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Stetson Bennett can become a CFB immortal. Does he have an NFL future?

STETSON BENNETT WAS — shall we say — not himself when he sat down for an interview with “Good Morning America” just hours after beating Alabama and winning the national championship a year ago. The conquering hero of Georgia football, who was the game’s MVP and led the program to its first title in 41 years, looked to be on the verge of falling asleep as Michael Strahan introduced him to a national television audience.

Bennett said he’d gotten little rest, so maybe that was the reason for his disheveled appearance. Or maybe it was the price of that long pull of Pappy Van Winkle from the night before. Whatever the case, he spoke to GMA about betting on himself as a former walk-on and how he’d learned about perseverance during the course of his college career.

But with a year of eligibility left, his time in college wasn’t necessarily over. Asked what his future held, Bennett said, “I’m going to play football next year. We’ll see where. We’ll see if I can trust the decisions made by the staff.”

It was an eye-opening moment, hearing a title-winning quarterback question his team’s commitment to him. But a year later, Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken can laugh about it. “Although he was drunk,” he said, “he was right in a lot of ways.”

Monken put himself in Bennett’s shoes back then, wondering whether former blue-chip prospect JT Daniels would return from injury or whether another quarterback would emerge and supplant him in the starting lineup. It had been a hotly debated question whether Bennett should play throughout the team’s postseason run. Was that finally over? Would the staff still have confidence in him next season?

“His heart was always to come back,” Monken said. “But it was just a matter of, ‘All right, if I do all this and come back, am I going to be the guy?’ Which makes a lot of sense.”

No one is wondering whether Bennett is “the guy” for Georgia anymore. As Monken said, he’s been even better this season, guiding the Bulldogs to an undefeated regular season, an SEC championship and the No. 1 seed in the playoff. On a decidedly not pass-happy team, Bennett has thrown for the ninth-most yards in the FBS (3,823) with 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He’s also rushed for eight touchdowns and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. On Monday, he’ll lead Georgia against TCU in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T in Los Angeles (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But the essential question about his future remains: What’s next? Now that he’s one game away from being out of NCAA eligibility, is his next step the NFL? In the GMA interview, he spoke about his interest in going to law school. But he said he had plenty of time for that.

Recent interviews make it clear Bennett isn’t ready to give up football. But is football ready to give up on him?

EVERYONE CAN APPRECIATE the Stetson Bennett story. It’s as close to a true underdog tale as you’ll find in modern college football. For a former walk-on to reach the heights he has is incredible.

“Because you’re not given the benefit of the doubt,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You have to earn it. You have to beat guys out. We as coaches did everything we could to not give him the opportunity, but he kept banging away at the door and he was very persistent.”

But it’s been six years since Bennett paid his own way at Georgia and four years since he kicked down the door by coming back on scholarship, and the world won’t let him forget his humble beginnings. He’s become a starter, won a national championship and even been a Heisman Trophy finalist, and still he can’t shake the walk-on label.

“He has heart, the heart of a lion, just knowing all the adversity, all the criticism he has faced since he has been here,” Bulldogs receiver Kearis Jackson said. “I don’t understand why people don’t want to respect him yet, just look what he did. He led us to a national championship, led us to an SEC championship, led us to a Peach Bowl win this last weekend, now leading us to another national championship. When is going to be the point when people are going to start giving him his respect?”

Bennett’s height is part of the problem. At 5-foot-11(ish), he doesn’t fit the mold of a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning.

Never mind his arm strength and accuracy. Never mind his athleticism and intelligence. Never mind all the yards, touchdowns and wins he’s amassed over the years. There’s a ceiling when it comes to how much people are willing to believe in him. It happens the moment he’s anything less than perfect.

Take the Peach Bowl a week and a half ago. For three quarters, Bennett wasn’t himself. His aim was off and he threw only his seventh interception of the season as Georgia fell behind against Ohio State. Inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, you could feel a sense of doubt sweep through the stands. Online, the I-told-you-so crowd fired off their snarky tweets.

Trailing by 14 points with the third quarter about to end, Bennett started firing back. He got the ball rolling with a 12-play, 62-yard drive that ended in a field goal. And then, on the first play from scrimmage after an Ohio State punt, he hit a wide-open Arian Smith for a 76-yard touchdown before converting the 2-point attempt with a pass to Ladd McConkey.

Down 6 with one final possession remaining, Bennett spoke up in the huddle. They hadn’t played their best. “But we’re here now,” he said. “It’s in our hands.” The defense did its part, he said, then asked, “Where else would you rather be?”

After a short gain to Kenny McIntosh, Bennett took the snap and surveyed the field. Ohio State defensive lineman Zach Harrison beat the right tackle off the edge and was closing in fast. But just as Harrison swung at Bennett from behind, Bennett dropped his arm angle and zipped a sidearm pass to tight end Brock Bowers over the middle, fitting the ball in perfectly between the linebacker and safety for a gain of 15 yards.

It was an Aaron Rodgers-esque throw, which is no wonder considering Bennett studies the Green Bay Packers quarterback on YouTube.

Three plays later, Bennett found Adonai Mitchell in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Against Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud — a prospective top-10 pick — Bennett more than held his own. Technically speaking, he threw for more yards (398 to 348).

Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was asked earlier in the week whether he saw a walk-on quarterback when he studied Georgia’s games. He was emphatic: “No, I don’t.”

“I haven’t thought about it once until you just brought it up,” he said. “You look at what a guy does — just look at the tape. The guy, he does a great job, you know, at handling all aspects of the game. One of the few guys in college football that can effectively make all those decisions on the field.”

Knowles said Bennett runs an offense that’s more pro-style than some pro teams.

“He has the mental capacity and he can make all the plays,” he said.

Knowles brought up a linebacker he once coached, Malcolm Rodriguez. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy was only 6-feet tall, so despite being an All-American with 408 career tackles, he fell to the sixth round of the NFL draft. And now he’s a key contributor for the Detroit Lions with 83 tackles this season.

“Stetson Bennett is the same kind of guy who’s gonna play wherever he goes, whoever takes a chance on him,” Knowles said.

CONSIDER THE LAST calendar year and all the future pro quarterbacks Bennett has watched from the opposing sideline. It’s not just Stroud’s Buckeyes that he found a way to beat. He did the same to Alabama and Bryce Young, Florida and Anthony Richardson, Tennessee and Hendon Hooker and Kentucky and Will Levis.

For those keeping track at home, that’s every one of Mel Kiper Jr.’s top-five quarterback prospects in the 2023 NFL draft. Nowhere to be seen on his or any other draft expert’s list is Bennett — granted he doesn’t have to play against the Georgia defense.

One NFL scout who saw Bennett in-person at the Florida-Georgia game said it was no contest. He’d take Bennett over Richardson. But another scout was less bullish. “He’s an athletic kid,” the scout said, “but he’s not built to last. He’s 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds. It’s just not big enough.”

Jim Nagy, a former scout with the Seattle Seahawks who now runs the Senior Bowl, thinks there’s a “self-fulling prophecy” when it comes to how Bennett is viewed in relation to the draft. Because everyone knows his story so well — the “Mailman” nickname and the fact he started out as a walk-on — it leads to a first impression that’s hard to shake.

“Most guys get embraced for that overachiever, underdog thing,” Nagy said, “and for some reason he hasn’t.”

Bennett’s arm strength is “above average” and “good enough to play at the next level,” according to Nagy. While he’d like to see more consistent ball placement, “he can run around and he can buy a second chance.”

“If you’re an NFL scout … if you put a franchise-level grade on Bryce Young and you put a free agent grade on Stetson Bennett, in my opinion you’ve really hurt your argument for Bryce Young,” Nagy said. “Because the size is a drawback on both of those players. Now Bryce has a stronger arm, no question about that. But from talking to those guys there, Stetson’s going to run [the 40-yard dash] in the 4.5’s, which is rolling for a quarterback. So the kid can legitimately run. He’s very efficient. Has full command of that offense. Could potentially win back-to-back national championships. So if one guy is a franchise quarterback and a top-five pick, this other guy at least you have to give a seventh-round grade.”

Nagy concedes Bennett doesn’t “look like” an NFL quarterback. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there have been only three quarterbacks drafted since 2006 that measured shorter than 6 feet and less than 200 pounds: Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards and Navy’s Malcolm Perry. All of them moved to receiver in the pros.

“But you put on the tape and you look at his actual football résumé, shoot, he deserves to get a chance,” Nagy said of Bennett, “and he will get a chance.”

Bennett’s 85.6 Total QBR ranks seventh in the FBS. Among the top 10, his 68.1 completion percentage trails only Hooker, who played in three fewer games.

Big picture, he’s 28-3 and trying to become the eighth starting quarterback in AP Poll history to win back-to-back national titles.

Smart believes Bennett has “earned” a shot at the NFL. If there’s one trait that will translate to the next level, he said, it’s Bennett’s ability to quickly process information.

“So much of the NFL game is what you can do pre-snap and what you can do post-snap,” he said. “He’ll be as good as anybody at the pre-snap. He just has to continue that into the post-snap.”

But if Bennett never truly gets the chance to start — if he’s drafted late and can do little more than hold a clipboard as a backup — how will he accept it? Some scouts wonder if that chip on his shoulder will be OK sitting on the bench.

“If he didn’t have that, he wouldn’t be who he is,” one scout said.

BENNETT IS COMFORTABLE talking about the past. He’ll tell you all about growing up in Blackshear — a small town in the middle of Nowhere, Georgia — and why none of the 120-plus FBS programs offered him a scholarship coming out of high school. He put up good numbers but was only second team all-state. Not only was he not a prized recruit, he said, “there was really no threat of me ever becoming one.” After one season at Georgia, five-star Justin Fields was brought in and it was clear Bennett didn’t figure into the competition. “Well, that’s all right,” Bennett decided. “You got your guy, but I’m out of here.”

So he went to a junior college in Mississippi and proved he could play, scoring 20 touchdowns and leading the school to an appearance in the MACJC conference championship game. The University of Louisiana was going to be his next stop, but Smart swooped in at the last minute with an offer to come back to Athens on scholarship. If that doesn’t happen, if Bennett goes to Lafayette or transfers somewhere else, does this college football fairytale ever come to fruition?

“Who knows?” Bennett said. “But that’s why it’s so cool, right? Like how can you have stories if you end up exactly where you wanted to go, right? Or with following the exact plan that you planned out, right? It’s life, man, and it’s a lot more interesting that way.”

Bennett has perspective, that’s for sure. It’s clear he’s thought a lot about his journey and what it all means. He said he used to make throws in practice and think to himself, “Man, there’s no way that’s not good.” But people kept telling him he wasn’t good. He said he’d look around and wonder, “Am I dumb?”

Monken confirmed last week that after Daniels aggravated an oblique injury against Clemson in the 2021 opener and couldn’t play against UAB the next week, coaches were ready to go with Carson Beck. But then Bennett outplayed Beck in practice that week — and it wasn’t close. “Stetson played his ass off,” Monken said.

Bennett played his rear off against the Blazers, too. He threw for 288 yards with five touchdowns in a 56-7 rout. Still, Georgia’s coaches went back to Daniels the next week. Bennett took over for good when Daniels was injured again during a 62-0 victory at Vanderbilt.

Bennett admitted last season he was playing not to get benched. He still wasn’t sure his coaches had his back. Maybe that’s why when Smart was asked about the obstacles Bennett had overcome in his career, he said, “He overcame us.”

This season, Bennett is more loose, more confident, more himself. He’s thrown for nearly 1,000 more yards and increased his completion percentage by 3.6 points. He said he’s no longer trying to prove anyone wrong. He stays in the moment, just trying to win football games.

But when he was asked about his future — Where do you see yourself in five years? — he paused for what felt like an eternity. Earnestly, he said, “I don’t know.”

“I want to be …” he said before sighing and cutting himself off for another moment of reflection. “I have no clue.”

But speaking of getting cut off …

“I will not be making the call to cut off my football career unless my leg gets cut off,” he said. “That will be somebody else’s call.”

Never mind the scouts. Does he believe he can play in the NFL?

“I’m not going to go over my résumé right now,” he said. “But, yeah, I do. I think I’ve got the skill set.”

Monken, who spent eight seasons as an assistant in the NFL, believes Bennett’s intelligence and knowledge of pro concepts would be an asset at the next level. Unlike some other backup quarterbacks, Monken said, Bennett could add value without taking reps.

Bennett, for his part, doesn’t see it the same way.

“I don’t think that would be my best attribute on the team,” he said. “I think my football playing skills would probably be my best attribute.”

But he concedes Monken’s point.

“Who knows,” he said. “You’re getting me sidetracked here, thinking about the NFL and I’ve got a game to think about.”

Whether he beats TCU or not, Bennett’s place in college football history is safe. And maybe that’s enough.

But if he does win back-to-back championships and he’s invited on “Good Morning America” again in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the question will be asked: What’s next?

Sourced from ESPN

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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