As the top recruit in the class of 2016, QB Jacob Eason faces big expectations. Can he live up to them at Georgia?
LAKE STEVENS, Wash.—Like so many quarterbacks before him, Jacob Eason’s journey started with a game of catch.
At the Easons’ home in Lake Stevens, Wash., an hour north of Seattle, the top of the driveway doubled as Jacob’s bus stop. He waited each morning with his father, Tony, and they needed a way to pass the time. During baseball season, Tony held a catcher’s glove and implored a young Jacob to throw 10 strikes before the bus came. But every other day of the year, Tony tossed Jacob a football, made a target with his hands and told his middle child, “I’m not gonna move my hands. Ten perfect passes, right here.”
Twelve years later, Georgia fans are grateful for all the practice. Eason, a lanky 6’5”, 215-pounder with shaggy hair, has been tabbed the top pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class, according to Rivals.com, and is an early commit to the Bulldogs.
Expectations for the 17-year-old are impossibly high. He has yet to begin his final season of high school football, but Georgia fans are already hailing him as a savior of sorts, the next big thing, a quarterback in the mold of former Bulldogs passer and No. 1 NFL draft pick Matthew Stafford, the player who can bring the Dawgs and head coach Mark Richt that elusive national title.
As the Easons headed to Athens last summer to tour the campus, a sleepy Jacob snoozed in the back until he was jolted awake by the sound of his name on the radio. A local sports talk host had been tipped off that one of the country’s top prospects was in town after visiting Florida State and Alabama, and the host decided to share it with the Bulldogs’ faithful. That was before Eason committed.
Since he pledged his allegiance to Georgia on July 19, rabid fans have greeted Eason in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The fans know his name, face and career prep stats (6,228 yards with 59 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, for those who needs a refresher). The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent a week shadowing the Eason family and has dedicated more time interviewing and writing about Jacob than The Seattle Times. That he hasn’t technically enrolled at Georgia yet does not seem to matter.
This week Eason will compete with 10 other top signal-callers in Nike’s Elite 11 camp. It’s American Idol for high school quarterbacks, though runners-up at this competition typically fare better than the ones on TV. Win Elite 11 and find eternal glory on message boards. Lose Elite 11 and, well, you’ll probably still have your pick of scholarship offers. Eason wants to win, of course, but he is not as obsessed with it as outsiders might be. For proof of how relaxed he is, consider his Friday before the competition: He went to the beach.
Eason met Lavelle Durant, his personal coach, at Alki Beach in west Seattle, about a 45-minute drive from his house. He stutter-stepped through the sand and fired passes to Riley Krenz, a high school teammate, and Ryan Franklin, an 11-year-old receiver who also works with Durant. Skinny and bronzed from so many outdoor workouts, Eason stood out from other teenagers playing catch on the beach—and not just because of the Nike socks pulled high on his lean legs. (“Too hot!” he cried to Durant when he first stepped on the sand.) A passerby stopped to watch and nodded approvingly when Eason arced a 20-yard pass to Krenz. “Not bad,” said the observer. “Is this kid, like, someone we should know?” When Eason missed his next completion to Franklin, Durant lectured him on not following through. It didn’t matter that Eason was playing with a junior high receiver—he needed to throw it like it was being caught by a collegiate All-America.
Durant, who has tutored a handful of talented prospects, including Max Browne, the No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 class, says there is no comparing Eason to any other passer—including, yes, Stafford. Eason, Durant says, is “too unique.”
“He doesn’t have any tendencies,” Durant explains. “Sometimes he comes over the top with his elbow at the same level as his shoulder. Sometimes he’ll sidearm it because he’s gotta fit it into a tight window. And I’ve seen him release before his feet are done moving. He’s unorthodox.”
No kidding. It’s not very often that the top player in the country is born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. But the Easons didn’t think moving to a quarterback-rich area like Southern California was necessary. Jacob (he goes by Jake, too, but his mom, Christine, prefers the latter) still plays with the same kids from his Little League and Pop Warner days and speaks of having a “real brotherhood” at Lake Stevens High.
Besides, a program that produces few Division I prospects has its advantages. Tony Eason says college coaches have raved to him about Jacob’s ability to dodge defensive ends and other wannabe tacklers, likely the result of playing behind a line that isn't stacked with collegiate talent. According to Durant, that’s how Jacob likes it anyway: Whereas Browne, another pro-style quarterback, would “line up and know how he was gonna beat you before the snap,” Eason likes to “improvise at the snap.” At Lake Stevens, he has to do it. At Georgia, he’ll give opposing defensive coordinators headaches because of it.
Durant says Eason was “all sorts of goofy,” when they first started working together in the summer of 2013. Eason had to learn how to live and move in a frame that sprouted almost five inches that summer. “My freshman and sophomore years I was always tripping over my own two feet on the basketball court and stumbling into walls,” Eason recalls with a roll of his eyes. Tony, a former receiver at Notre Dame, says Jacob had all the makings of a great tight end: terrific motor skills and hand-eye coordination and killer hands. That Eason is a quarterback and will play for Georgia were both somewhat against the odds because “all my life, I wanted to be exactly like my dad,” Eason says. “I wanted to go to Notre Dame before I even knew what Notre Dame was.”
Eason has his share of Notre Dame and Washington gear stuffed somewhere in his closet, but he’s planning to stick with Georgia. He didn’t waver on his verbal commitment even after Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo—the first coach to build a relationship with Eason as his recruitment heated up—took the head coaching job at Colorado State in December. A handful of other schools, including Washington State, Washington and Michigan, have continued to express interest, according to the Easons, but Jacob says he is sold on the Bulldogs. He likes that Richt told him he didn’t plan to recruit another quarterback in his class or the class ahead of him. Some schools encourage a carousel of quarterbacks, figuring they’ll recruit a group and find their leader through practice. The Easons liked that Richt expressed confidence in Jacob by betting only on him.
And then, of course, there’s the Ben Cleveland factor. Cleveland is a 6’6”, 327-pound offensive lineman from Toccoa, Ga., who roomed with Eason at the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Baltimore last summer. As recruiting picked up and Jacob studied college football across the country, Tony Eason passed on this tip: “If you want to play in the SEC, you better make friends with a big left tackle who will protect you.” Jacob listened, and after he and Cleveland committed—together, in the president’s suite at Sanford Stadium, in front of all the Georgia coaches and their families—some fans dubbed them, “The Georgia Boys,” Eason said, even though Cleveland is the only one who actually lives in the Peach State.
Eason plans to enroll early, and his first real stadium experience is likely to come at the Bulldogs’ 2016 spring game. “Lake Stevens is great,” Eason says, but he’s ready for the new challenge. He’ll miss his senior baseball season and ended his baseball career on the type of play that big leaguers dream about, smashing a home run in his last at-bat in the state playoffs. He isn't worried about missing any other high school milestones. “I went to prom already, so I got that out of the way.”
Eason knows the perils of big-time recruiting hype, too, which can all too often fail to translate into actual stardom. After growing up idolizing Peyton Manning and counting Stafford among his favorite quarterbacks—“I like that he’s a playmaker who takes big shots”—Eason is open about wanting to maintain his No. 1 ranking into a pro career, but the prospect of it all crumbling is “always in the back of my mind,” he says. “But I have a lot of confidence in myself.”
He loves football for the adrenaline and playing quarterback for the expectations. “When pressure is on, that’s usually when quarterbacks are at their best,” Eason says. “And I want to be that guy.”