Kirby Smart may be ready to bring the speculation about JT Daniels starting to an end, but the moment of truth won’t come until this Saturday.
Matt Zenitz of AL.com reported Thursday that Daniels, the elusive Southern California transfer quarterback who’s been running the scout team much of this season, is expected to start against Mississippi State. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon.
The Bulldogs’ quarterback play has gradually faltered throughout 2020, to the point where an abysmal performance in Jacksonville, Florida, two weeks ago essentially stripped them of a fourth consecutive SEC championship berth and turned their College Football Playoff aspirations to dust.
Stetson Bennett, who once showed promise with strong games against Arkansas and Auburn, threw more interceptions against Alabama, Kentucky and Florida (six) than touchdowns (three). D’Wan Mathis hasn’t seen meaningful playing time since being pulled in the second quarter of the Arkansas game, but he couldn’t stop the bleeding against Florida either, throwing two interceptions and completing four of his 13 passes.
Underwhelming performances from Bennett and Mathis have left Smart with a flurry of questions about Daniels. The first item: Is he healthy? Daniels suffered a season-ending ACL tear in USC’s 2019 season opener and had another surgery in early 2020. The next item: Could he be the answer to Georgia’s quarterback conundrum?
Smart has said he’s pleased with how Daniels has rehabbed his knee and learned the offense, which should answer both questions. Add to that how offensive lineman Ben Cleveland almost alluded to Daniels’ pending opportunity in a Monday virtual press conference, and it seems like Daniels could be under center come Saturday night.
“He’s really been focusing on learning the playbook, getting himself healthy and preparing himself for this moment,” Cleveland said. “I will say that about all our quarterbacks. They’ve been prepared when their number was called, and I don’t expect this to be any different.”
This week, Smart acknowledged the elephant in the room — Daniels’ experience. Much of the outside frustration around Daniels’ absence from the field this season has been centered around the fact he played a full season at USC in 2018, while neither Bennett nor Mathis had started a game before 2020.
Daniels wasn’t flawless with the Trojans — he completed 59.5% of his passses for 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions his freshman year — but he’s commanded an offense before, and Smart knows that.
“The leadership he’s shown since he arrived has been very good,” Smart said in a Wednesday teleconference. “When you are in a room of guys without a lot of experience, he’s a guy that has some experience.”
Smart also said this week that Daniels’ mobility has improved, and he’s always studying the opposing defense even if snaps aren’t guaranteed. He said he’s bright, attentive and asks a lot of “smart questions.”
Bennett has spent the past two weeks recovering from a shoulder injury, which has given Daniels more reps in practice. And while Smart said Bennett is returning to practice and doing all he can, neither his health status nor his starting status will be confirmed until Georgia’s first shot at offense against Mississippi State.
Regardless, as Smart always says, it will always come down to who gives Georgia the best shot at a W.
“You just try to make the best situation you can to give your team an opportunity to win,” Smart said in a Monday virtual press conference. “That’s what we try to do in all our decisions, regardless of quarterback or not. … That’s what we have always done.”