surgery. The point? He knows as much about cracking open a chest cavity as fans do about his place in the Georgia football universe.

“No heart surgeons have reached out, unfortunately,” said Bennett, tongue in cheek.

The quarterback lets that giant chip of indignation show itself every so often. This is 2022 where, even without much social media access, you hear, see and experience things. Lately, it has been cries from a segment of Georgia fans who not only wanted Daniels to play in the CFP semifinal but demanded that he start.

That possibility seems ridiculous now that Bennett has thrown 10 touchdowns in his last three games. Against UAB in Week 2, he tied the school record with five touchdown passes in a single game.

Since 2013, only Jake Fromm (30 in 2018) has more touchdown passes for Georgia in a season than Bennett (27).

“He’s a playmaker,” Murray said. “That sometimes can get him in trouble. There have been times where he tries to force a ball … but he has that gunslinger mentality.

“For a kid who was a walk on, you don’t see that a lot. He thought as a walk on he should be the starting quarterback at Georgia. I don’t think it’s cockiness. I think he’s super confident in himself. He plays confident. Very much a gunslinger mentality.”

Just don’t put Monday on him or his teammates. Life goes on, but at Georgia, it has gone on without a championship for four decades.

“I know it means a lot to a lot of people,” Bennett said. “Is it just another game? No. I’m not silly. But I don’t think for 20-year-old kids you can put that kind of pressure on yourself because you might go crazy.”

We are now in that haze of game preparation where hyperbole takes over. Bennett currently leads all Power Five quarterbacks averaging 10.1 yards per pass. Only Tennessee‘s Hendon Hooker has a better pass efficiency number than Bennett among SEC passers.

Some of those numbers need to be broken down. Georgia has thrown out of luxury most of the time. The Dawgs haven’t had many close games either way. Until Alabama, Bennett didn’t play in a game in which Georgia won by fewer than 17 points.

“The longer you play,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said, “a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady … or Ryan Fitzpatrick, some of the things they do now … that develops over time.”

Yes, Monken just used his former walk-on quarterback in the same sentence as two future Pro Football Hall of Famers. Monken also spent a large portion of last week’s availability explaining why Bennett had gained the trust of him and the team. Mostly it was Stetson-gives-us-the-best-chance-to-win type stuff. But there was this nugget that revealed a lot.

“Some guys just combat … and fight and scratch and continue to play well and try to prove you wrong, and that’s what Stetson Bennett did,” Monken said.

A lot of Monday’s clash is about the Georgia quarterback. It has to be. Bennett threw for a career-high 340 yards in the first meeting against Alabama. He also threw a pick six. There were three more touchdowns against Michigan.

Bennett is not going to shrink into the background. Just don’t text to remind him what’s at stake. He knows.

“Most of the guys on our team came from small schools in Georgia,” Bennett said. “They haven’t seen the splendor of a college football national championship yet.”

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