Commmentary by Kevin Price
Football Special for GCS Athletics
Saturday’s matchup between Alabama and Georgia is the biggest college football game to this point in what has been a very different college season already because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The prime-time collision between the SEC heavyweights in Tuscaloosa figured to be an attractive spot for the popular College GameDay show hosted each Saturday morning by ESPN before the season kicked off , even though CBS will air the national broadcast of the game between the No. 2 Crimson Tide and No. 3 Bulldogs as part of its contract agreement with the conference office.
But well before kickoff inside Bryant-Denny Stadium under the lights on Saturday evening, a Bulldog from South Georgia, his hometown, high school and former coach, will be featured during the GameDay telecast earlier in the day.
That means Brunswick, more specifically Brunswick High and current head football coach Sean Pender, will be included in the feature, too.
The story will be about UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett, who is currently one of the feel-good stories in college football as the SEC is just three weeks into its 10-game conference schedule in this 2020 season which was delayed and shortened due to Covid-19.
The most serious Georgia fans know the details of Bennett’s story and how he became the team’s improbable starting quarterback after being buried on the depth chart when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp in Athens.
But before getting into that, go back to the end of Bennett’s prep days in Blackshear when he wasn’t a hot commodity for major college football teams. Bennett could have gone to smaller schools after starring in Pender’s “Air Raid” offense at Pierce County. But, he had his heart set on playing for the Bulldogs, the team he grew up rooting for, and accepted the preferred walk-on offer made to him by Georgia and head coach Kirby Smart.
One of several quarterbacks on Georgia’s team that made a run to the national championship game at the end of the 2017 season, Bennett was praised for his work as the scout-team quarterback that season, especially leading up to the Rose Bowl as he gave the Bulldogs’ defense a good simulation of Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Eager to play and maybe get noticed by another major program after having more experience under his belt, Bennett left the Bulldogs after that 2017 season which ended with the overtime loss to Alabama in the national title game in Atlanta and played the next fall at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, leading the Bobcats to the championship game in the state’s own junior college league.
He didn’t choose to make this move until Georgia brought in five-start prospect Justin Fields who enrolled early and instantly appeared to become Georgia’s second-string quarterback during spring practice in early 2018. Bennett felt he was being pushed aside unfairly, so he bid good-bye to the Dogs and figured to never appear on the team roster again.
If that Jones County name sounds familiar, you may remember the Bobcats coming to Brunswick to play in the old Golden Isles Bowl at Glynn County Stadium. Jones defeated Georgia Military in the 1998 bowl game here – the day after Brunswick High played at Brookwood in the state quarterfinals – with wide receiver Deion Branch from Albany setting a record for most receptions in a single-game in the local bowl before going on to win a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots.
Bennett helped Jones to 10 wins and an appearance in the Mississippi junior college league championship game in the 2018 season. He was set to sign with Louisiana-Lafayette during the early signing period in December 2018, but Georgia came barking again and Bennett lent the Bulldogs his ear. Fields, who was stuck behind Jake Fromm, was looking to possibly transfer not even a full calendar year after enrolling in school, and ultimately packed his bags for Ohio State and a much better opportunity to be the No. 1 guy in the Buckeyes’ quarterback room.
Georgia now desperately needed quarterbacks – a starter, backups, a sure-fire scout-teamer, all of the above. The Bulldogs, all of a sudden, had a shortage of signal-callers on campus, having also lost hot-shot Jacob Eason, as you may recall, to transfer just the previous year when he lost the starting job to Fromm after going down with an injury in the 2017 opener.
Bennett’s father, Stetson Bennett III, had been talking with the UGA coaches. Pender asked Sam Pittman, Georgia’s offensive line coach who was heavily recruiting Brunswick standout lineman Warren McClendon at the time, about the possibility of bringing Bennett back and he also mentioned the very thought to his former quarterback.
The Bulldogs really needed someone with the experience of Bennett and ultimately offered him a scholarship to come back. The Bulldog in him couldn’t resist the temptation to put on those silver britches once again and Bennett accepted the offer to return to Athens for a second run with his favorite college team.
Bennett was the backup to Fromm throughout the 2019 season, but when Georgia’s starting quarterback decided to turn pro a year early, Bennett was not automatically handed the keys to the team’s new offense. The Bulldogs, who hired a new offensive coordinator and devised a new offensive plan, also brought in Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman who was believed by most to be the guy Georgia would place in the starting role, though he was never said to be the starter before opting out of the season in September citing Covid-19 concerns.
Georgia also added Southern California transfer JT Daniels in early summer, but the heralded sophomore spent the entire preseason camp practicing without being cleared medically for contact after a second surgical procedure on his injured knee that ended his 2019 season in the opening game. The Bulldogs also had redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis who ended up as the starter for Georgia in the season opener at Arkansas which Smart tried to keep a secret all the way up until kickoff.
But with Mathis and the UGA offense struggling something fierce in the first half against the Razorbacks, the question became would Georgia play another guy at quarterback in the game, and if it would, who would it be?
The Bulldogs answered that question before halftime, and the answer was Bennett who had been told he wasn’t viewed as a starter and had been relegated to third-team reps late in preseason camp. He led Georgia on a drive that ended with a field goal and pulled the Bulldogs within 7-5 after an ugly first half for the team in Fayetteville.
Bennett returned in the third quarter to lead the UGA offense to touchdowns on three straight drives as Georgia went on to a 31-10 victory over the Razorbacks in their debut under Pittman who left the Bulldogs when he was sought by Arkansas to become its Top Hog following the team’s dismal 2019 season. Bennett finished throwing for 211 yards and two touchdowns in the win in Fayetteville to get the season under way.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart let Bennett know early the next week that he would start the following Saturday night at home against Auburn, but the rest of us didn’t know that until he took the field with Georgia’s first-team offense once the game started. The Bulldogs pounded Auburn with Bennett passing for 240 yards and a touchdown in his first-ever start, drawing the praise of former Ohio State quarterback and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit who called the game with play-by-play partner Chris Fowler, former host for GameDay which was in Athens for the nighttime game between the longtime rivals.
Last Saturday at home against Tennessee, Georgia started slowly but came to life after halftime to steam-roll the Volunteers 44-21. In his second start, Bennett threw for 238 yards and two scores and also ran 8 yards for a touchdown as the Bulldogs moved to 3-0 with Alabama next up on the schedule.
The Bama-Georgia hype would crank up late Saturday night after the Tide had survived a 63-48 shootout with Ole Miss in Oxford, a game that was televised by ESPN.
The sports channel announced its plans to take its GameDay show to Tuscaloosa on Sunday, but again as has been the case thus far this season, no fans will be allowed around the crew on the live set which usually adds the excitement that a big game on a college campus such as one in the SEC creates on football Saturdays in the South.
The pregame chatter started here in Brunswick early Monday in the BHS fieldhouse. Pender was there to watch some film in advance of afternoon practice for the Pirates on the Columbus Day holiday. About to do his weekly podcast with 912 Sports following Brunswick’s big win last Friday over rival Glynn Academy in the annual City Championship Game, the coach’s cell phone rang just before the podcast tape was about to roll.
Pender politely said he needed to take the call from this number he didn’t recognize, but this is exactly why he figured he needed to field the call. He was anticipating a ring from a number he didn’t have plugged into his smart phone.
The person on the other end was exactly who Pender thought it would be when the journalist identified himself to the coach. He was Gene Wojciechowski, a sports writer who covers college football and basketball for ESPN and makes regular appearances on College GameDay.
His reason for calling Pender was to inquire about a possible interview with the BHS coach who tutored Bennett at the quarterback position when he was calling plays as the offensive coordinator and head coach at Pierce County. Bennett’s father gave the sports scribe the coach’s digits, so they could arrange this conversation.
That phone conversation was quick, with Pender explaining Brunswick’s whereabouts in South Georgia – you know, some 70 miles between Savannah and Jacksonville – and saying he would make time for this interview with his only request being that the ESPN folks try to come well before his practice in the mid-afternoon the next few days.
Following the podcast, Pender heard someone else enter the fieldhouse and strike up a conversation just outside his closed office door with BHS assistant coach Garrett Grady. This someone was another ESPN reporter named Mark Schlabach who also covers college football for the network’s web site and makes regular appearances on television.
I also know Schlabach pretty well. We spent time together at the Red and Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia. He was the sports editor who called me late Sunday morning on March 19, 1995. I was about to start studying for my winter quarter final exam that Monday, but Georgia was holding a press conference in a matter of hours to announce the firing of longtime head men’s basketball coach Hugh Durham.
We were supposed to have our Finals edition put to bed that afternoon (journalism term for done and ready for print), but this story obviously had to be in that Monday’s print edition. Schlabach asked if I could be one of our reporters covering the breaking news, and I agreed to the assignment.
After attending Vince Dooley’s presser to make the official announcement and Durham’s separate media session, I was to get a reaction story from the Georgia fan base. With a baseball game taking place that afernoon at Foley Field, an NCAA women’s basketball tournament game going on in Stegeman Coliseum and students out and about on this spring day, finding people to talk to wasn’t all that hard.
Now, this was basketball and not football, mind you, so it wasn’t exactly peaches and cream, either, particularly with some of the students who I approached for possible comment.
Funny thing, and this just occurred to me. Georgia targeted Tubby Smith as Durham’s replacement. And a coach on the rise in the profession, Tubby was just getting Bulldog fans to understand field goals in basketball were worth two and three points depending on where a made shot was taken from on the court, when Kentucky swept him away after only two seasons in Athens.
I told Grady, a Kentucky fan, about Schlabach having a dog named Tubby, a mischievous chocolate lab named after Tubby Smith. When Georgia was actually playing Kentucky in Athens during the 1996 football season, Tubby escaped his owner’s house near Sanford Stadium, followed fans to the game, found his way into the stadium and onto the field before halftime. Tubby, eluding players, security officers, everyone who tried to corrale him, became more entertaining than an ho-hum game itself.
Larry Munson was describing the action on the radio, Kentucky’s coaches including head coach Hal Mumme, formerly at Valdosta State, along with former VSU assistant Mike Leach and ex-Blazers quarterback Chris Hatcher who was Pender’s college roomate, also found Tubby entertaining and Schlabach remembers Kirby intercepting a pass not long before his dog displayed some shake-and-bake that would make Garrison Hurst and Champ Bailey proud of this different kind of dog.
But, let’s get back to 2020, shall we. Schlabach, who lives outside of Athens, spent the weekend in the Golden Isles, watching college football and playing golf. He came to Brunswick High on Monday to interview Pender for his own story on Bennett for later this week, and he also was going to head over to Blackshear and Nahunta to talk to the folks over there before heading home later in the day.
The interview for the GameDay piece about Pender’s relationship with Bennett and his thoughts as he watches his former pupil rise to stardom in Bulldog Nation took place early Tuesday morning in Brunswick High’s weight room. A three-person film crew for ESPN based out of Charlotte set up a makeshift studio inside the facility , using the weight racks and mirrors as a backdrop with quality lighting, microphones and cameras in the perfect places.
Pender sat on a stool in front of the main camera, and with Wojchiechowski interviewing the BHS coach about his former quarterback from a remote location, the taping took less than 15 minutes. It was done in time for the school to hold its scheduled fire drill on time, which Pender informed BHS principal Slade Turner of after he was done.
The ESPN crew also made its way to Nahunta where Bennett grew up as an aspiring Bulldog before going on to Blackshear where Bennett would end up playing high school football and baseball. His father and mother, both UGA graduates, have owned pharmacies carrying the Bennett name in both communities.
At some point on Saturday, Wojchiechowki will tell Bennett’s story for the ESPN audience watching around the country, and it should come across as one that demonstrates this South Georgia kid’s determination, perseverance and love for the Georgia Bulldogs – the team he has always wanted to be the star quarterback for when he could.
Well, here he is. The Mailman, a nickname supposedly given to him by former Glynn Academy standout Deejay Dallas because he wore a U.S. Postal Service hat to gain attention at prospect camps during high school, has been delivering for the Bulldogs early in this crazy 2020 campaign since coming in to rescue the team that last Saturday in September when this new UGA offense had almost no bark until Bennett came in and created a spark.
Bennett, who say what you want is among the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy a month into the SEC schedule, has added another layer of spice to this already tasty Georgia-Alabama matchup and pandemic pigskin season in college football.
Perhaps U.S. Mail will benefit from the exposure it gets from this Mailman wearing that easily distinguishable Georgia football uniform. Maybe Brunswick and Blackshear will be trending Google searches by the time Lee Corso makes his Head Gear Pick just before the show ends at High Noon on Saturday, as well.
And also after Saturday morning, folks watching GameDay from the cornfields of Nebraska and the desert sands of Arizona and wherever else they may be in this expansive country, will know about Pierce County football and this guy named Pender who taught the current Georgia quarterback the basic concepts of the spread offense which likely helped him quickly grasp the principles of this new offense the Bulldogs will run Saturday night against Alabama.
So, ladies and gentlemen, when the Georgia offense takes the field Saturday in T-town, get on your feet and make some of that Sanford Stadium noise while waving your balled up fist in the air as if the Dawgs were taking the field to kick off a game on a Saturday in AthensTown, better known as God’s Country.
Go Dawgs! Sic’em Stet!
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#SouthGeorgiaDawgs. #WoofWoofWoof. #AintNothinFinerintheLandThanGa-FlaWeekendHereWithAllThoseBulldawgFans.