After bumpy road, The Mailman delivers for No. 3 Georgia

NCAA Football

ATHENS, Ga. (AP)Stetson Bennett certainly has a sense of comedic timing.

Asked if he really expected to become Georgia’s starting quarterback when he arrived in Athens, Bennett quipped, ”Which time?”

Which time, indeed.

After Bennett walked on at Georgia in 2017, his hopes of working his way up the depth chart were quickly snuffed out. Even after a stint in junior college and a surprising callback from the Bulldogs, he struggled just to get noticed.

”My goal was always to start here,” Bennett said. ”That’s why I came here in the first place instead of taking smaller offers where I probably could’ve started earlier.”

Well, he finally got his chance.

The fourth-year junior known as The Mailman has become The Man for the No. 3 Bulldogs. (2-0), who have another huge game Saturday against No. 14 Tennessee (2-0).

He came off the bench in the opener after D’Wan Mathis struggled, rallying Georgia from a halftime deficit to a 37-10 victory. This past weekend, Bennett made his first college start and turned in another efficient performance, guiding the Bulldogs to an impressive 27-6 rout of then-No. 7 Auburn.

”Right now, he’s the guy,” coach Kirby Smart said.

It’s hardly been a smooth road. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Bennett was largely overlooked by the Power Five schools that viewed him as far too undersized to ever make much of an impact. Rivals gave him only two of five stars in its 2017 analysis.

Bennett was so eager to stand out on the recruiting-camp circuit that he started wearing a U.S. Postal Service cap he got from a family friend. It didn’t make people overlook his physical limitations, but it did result in that catchy nickname.

Coming out of Pierce County High School in a sleepy backwater of southeast Georgia, Bennett decided to take the Bulldogs’ offer as preferred walk-on.

He had no chance of playing right away on a team that had Jake Fromm and Jacob Eason. It seemed he never would after Georgia signed another top prospect, Justin Fields, and immediately installed him as the No. 2 behind Fromm.

On the heels of the 2018 spring game, where Bennett was clearly the third option, he headed to Jones County Junior College in Mississippi and earned a scholarship offer from Sun Belt school Louisiana-Lafayette.

Then, out of the blue, he got a call from the desperate Bulldogs, who suddenly needed an experienced backup for Fromm and were willing to offer a full scholarship after Fields transferred to Ohio State.

Bennett got into four 2019 games, all in mop-up roles, and looked forward to getting a chance to battle for the starting job when Fromm gave up his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.

Once again, though, Smart and the Bulldogs had other ideas.

Jamie Newman, who had started at Wake Forest, was lured to Georgia as a graduate transfer with every intention of making him the No. 1. The Bulldogs also landed another transfer, former Southern California starter JT Daniels, to compete with Newman. In addition, they had high hopes for Mathis, a promising redshirt freshman who had fully recovered from a health scare.

”We didn’t know Stetson would be the guy,” Smart conceded. ”We brought Jamie in here with the thought that he’d be the starter. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that.”

Relegated to limited snaps with the third team and barely even mentioned as an option for 2020, Bennett struggled to understand why he had been passed over one more time.

”He was not getting a lot of reps early in camp,” Smart recalled. ”He came to me and asked where he was and why he wasn’t getting more snaps. We talked endlessly about it.”

Then, with less than a month to go before the season opener, Newman stunningly opted out of the season, citing COVID-19 concerns and a desire to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. Daniels was able to practice but wasn’t fully cleared to play in the opener, so Mathis got the start with Bennett as his backup.

Georgia, a 28-point favorite, fell behind as Mathis completed just 8 of 17 passes for 55 yards with an interception. When Bennett came on in the second quarter, the Bulldogs suddenly looked like a different team. He completed 20 of 29 for 211 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions.

Bennett certainly earned the start against Auburn in the first top-10 matchup of the college football season. If nothing else, his coach appreciated how he handled all the setbacks in his career.

”He was not getting a lot of opportunities, but he didn’t cry about leaving, he didn’t threaten to transfer, he didn’t have his parents call,” Smart said. ”He just kept working and working and working. When he got his opportunity, he took advantage of it.”

Bennett completed 17 of 28 for 240 yards and a touchdown, outplaying the Tigers’ more touted quarterback, Bo Nix.

Bennett’s teammates insist they’re not surprised in the least by his performance.

”He’s always been able to give our defense trouble in practice,” safety Chris Smith said Monday. ”His time has come.”

Smart still seems a bit wary to make this anything more than a week-to-week call. Daniels has been cleared to play, and the Bulldogs certainly aren’t giving up on Mathis.

Bennett could lose the starting job a whole lot quicker than it took him to win it.

”Stetson has never lacked confidence in himself,” the coach said. ”But he’s got to temper that enthusiasm. He knows he’s got to get better.””

Yet this much is clear: The Bulldogs will keep going with The Mailman as long as he delivers.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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