Certainly, there’s no quarterback controversy yet at the University of Georgia because the 2018 football season hasn’t even started.
But then, as early arriving freshman Justin Fields made his Sanford Stadium debut Saturday in the spring G-Day game, it’s apparent that the nation’s No. 1-rated dual-threat quarterback last season at Harrison High has all the tools to keep Bulldog incumbent Jake Fromm on his toes as summer swings into autumn and Georgia sets out to defend its 2017 SEC championship.
Fields led the Black team, featuring the Bulldogs’ No. 1 defensive unit, past the Reds and Fromm by 21-13 on a picture-perfect afternoon for football, in a game that attracted 82,184 members of Bulldawg Nation. That’s the second-highest attendance ever for a G-Day game, only the 93,000-plus that packed the stadium two years ago exceeding this year’s turnout. And that number was all Sanford Stadium could accommodate Saturday, what with the west end zone seats being empty due to the renovation going on there to construct the new locker rooms and meeting areas in time for the upcoming season.
On a day when Kirby Smart emphasized that the passing attack, not the running game, would be featured, Fields completed 18 of his 33 attempts for 207 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked seven times on the day by the Red defense but then, as soon as a defender touched his jersey on the pass rush, the whistle was blown for a sack. Who knows in a real game situation when the 6-3, 225-pound Fields can also demonstrate his elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability whether he will be sacked so easily? Fields did rip off a 22-yard run near game’s end before the defense could touch his jersey.
Fromm, in contrast, admitted he didn’t have one of his better days of the spring. The All-America freshman quarterback of last season who led the Bulldogs to the SEC crown, a stirring semifinal playoff victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and a spot in the national championship game against Alabama – which the Bulldogs lost agonizingly in overtime – completed 19 of 38 attempts for 200 yards and a late 57-yard touchdown strike to Riley Ridley but threw two interceptions, the first which was picked off by the Blacks’ Deandre Baker and returned 32 yards for the first score of the game.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” said Fromm. “We still need to get a little better in the passing game but we’ve really tried to develop our ability to run the football this spring. But offensively we’re trying to continue to build off what we did at the end of the season last year.
“I thought Justin did really well. He made some really big plays today. He ran away and completed the ball on the move and that’s awesome that he commanded his team and did a great job and came out a winner. He does a great job of making good throws.”
Fromm said when all the Georgia running backs are healthy (projected started D’Andre Swift didn’t play, highly-touted freshman Zamir White is still rehabbing from his torn ACL and also incoming freshman James Cook isn’t on campus yet) the Bulldogs’ overall attack should be much more potent. “But that’s the way the game was (pass dominated) today. I wish I could have some throws back but you kind of throw it around and try to make plays and that’s what you sometimes get. The No. 1 defense did a great job today. They did a good job covering us up. They know a lot of our pass patterns and we didn’t get too crazy with it today but again, they did a good job of covering us up.”
After Baker’s interception for a touchdown, there wasn’t another touchdown scored in the opening half as the Red team got second quarter field goals of 41 and 35 yards from Rodrigo Blankenship to make it a 7-6 Black advantage at halftime.
The Black team would then pad its lead to 21-6 in the third quarter via a 2-yard run by Prather Hudson and a 15-yard scoring toss from Fields to Matt Landers … the 6-5 Landers going high in the right corner of the end zone to pull in Fields’ pass. It was a 36-yard pass from Fields to J.J. Holloman that set up Hudson’s short touchdown run.
Only 1:42 remained in the game when Fromm nailed his 57-yard touchdown strike to Ridley that accounted for the final 21-13 tally. The two nearly connected on a long scoring pass late in the first quarter, the ball getting away from Ridley when he hit the ground in the end zone, with Ridley also being shaken up on the play.
With redshirt freshman Stetson Bennett playing for both teams and totaling 73 yards through the air, the Blacks passed for 226 yards while the Reds accumulated 254 passing yards. As mentioned, the running game was negligible on this sun-kissed afternoon as the Red team, which fielded the No. 1 offensive unit, showed just 33 yards on 14 carries and the Black team managed only 60 yards on 26 attempts. Prather Hudson was the game’s leading rusher with 40 yards on nine carries while Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield ran for just 34 and 23 yards, respectively, for the Red team.
Receiving wise, Ahkil Crumpton paced the victorious Black team with five catches for 60 yards while Herrien and Jayson Stanley led the Reds with four catches each.
Defensively, there was a bit more to talk about as the No. 1 Black unit held the Reds without a touchdown until Fromm’s late pass to Ridley. Junior cornerback Tyrique McGhee led the Blacks with six tackles while linebacker Tae Crowder and outside linebacker D’Andre Walker followed with five stops each. Walker had two sacks while Crowder and Jonathan Ledbetter notched one sack apiece. Baker, Richard LeCounte and William Poole all picked off passes for the winning team.
For the Red defense, sophomore linebacker Monty Rice was almost a one-man wrecking crew, totaling a game high 14 tackles, including a sack and tackle-for-loss. Early enrollee Brenton Cox had five tackles as did redshirt freshman DB Eric Stokes. Keyon Brown and David Marshall each stepped up with two sacks of Fields. KJ Smith managed the Red team’s lone interception.
“I feel like we as a whole did rush (the passer) pretty well,” said senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker. “We stayed in front of the quarterback a lot, and then towards the end it did kind of get sloppy. We’ve just got to go back to it and work on it in the offseason.
“I feel like every day in practice, we’ve just got to keep bringing more energy and effort,” added Walker. “We’ve got to get more depth at the d-line position as well, but like coach Smart said, it is a lot of improvement all around on the defense.”
Smart said he’s certainly pleased with Fields’ progress at quarterback.
“He’s gotten better,” said Smart. “He’s more comfortable with the offense. To be honest I never felt like he was like behind with the offense from day one. I mean, he’s done such a good job coming in and learning. It’s not like it’s been a growth process. He’s gotten more confident. He’s able to move around the pocket and create some things when things break down.
“I think that you all were sitting here last year; said a lot of same things we’re saying right now, because the other guy (then Jacob Eason) was throwing against the 2 defense and he was throwing it pretty good,” said Smart. “And Jake was in there throwing against the 1 defense, which at that time was really good. So it’s a lot of similarities between those two situations. I thought, like I said, both quarterbacks managed things really well and I learned a lot more about them being able to handle things on the field, with a crowd present and with a shot clock, coaching other players today, which I liked.”
Smart dished out special praise for the Bulldogs’ fan base.
“That was an incredible atmosphere,” said Smart. “I tell you, the new pathway (for the Dawg Walk) that we had to go through, our walk was really neat. It was in a lot more shaded area. We thought there were tons of people there lining it and I know our players really enjoyed it. I really just want to thank our fans for being out there that early. It’s probably a little warmer than I anticipated but I thought they were awesome. Great crowd. To see Nick and Sony walk out, to see the seniors, honors, for the season they had, I thought that was really cool and neat.
Smart like the way the Black defense, the team’s starting unit, got after the Red offense.
“Defense did a really good job of creating turnovers,” he said. “Two of them were gifts but we got more turnovers today than we got really all spring. Some of the Red guys, I thought Monty played good and did some good things defensively. But I’m really proud of the way the guys competed all spring. They came out in a great atmosphere today. We had some young guys busted up left and right and I’m almost so glad they did because now we’re getting to teach from it, and when we go back, and we have to do it for real the next time, they will have a little less butterflies. Suited up and played in front of a crowd like that — there are butterflies involved in that. Let’s get those butterflies out of the way. I thought they did a good job with that. Stetson came in and had some productive drives. We think Stetson is a competitive kid, brings a little different mobility in there, can get out of the pocket and move around and hit some good throws.”
Smart said he saw good and bad in the passing games of both teams.
“Sloppy at times, drops,” he said. “I thought both quarterbacks, their receivers had some drops but we’re trying to gain confidence. We are trying to get those guys to get through those drops, push through those. It was big for Jayson Stanley to get some confidence catching the ball. He caught some and dropped some. Obviously Elijah had some. Several guys had a few of those. But that’s good for our DBs, getting the ball thrown over them. It’s really competitive out there and I enjoyed watching those guys compete. I thought both quarterbacks managed the huddle, that’s what I look for is what are they calling, are they calling the right signal, are they fixing guys that are broke, are they saying the right thing in the huddle and are they being positive when something bad happens. Elijah drops the ball, I’m mad at him, frustrated with him, but Jake — get the next one. It takes that to get a young player to go where you want him to go. I thought he and Justin did a good job of that.”
“But we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” concluded Smart. “Not even close.