ATLANTA — Jacob Eason stepped foot on Georgia's campus this January as the 5-star, hot shot, early enrollee quarterback who is the key to head coach Kirby Smart's quest to lead Georgia to its first national championship since 1980.
He's "the man" in Athens now, which comes with the responsibility of being humble, responsible and visible—three traits that are tough for any blue-chip quarterback directly out of high school.
Neither Greyson Lambert nor Brice Ramsey did much to inspire confidence in Dawg Nation in 2015 in Georgia's 10-3 campaign that resulted in former head coach Mark Richt getting canned after 15 years at the helm.
Whether it's as the starter right out of the gate against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game or as a reserve who moves into a more prominent role as the season progresses like former Bulldog Matt Stafford, Eason has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Former Bulldog quarterback D.J. Shockley was in a similar situation when he signed with the Bulldogs in 2001. The dual-threat star from College Park, Georgia, was Richt's first commitment in December of 2000. Instead of being thrust into the spotlight, Shockley redshirted in 2001 and was a changeup quarterback for three seasons behind David Greene before leading the program to the 2005 SEC title as a senior.
"He's going to come in with so much hype, everybody on the outside is looking at him like he's the savior," Shockley told Bleacher Report. "He's going to be the next Stafford, or whoever people want to compare him to. The biggest thing for him to do is to just be one of the guys. Don't be too high profile. Don't try to be anything extra than who he is."
That's easier said than done for a high-profile quarterback, though.
By definition, quarterbacks are the de facto leaders of football teams. Finding a way to fit in and be one of the guys while also leading a group of 84 other college students—most of whom are older and more experienced—means finding the right balance.
"Take charge of the huddle, but let the upperclassmen take charge of the team," said Buck Belue, co-host of the Buck and Kincade Show on WCNN 680 The Fan in Atlanta, and quarterback of Georgia's 1980 national championship team. "Nobody's expecting him to lead as a freshman. You take charge of the huddle, because that's what quarterbacks are supposed to do. But you let the juniors and seniors take charge of the team."
For hot-shot prospects, that means eating a big slice of humble pie.
"It'll come when they start practicing," Shockley said. "It'll come when they all get together with the whole team and everybody's working out. When things don't go well, that's what's going to humble him. I remember coming in the same way. I was always picked first and never had to worry about anybody who was more talented or athletic than me. You get to college, and you see guys who are just as athletic, just as talented and you have to work a little bit harder.
"For him, he's one of the most humble and down-to-Earth kids I've ever talked to. He's going to realize the competition that he sees and the talent around him, that this isn't high school and that he can't do some of the things that he used to."
On the field, that means more discipline, more focus and more respect for opposing defenses.
Eason completed just six of his 13 passes in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl earlier this month for 71 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. That pick (4:50 mark of the video below) was in the end zone late in the game on a play that college quarterbacks can't make.
"You can't make the bad play worse," said Belue. "I saw a play in the All-Star game where the guard swung and missed on the defensive tackle, [Eason] is in the pocket trying to throw it downfield. The defensive tackle is coming at him, and Eason not able to step up into the throw, it sails, and gets picked off by the safety. That's just a good example that there are going to be some bad plays, but don't make them worse."
Managing struggles—prolonged struggles—is the biggest hurdle for young quarterbacks to overcome, and the most important lessons come from those struggles.
"It's going to happen," said Shockley. "To come in here and say that he's going to blow it up, that's far-fetched. Especially in the league he's going to be in, he's going to have those struggles. When he comes in and has to deal with adversity, that will make him better. Him being around a coach like [head coach] Kirby Smart and [offensive coordinator] Jim Chaney—guys who have been around and know how to teach young players and understand how to put players in position to succeed, that's invaluable."
Off the field, it could be even more challenging for Eason.
In a town like Athens with plenty do after hours, the spotlight shining as bright as possible and smartphones transforming everybody into news media, staying on the straight and narrow off the field is something Eason has to do.
"He has to pick his times," Shockley said. "He can't just be out all of the time. Regardless of if you're a highly touted recruit or not, the quarterback of the University of Georgia is going to get looked at more than anybody else. He has to understand the position that he's in. He has to understand that there's going to be a microscope on him everywhere he goes. He has to behave accordingly.
"A lot of teammates are going to be looking at him to see how he acts when he's out and how he carries himself, and that's when he has to pick the guys he surrounds himself with."
One of those teammates is roommate and fellow early enrollee Ben Cleveland, a 6'6", 319-pound offensive tackle from Toccoa, Georgia.
"Let's say he's at some sorority social or talking to a girl and her boyfriend comes up and wants to take a swing at him," said Belue. "He doesn't need to be getting in the middle of all that stuff. Just make sure Ben Cleveland's nearby."
Eason has the spotlight of the college football world on him, and if he shines this offseason, it could become even brighter when the Bulldogs open the 2016 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta vs. North Carolina.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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