Georgia’s Bennett relishes journey to unlikely star of college football

ATLANTA — College football’s most introspective man was sitting in math class, two weeks removed from winning a national title, when a realization washed over him. 

Sure, winning was awesome. Delivering Georgia’s first championship in 40 years turned Stetson Bennett IV into a rock star, and doing it as a former walk-on who was doubted every step of the way made him a legend. But suddenly here he was, sitting among all the other students at Georgia, figuring out something it takes most people decades to understand. 

“I’m like, oh, so it doesn’t change,” he said. ‘It’s life. It keeps going on.”

The point, as Bennett told the story Wednesday, is that most of us work for years on end to achieve a goal in whatever context we spend our lives. And if we get there, there is often a troubling ennui at the end: Is this really all there is?

“And I was so grateful to realize that then instead of working at a job for 40 years to reach that goal and reaching it when I’m 63 and being like, ‘crap,’” Bennett said. “So it’s not about the championships or the gravy at the end of the journey. It’s about the journey, and that’s why you’ve got to pick something you love because then you can get through the day to day and work hard and chase excellence and be proud of it.”

This part of the journey for Bennett will end after the College Football Playoff, either Saturday with a loss to Ohio State or on Jan. 9 with a chance to win a second consecutive title. It has not been straightforward. 

There have been times when Bennett “hated” the Georgia coaching staff because he felt he was being robbed of an opportunity to play, times where he realized he was wrong, times where he thought he was actually quite good at this quarterback thing even when nobody else did and times where he acknowledged that a 5-foot-11 kid from a town of 3,500 in South Georgia had no right to believe he should be the face of the Bulldogs.

“But that’s why it’s so cool,” Bennett said. “How can you have stories if you end up exactly where you wanted to go, following the exact plan you planned out? That’s life, man. And it’s a lot more interesting that way.”

Whether you believe Bennett is one of college football’s elite quarterbacks, whether you believe he can make it in the NFL or whether you believe he deserved to be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy is irrelevant. At this point, the résumé speaks for itself. 

For all the five-star talent Georgia has collected under Kirby Smart, and for all the Matthew Staffords and David Greenes that rolled through Athens over the decades, it took a former walk-on Bennett to finally make this machine work the way it was supposed to work.

And if that’s not worth celebrating — particularly in an era where there’s little patience on either end for college quarterbacks to develop and grow into what they’re ultimately going to be — why even watch the sport at all? 

“I was a walk-on,” said co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who eventually became a team captain at Georgia in the early 1990s. ‘It’s hard. You don’t always get the opportunities, you don’t get the same chances. We kept trying to say he isn’t good enough, and he’s continued to prove to us he is good enough. As far as persevering through adversity and understanding that you have to continue to work even when you’re told you can’t do it multiple times, it says a lot about Stetson.”

It also says just how difficult it is to project the most vexing position in sports. Under Smart, the Bulldogs have signed seven quarterbacks out of high school, all of them of the four- and five-star variety, in addition to ballyhooed Southern California transfer JT Daniels. 

Going into the 2020 season, Georgia wasn’t supposed to end up playing the guy who spent a year on campus, left for junior college, then came back in 2019 to presumably be an emergency-only backup. 

But around that time, you’d usually hear two things coming out of Georgia. The first was that Bennett had a chance to play because his running ability might be able to mask some inexperience issues on the offensive line. The second was that he had simply won the locker room, even if the coaching staff was skeptical about his ceiling. 

“At times, you look other directions for players and you’re not smart enough to see what’s right under your nose,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. “At the end of the day, we’re not perfect. We don’t always see it the right way. But the key is do you change course and make it right on who should be playing?”

Bennett was smart enough to know the coaching staff was looking harder for reasons not to play him than reasons to hand him the reins. But he also came to understand that it ultimately wasn’t going to be about anything more than the bottom line. 

“Their job is to win, and if they don’t win they’re going to get fired,” Bennett said. “They’re making a lot of money, and they don’t want to get fired. So maybe I wasn’t the best player, right? Then it was like, as long as I’m the best player, they’re going to play me.” 

And strangely, Bennett kind of knew he was the best player — or, at least, he could be. Despite his size or what the recruiting rankings said, there were moments he would catch himself in practice thinking that he was playing the way a good quarterback should play. So if he could do it occasionally, maybe he could do it all the time.

“I’d always make these throws, like one or two, and be like, ‘Man, there’s no way that’s not good,’” he said. “I kept hearing people tell me I’m not good, but that looked good, you know? And I’d look at it and be like, am I dumb? But I did think so.”

Then fate intervened after Georgia’s 2021 opener against Clemson, which Daniels played with an oblique injury that forced him to the sidelines for several weeks. Bennett started the next week against Alabama-Birmingham and threw five touchdowns on 12 passing attempts in a 56-7 win, but it wasn’t the box score he was interested in. 

“I kind of figured it was an outlier,” he said. “But when I went back and watched the tape, I could see my motion and was like, ‘Yep, that’s what I was working on.’ And if that’s right, then I can play here.” 

So what did people miss about Bennett, as he now sits on more than 6,000 passing yards and 49 touchdown passes in the last two years? Maybe the high school tape didn’t show his ability to process things quickly. Maybe he’s just gotten a whole lot better. Or maybe Georgia is the only place this could have been possible, the perfect storm of an offensive system that fits him and an immense amount of talent at his disposal. Even Bennett isn’t sure. 

But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Because for Bennett, it wasn’t the championship that shaped him but rather the moments of uncertainty and discovery that led him to the mountaintop of college football. He’s still standing on it, perhaps for a couple more weeks.

Either way, Bennett knows the sport will keep going. But it’s been a much more interesting place with him in the middle of it.

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