Georgia's Cast-Aside Star QB: How Jacob Eason Faced Up to Season on Sidelines

Travis HaneySpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 29, 2017

JACKSONVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 28: Jacob Eason #10 of the Georgia Bulldogs looks on during a game against the Florida Gators at EverBank Field on October 28, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. Georgia defeated Florida 42-7. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Well, this is awkward.

You're on assignment, sent to the Southeastern Conference title game for the sole mission of tracking down Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason. But a problem has arisen: You physically cannot get to him once inside the Bulldogs' celebratory postgame locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

There is a herd of reporters crowded around the other Georgia quarterback named Jacob, freshman Jake Fromm. The cameras, mics and those holding them are increasingly encroaching on Eason's adjacent locker space.

In the minutes spent trying to get to Eason, you wonder how uncomfortable all this must be for him, in many respects.

Eason, the backup who began the season as the starter, is seated on a stool that appears made for a toddler, his 6'5" frame is crammed into about half that space. His shoulders are folded in. His legs, mashed together, are contorted to the left.

A middle seat in the back row of a 737 would be lovely compared with this.

Fromm is two feet from Eason, smiling at the reporters as he answers questions about leading the Bulldogs to their first SEC title since 2005 and the school's first appearance in the College Football Playoff: A Rose Bowl semifinal with the Oklahoma Sooners on New Year's Day.

Eason is not really listening to the nearby back and forth. He's fidgeting with the remaining equipment he has on and talking with teammate Brice Ramsey.

It seems like light-years earlier that Eason, a sophomore, beat out Fromm to begin the season as Georgia's QB1. Then Eason injured his knee in the season-opener. Fromm came on in relief, started the ensuing week at Notre Dameand then started the next 11 games after that. He'll start in the Rose Bowl, for the 12-1 Bulldogs.

Even when Eason's knee healed around the middle of the year, there was not really a decision for second-year head coach Kirby Smart to make. The team kept winning; Fromm kept starting.

Jake Fromm came on in relief of Jacob Eason in Georgia's first game and led the Bulldogs to a 12-1 record.
Jake Fromm came on in relief of Jacob Eason in Georgia's first game and led the Bulldogs to a 12-1 record.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A year ago, the glow of the camera lights was fixed on Eason, the rosy-cheeked, big-armed 5-star recruit who had come from suburban Seattle to be the program's next star quarterback.

Now the spotlight has moved two feet and one locker down to Fromm, a decorated recruit from the middle of Georgia.

When a few reporters eventually turned to Eason, the 20-year-old's face and voice were relaxed. His responses were quiet and calm.

"Things happen. That's life," Eason said. "Injuries are common. It's kind of one of those things where you can take it and you can be mad about it and sulk about it all season, but I took what happened, and I did what I could with it."

He hasn't always demonstrated this zen-like approach to his injury-instigated demotion. Coaches, friends and family say it understandably took Eason some time to arrive at this place of peace.

Even if he's moved past the emotional hurdles, his inner circle is still frustrated on his behalf.

"He's a great quarterback, man," said Bulldogs tight end Isaac Nauta, Eason's friend and roommate. "For something super-unfortunate like that to happen, it sucks."

Given what's transpired, speculation about a transfer is so common that it's assumed. That, however, isn't something he or those close to him want to talk too much about. Not right now anyway.

"He's not panicked about his career or anything," Eason's father, Tony, said. "All I can say is stay tuned..."

As Georgia begins to pull away from Auburn in the SEC title game, avenging the team's only loss of the season, Eason becomes more and more animated. Wearing a headset as he watches and helps signal in plays, he paces and fist-pumps. At one point, he engages in a full sprint down the sideline to celebrate a long UGA gain.

In the aftermath of the monumental 28-7 win, he's as much a part of the postgame party as any Bulldoghugging teammates and running up the stairs to a makeshift stage on which the league trophy is presented. Watching him smile and bounce around, you wouldn't have any idea what the ride has been like the past few months.

Eason had thrown just three passes when he went down early against Appalachian State. Deep in Georgia's own territory, Eason was flushed right and awkwardly jab-stepped as he decided to run out of bounds. An overly aggressive Mountaineers defender then wrapped him up after he was a yard beyond the field of play, spiraling Eason into some equipment and humans on the sideline.

Eason's tenure as Georgia's starting quarterback came to a quick end when he suffered a knee injury in the season opener against Appalachian State.
Eason's tenure as Georgia's starting quarterback came to a quick end when he suffered a knee injury in the season opener against Appalachian State.Michael Chang/Getty Images

It was one of those plays that looked so bad it evoked the inevitable sense that it was a season-ending incident. The official diagnosis that eveninga sprained left kneeleft room for optimism, but he needed more tests.

Good news came the ensuing week, when Georgia's medical team told Eason that he would not require surgery and was looking at roughly a month to recover. He would be able to return to the field in 2017. Getting his job back? That was a different story.

With Eason out, Fromm spent September entrenching himself as the starter. The Bulldogs collected a signature nonconference victory at Notre Dame before routing a ranked Mississippi State team 31-3. Georgia then all but ushered out Butch Jones as Tennessee's head coach, winning 41-0 to hand the Volunteers their worst home loss since 1905.

Given the Bulldogs' absurdly deep running back stable and a defense with breakout stars such as linebacker Roquan Smith, Fromm's burden was not necessarily a heavy one. But with the offense in his care, Georgia was quickly ascending to become a legitimate playoff threat.

Switching back to Eason did not make a great deal of sense, especially considering those close to the program believed the summer competition between the two QBs was razor-thin.

One team source said Smart instinctively wanted to go with Fromm, but he didn't necessarily want to rush a true freshman onto the field. Eason, after all, didn't start the opening game in 2016 before eventually taking over at the position.

But Fromm demonstrated week after week that he was a capable starter. Eason cheered on Fromm while he was sidelinedthere's never been any discernible tension between the two, coaches saybut he also believed he could still re-establish himself.

Healthy enough to play late in the blowout at Tennessee, Eason committed himself the following week to again win the job. He treated the week of practice leading up to the Vanderbilt game as if each day were a Super Bowl preparation.

Nothing changed, however. Fromm retained the job. Eason mopped up late in the team's decisive victory at Vandy, completing all three of his pass attempts for 24 yards.

That wound up being the last time he threw a pass in a game. It became increasingly clear to Eason that there was not really a competition. He was a backup for the first time since he was a freshman in high school.

After throwing for 2,430 yards last season, Eason threw four total passes and 28 yards in 2017.
After throwing for 2,430 yards last season, Eason threw four total passes and 28 yards in 2017.John Bazemore/Associated Press/Associated Press

"It was hard on him," said Brett Jeffares, a former Georgia student assistant who has been close to Eason since his recruitment. "He wasn't happy about it, like I'm sure most people would be if it happened to them.

"A lot of people took the pouting, or whatever you want to call it, [to mean] he wasn't being mature. But if everyone could step back and think about it: He was planning on leading the SEC title run."

Instead, week after week, Eason was stuck watching Fromm do just that.

The native of Houston County, Georgia (pronounced HOUSE-ton, like the Manhattan street), was not putting up gaudy numbers. Heck, Fromm rarely threw more than 20 passes in a game. But he was fitting in seamlessly because he made a minimal number of mistakes—and, perhaps more importantly, he had a magnetic personality that allowed him to relate to anyone and everyone.

One reporter who covers the team daily said you could assemble a profoundly diverse room, a collection of all sorts of ages and backgrounds, and everyone would emerge raving about Fromm.

"He dresses like a preppie, listens to Future and drives a four-wheel-drive truck," the reporter said.

Nothing about the role overwhelmed Fromm either.

"This was as much about Jake as it was anything," one team source said. "He never flinches. He never blinks. The games kept getting bigger, and he responded every time. He's special."

And yet the same might have been said a year ago about Eason, who led several Georgia comebacksand threw the ball a great deal moreas a freshman.

In his first start against an FBS opponent, Eason went 29-of-55 for 308 yards and three scores at Missouri. In 2016 overall, Eason threw a total of 370 times in 13 games, surpassing 30 attempts six different times; Fromm in 2017 threw 230 times in 13 games, never once eclipsing 30 attempts in a game.

If Eason had made any strides from Years 1 to 2, he never had much of a chance to show it.

"That's got to be one of the hardest parts for him," Jeffares said, "knowing how hard he worked to get in that position and get better and win the job."

It's one of those mysteries we'll never have an answer for: Would Georgia still be 12-1 and in the playoff with Eason at quarterback?

Though it took him time to accept his demotion to the backup role, Eason learned to become a supportive presence for his teammates as the season progressed.
Though it took him time to accept his demotion to the backup role, Eason learned to become a supportive presence for his teammates as the season progressed.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

"We'd all love to see what he could have done this season if he didn't get hurt," Tony Eason, who played wide receiver from 1985 to 1986 at Notre Dame, said. "I'm sure he would have been successful. But you can't argue with what's happened on the field. They just won the SEC. Jacob knows that."

Jeffares said he's "100 percent" sure that Georgia would be in the same position with Eason at quarterback. That hypothetical is what initially kept gnawing at Eason.

"He would just say, 'I want one more shot,'" Jeffares said.

It wasn't coming. Eventually, those close to him say he put his ego aside and began to grasp that he was still relevant as the team's No. 2 QB. Practices became his new version of games. If he botched a throw or a read, it would give a bad look for a receiver or a linebacker. Without him performing sharply in each practice session, others would suffer. Conversely, if he practiced well, he felt the team improved that day.

"I feel like everybody in this locker room did an equal job," Eason said after the SEC title victory. "Even if they weren't playing on Saturdays, I think they all did an equal part in winning this game."

Georgia's coaches noticed in the final two weeks of the regular season that Eason had fully wrapped his arms around the change. One remembered Eason putting his arm around Fromm during a practice, later high-fiving the freshman after a superb throw.

"I was kind of, the middle of the season, I was trying to figure out exactly how to take the role," Eason said. "Toward the end of the season, I've grown comfortable, and I know what my role is now. I pursue it as best I can. It's all about making the team better. If the team's not doing well, none of this really matters."

Those close to him believe his confidence remains as high as it's ever been.

"He can look himself in the mirror and know, 'I'm the guy. I can get the job done,'" Tony Eason said.

That'll be the case if he chooses to leave Georgia too.

When conducting an internet search for the quarterback's name, "Jacob Eason transfer" is a more popular return than "Jacob Eason Georgia."

With Fromm under center for at least two more seasons, it is widely believed that Eason will move on from Athens following the playoff.

Further complicating the picture will be the arrival of another elite 5-star talent, Atlanta-area standout Justin Fields, who signed with the Bulldogs last week.

Hence, Eason appears to be the most logical QB to bow out and reboot elsewhere. ESPN's No. 1-rated pocket passer in the 2016 class would have plenty of suitors, to the point that he can be somewhat selective in the process.

Some close to Eason hinted Washington is the most likely destination. It adds up considering it's essentially the hometown option and one of three schools Eason officially visited back in 2015. Signs point to Jake Browning returning for his senior season (as outlined by Bill Swartz of KOMONews, among others), which would provide a bridge to Eason in 2019after he sits out next season, per NCAA rules.

Considering Eason initially committed to Mark Richt's Georgia staff, the Miami Hurricanes cannot be ruled out. But Richt has several young quarterbacks, and it could turn into a soap opera if Smart didn't grant a transfer to the U because of the former staff.

Others have suggested Washington State and head coach Mike Leach's Air Raid system as a possibility, but some close to Eason think he'd prefer to stay in a pro-style offense that would theoretically better prepare him for the NFL.

There could also be a wild card, most likely in the Pac-12. One source agreed that Chip Kelly's arrival at UCLA as head coach had caught Eason's eye.

Ultimately, the decision to transfer won't be rooted in his acceptance of the situation at Georgia as much as his need to get reps and provide game film for scouts.

"He needs to play," one team source said. "You can have all the arm talent in the world, but you can't just sit and watch."

"There's no hanging your head," his father, Tony, said. "He's all-in on trying to win that thing. And we talk all the time about being one play away, just like what happened to him."

Beyond Eason's career, there's something larger at play here. It's what former players talk about often when discussing the big-picture life lessons that sportsand especially footballcan often teach.

D.J. Shockley reached out to Eason during the season to remind Eason of just that.

Shockley was the backup quarterback for Georgia in 2002...and 2003...and 2004. Despite an inner belief that he had every bit as much ability as David Greene, the starter at the time, Greene gave the staff no reason to sub in Shockley. When Greene's eligibility expired, he had won 42 gamesat the time the most in NCAA history.

Shockley eventually did get to start as a senior and led the Bulldogs to their most recent SEC title before this year, but the wait was a long one for the Atlanta native. The test was a stringent one.

"I had to really get over the obstacle of my own self and being selfish," Shockley said. "You know you can play on this level, but you're not playing as much as you want toor you're not playing at all."

A decade-plus later, Shockley said learning patience and humility as a freshman, sophomore and junior is as lasting of a takeaway as any of the 24 touchdowns he threw as a senior.

"It's tough while you're in it, but it makes you stronger down the road," he said.

Shockley pointed out that while players at every position lose starting jobs, the microscope on the quarterback makes the backup's response critically important.

"There's probably guys playing cornerback or linebacker, and the same thing is happening to them. [Jacob's] doing it with the spotlight, though. So how he handles it goes a long way for everyone, not just for Jacob. What is happening with him in that locker room is affecting everyone in the locker room in some way."

Judging by his reaction in the locker room in Atlanta, he's evolved to set a striking example for a team that still has national title aspirations.

"I'm the same person. I'm the same quarterback," Eason said. "Obviously, my role's a little bit different, but this season, it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to."