Stetson Bennett has evolved into an elite QB

Stetson Bennett is in on the joke.

He’s a 5-foot-11, 190 pound former walk-on quarterback who starts for a juggernaut. Bennett is far from the quintessential quarterback archetype. He’s neither tall nor particularly strong. He’s a good athlete, but not a great one. Asked this offseason at The Manning Passing Academy if he got more free stuff after winning the 2021 national championship, Bennett cracked: “No, because I look the same as every other white dude in America.”

The underlying element of that long-running gag, dating back to the 2020 season when Bennett first emerged as a part-time starter for the Bulldogs, is that he’s the ultimate game manager. Georgia wins despite Bennett thanks to a run of historic defensive talent, a dominant running game and enough skill pieces to make anyone look decent. Well, that’s the narrative. It’s one that I — at least in 2020 and 2021 — have been guilty of parroting. Back then it was true. Now, it couldn’t be further from reality. Bennett, as people tend to do, has improved. He’s transformed from a liability to an elite college football quarterback. And it’s OK to admit it.

This is not a declaration due to his Heisman finalist distinction or his impressive 28-3 record as a starting quarterback. Those accomplishments can be a product of his environment. Bennett has evolved to a point where his production and results are inarguable.

When he was asked last week when he felt like he could be the starting quarterback at Georgia, Bennett (a lifelong Bulldogs fan who went from walking on to JUOC and back again to Athens) had a revealing answer about his process.

“It was just always that belief that I’m not there yet,” Bennett said. “It’s not permanent. It’s not anything like that. So as long as I can get better, I’ve got a shot. I had the guts to go chase it.”

2020 Season

The Context: Georgia entered the 2020 season with a mess at quarterback. Presumed starter JT Daniels was not ready to start the season as he recovered from an ACL injury. That left Bennett and redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis to battle for the starting gig. Mathis earned that role exiting fall camp only to be benched in favor of Bennett in a Week 1 matchup with Arkansas.
The Record: 3-2 as a starter
The Stats: 86-for-155, 55.5 CMP%, 1,178 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs, 7.6 YPA | 24 carries, 54 yards, 2 TDs
Advanced Stats: Adjusted completion percentage (64.3%), PFF deep ball grade (75.1), PFF passing grade under pressure (57.6), PFF passing grade when clean (73.3)
PFF Passing Grade: 68.8 (67th nationally)

2021 Season

The Context: Daniels had firm control of Georgia’s quarterback room entering the 2021 season. He started a Week 1 win over Clemson only to suffer an injury. Bennett started the next week against UAB only for Daniels to return for the team’s SEC openers against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Then Daniels suffered another injury. And at that point, Bennett wouldn’t look back.
The Record: 11-1
The Stats: 185-for-287, 64.5 CMP%, 29 TDs, 7 INTs, 10 YPA | 56 carries, 259 yards, 1 TD
Advanced Stats: 76.7 adjusted completion percentage, PFF deep ball grade (93), PFF passing grade under pressure (55), PFF passing grade when clean (90).
PFF Passing Grade: 78.5 (47th nationally)

2022 Season

The Context: Bennett entered 2022 as Georgia’s unquestioned QB1.
The Record: 14-0
The Stats: 292-for-430, 67.9 CMP%, 23 TDs, 7 INTs, 8.9 YPA | 56 carries, 166 yards, 8 TDs
Advanced Stats: 76.3 adjusted completion percentage, PFF deep ball grade (92.5), PFF passing grade under pressure (60.2), PFF passing grade when clean (90.1).
PFF Passing Grade: 84.9 (17th nationally)

Who Bennett Is Now

By pretty much any measure, Bennett is an above-average college passer. He ranks 7th nationally in QBR and 17th in PFF’s passing grade for the season. He’s doing all of that while having a far larger role in Georgia’s offense.

Bennett averaged 24.8 throws per start in 2020. That number dropped to 21.5 iin 2021. Georgia didn’t need Bennett to throw much last season. This year, as the Bulldogs’ offense was forced to pick up some slack after UGA’s defense had drafted players, Bennett is being trusted to throw a career high 30.7 times per start.

He’s gotten better in every area despite the volume. Bennett’s completion percentage, PFF grade and completion percentage under pressure are career highs.

One of the misconceptions about Bennett early in his career was pigeon-holing him as a game manager. Bennett’s role in the offense was to do so. But he also played a daring — and occasionally dangerous — brand of football. For context, Bennett’s average depth of target in 2020 was 11.5. That dropped to 10.3 last year and 9.2 this year. Bennett is taking what’s available to him more than ever before. He’s transitioned from a frantic medical student to a surgeon who dissects a defense.

This has translated to far fewer potential interceptions. Bennett’s turnover-worthy throw rate in 2020 sat at 3.9%, per PFF College. Last year it was 3.5, the sixth-highest rate in the SEC despite being the “game manager” of the group. This year? Bennett’s turnover worthy throw percentage dropped to 2.5, the 17th-lowest rate nationally among the 57 passes who threw at least 400 times this season.

Bennett still has a bit of gunslinger in him, but he’s reeled things in to become the best version of himself: A QB who thrives within the system but is mobile enough to create when the situation demands it.

The Bennett of 2020 was a liability for Georgia. He withered in big games and cost the Bulldogs a chance at a national title. The Bennett of 2021 was an asset. Bennett lacked elite physical tools, but he performed steadily and rarely put an all-time defense in a bad position. It’s OK if that two-year run created a stereotype in your head. At that point Bennett was far closer to a game manager than anything else. Georgia did not win a national title despite him. But he didn’t exactly carry the Bulldogs to their first ring since 1980.

This year? Georgia isn’t playing for a championship without Bennett. Look no further than the Peach Bowl when Bennett helped Georgia scale a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit with an 11-for-13, 207-yard, 2 TD effort in the final frame. The one-time walk on out-dueled former five-star recruit and future first-round pick CJ Stroud.

Bennett snatched that game away from the Buckeyes.

So while it’s easy to get stuck on the narrative of the past, a joke Bennett has long leaned into, it’s time to look at Bennett in a different light. He’s one of the greatest walk-on stories in college football history. He never stopped improving. Now, the sixth-year senior is simply one of the best quarterbacks in college football.

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