Alabama’s victory over Georgia in an overtime thriller Monday found a trio of young quarterbacks playing unforgettable roles.
There was Tua Tagovailoa, the backup who energized a sleepy ‘Bama offense while posing a question: How does a kid from Hawaii, home of high-school prospects who rarely venture beyond the West Coast, end up at a Southern school? (I suspect the team’s “Crimson Tide” nickname didn’t hurt.)
There was Jalen Hurts, the Alabama starter who might have sulked upon his benching at halftime but, instead, charged up the sideline with the kind of positive attitude that defies human nature.
And there was true freshman Jake Fromm, who looked nothing like a true freshman while helping give Georgia a 13-point lead, and then looked every bit a true freshman once Alabama began its comeback.
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The plot was thick, with a conclusion — as startling as a knockout punch thrown by a staggered prizefighter — that put the 2017 national championship into the discussion of all-time greatest college football games.
And yet for Huskies fans, the most significant quarterback on Monday didn’t attempt a pass or even take a snap. Jacob Eason’s exposure to a national television audience was limited to a brief camera shot of the Georgia sideline, where the 2015 Gatorade High School Player of the Year was sitting on the bench.
Eason starred at Lake Stevens, and Washington lined up as an obvious destination. But he established a bond with then-Georgia head coach Mark Richt, and the five-star recruit took his pro-style passing talents to the Southeast.
Eason’s experience has been a mixed bag. Richt got fired after the Bulldogs finished the 2015 regular season 9-3, which is pretty decent at most programs but regarded as underachieving at Georgia. A two-time SEC Coach of the Year whose teams went 145-41 (and 83-37 in a brutally competitive conference), Richt lost his job because of his annual inability to vault Georgia onto the national-championship stage.
Under Richt’s replacement Kirby Smart, Eason started last season as a true freshman and fulfilled expectations, throwing for 2,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. He started this season, too, only to suffer a knee sprain in the opener, and Fromm took over.
By the time Eason recovered, in October, the Bulldogs were rolling. Smart’s decision to stick with Fromm was rooted in the wisest of philosophies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Some geographic considerations also might have been at work. Fromm is from Warner Robbins, a town in central Georgia. Eason is from Lake Stevens, a town, well, a few thousand miles away from central Georgia. Tie goes to the local guy.
So Eason was rendered a bench-warmer, not a particularly appealing occupation for a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a strong arm and legitimate NFL aspirations. Transferring to another major program is an easy decision, but not without consequences. Should he return home, Eason will be required, per NCAA rules, to spend a second consecutive season on the sidelines.
It’s a minor frustration, with the emphasis on the minor for both Eason and the Huskies. Incumbent UW quarterback Jake Browning will return as a senior in 2018, while Eason memorizes the playbook and re-assimilates himself into the culture of the Pacific Northwest, that low-key place where two-time conference coaches of the year aren’t fired after winning 141 of 186 games.
I don’t know if Eason will miss Georgia — I lived there during the 1980s, and I still miss its crisp autumn Saturdays, so perfect for college football — but I doubt he’ll regret taking cues from Chris Petersen instead of Kirby Smart.
Smart’s sideline behavior on Monday gave me the creeps. He ranted at a special-teams player whose poorly executed block drew a penalty, then ranted once more, with feeling. The player didn’t taunt his opponent. He didn’t engage in a stupid cheap-shot exchange after the whistle. He didn’t dishonor the game.
He tried to make a block. The guy he was blocking turned around, and the block was flagged, forcing Georgia to begin an offensive possession at its 20-yard line.
A mistake, to be sure, but not a mistake justifying a head coach’s irrational meltdown. If I’m a parent of a high school player weighing scholarship offers from big-time schools, I’m thinking there are coaches more appealing to my son’s development than Kirby Smart.
Smart’s team won 13 games this season, and came within a busted-coverage breakdown, in overtime, from winning the national championship. There’s no denying his record.
There’s also no denying that Jacob Eason belongs in another major college-football program, overseen by a head coach who not only preaches self-control, but exercises it.
Eason will sit out the 2018 season before getting clearance to drop back, set his feet, and throw his first pass completion in two years. America’s most acclaimed high-school quarterback appears homeward-bound.
The best is yet to come.