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Georgia isn’t starting Justin Fields vs. Florida, but he should get a shot

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Jake Fromm might still be the Dawgs’ best 2018 option. He’s starting against Florida in Week 9. But Kirby Smart should figure out if he has a quarterback who can give him more.

Middle Tennessee v Georgia Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Jake Fromm is good. When he was a true freshman in 2017, Georgia’s quarterback was eighth in FBS in passer rating, sixth in yards per throw, and 35th in completion percentage. He’s followed that up in the first seven weeks of 2018 by again placing in the top 10 in rating, top 10 in yards per throw, and top 25 in completion rate. His raw yardage numbers have never been big, because Georgia mostly runs over teams.

The Dawgs believe in Fromm. He remains the starter this week against Florida.

It’s when Georgia can’t run over teams that Fromm gets into trouble.

This has only happened three times in his 21 college starts. In most of Fromm’s other 18 starts, the Dawgs have averaged at least 4.5 yards per rush, and he’s had pretty-looking numbers.

But it’s been Georgia’s three losses the last two years that have seen the Dawgs fail to run, and in all of those games, Fromm hasn’t been able to pass them out of a hole:

  • At Auburn in 2017: 6.6 yards per throw and a 113 rating, while Georgia averaged 1.4 yards per carry and lost 40-17
  • Against Alabama in 2017’s title game: 7.3 yards per throw and a 108 rating, while Georgia averaged 3 yards per rush and lost in OT, 26-23
  • At LSU in 2018: 6.1 yards per throw and a 96 rating, while Georgia averaged 3.8 yards per rush and lost 36-16

Fromm had lousy passing numbers in 2017 wins at Notre Dame (his first start) and against Tennessee (when he barely threw at all), but the trend is easy to spot. When Fromm doesn’t have to pass to move the UGA offense down the field, he’s solid. When he does, he’s not.

A good rule of thumb, as Spencer Hall puts it:

Par for Georgia in this particular era of Bulldog football is 20 passes. If Jake Fromm throws more than 20 passes, then there is a tiny but real chance Georgia may lose. If he doesn’t, Georgia will not lose.

Fromm was 14 over par against LSU. Fourteen over!

If Georgia’s going to win the national championship in 2018, it’s going to have to beat someone through the air at some point.

Maybe that will be Florida, Kentucky, or Auburn in the regular season. Maybe it will be Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. (Or maybe it will be the same LSU team that destroyed Fromm and the Dawgs in Baton Rouge). If the Dawgs get through all those tests, maybe it’ll be Clemson and its nightmare defensive line. Someone else is going to take away Georgia’s running game and require the QB to win with his arm.

Five-star freshman Justin Fields may or may not be ready to beat teams with his arm. But unless UGA thinks Fromm’s going to flip a switch in the next five minutes, it doesn’t have a lot to lose by giving Fields an extended shot.

In spot work in relief of Fromm so far, Fields has put up slightly worse passing numbers. The class of 2018’s No. 2 overall recruit saw some time against LSU but didn’t actually throw a pass. The Dawgs used him almost exclusively as a decoy, having him hand off and run once himself. He’s thrown all of nine passes against the Power 5 part of Georgia’s schedule.

Relying on a player’s record as a recruit is inherently risky, because college football’s just a bit faster than seven-on-seven camps and high school games. Nobody knows exactly what Fields can be in 2018, because we haven’t seen much of a sample size.

But Fields is an incredibly gifted thrower. When they were recruits, I watched both Fields and Fromm throw over four days at The Opening, Nike’s showcase for America’s best rising high school seniors. Fromm was impressive, but Fields was on an entirely different level the next year. This was a consensus view among evaluators who watched Fields work. He threw almost nothing but darts.

The QB I’ve watched in three years of covering that event who looked most similar to Fields was Tua Tagovailoa, who’s turned out to be pretty good. It’s not just because both were small and athletic. It’s because both dominated seven-on-seven with top-notch accuracy.

Fields has barely thrown downfield in college, but his potential’s obvious.

In the insulation of a Georgia offense that’s running the ball well, most starting Power 5 QBs could win games and put up nice numbers. Fields is so talented that it seems impossible he’d lose the types of games Fromm has won in his year and a half starting. Georgia’s rarely played close games with Fromm outside of 2017’s Playoff.

Fields also gives UGA a QB-run dimension Fromm doesn’t. He might lessen the chances the Bulldogs need to pass in the first place.

That day will still come against someone, but it doesn’t have to come before a Bama rematch. The way to avoid it is to keep running well.

In 2017, Kirby Smart was fine using Fromm as a runner on occasion. The QB carried 37 times (not counting sacks now) for a 5.8-yard average and three touchdowns.

In 2018, maybe out of a desire to protect Fromm, the Dawgs have totally skipped him in the run game. He’s run nine times for 22 yards.

Defenses must be figuring out by now that they don’t have to worry much about Fromm’s legs. LSU didn’t leave Fromm totally unchecked, for instance, on zone-read handoffs, but the Tigers often didn’t have a defensive end standing around to contain him. Instead, they used an outside linebacker or nickel cornerback who could line up well outside the tackles, ready to cover a bubble screen and crash to tackle Fromm or an RB only if necessary:

Fields is a different kind of running threat. He’s carried 17 times for 142 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that are indicative of his open-field ability.

Fields is way more capable of quick-hitting runs. When he goes to hand off to an offset running back, Fields requires his own spying defender in a way Fromm doesn’t. He gives Georgia a numbers advantage.

It doesn’t have to be a permanent switch. But the Dawgs need to figure out if they have a QB with higher 2018 upside on their roster.

It’s not that they can’t win a title with Fromm. That’s a ridiculous idea, given that they came one play away from winning with him in 2017. But they might already have someone who could make life a lot easier in 2018. At some point, it’s worth figuring that out for sure.