UGA football: Jake Fromm or Justin Fields? Kirby Smart's decision - Sports Illustrated

Jake Fromm's Bad Day and Georgia's Sensitive Quarterback Situation

Georgia is the only playoff team from a year ago with the same starting quarterback as it had in January, but a long afternoon in Death Valley for Jake Fromm raises the question of how long the Bulldogs' incumbent can hang on.
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Welcome to the Film Room. This is a weekly analysis of one big play, series, scheme or idea from the previous weekend’s action, in an attempt to decipher what it means going forward.

In late June, inside a cramped lobby on the campus of Nicholls State University, Jake Fromm revealed how stardom has changed his life. For one, he was there, at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., after leading Georgia to the national championship game as a true freshman. In his hometown of Warner Robins, about 100 miles south of UGA’s campus, Fromm is such a noticeable face and celebrated figure that autograph and selfie-seeking fans prevent him from shopping at the Academy Sports, Lowe’s or Kroger.

“It was after church one day and mom said she wanted to go to the grocery,” recalled Fromm. “‘Mom, I’d love to go with you, but I really don’t want to go to the grocery store.’”

Less than four months later, Fromm is at the center of enough controversy and criticism that Georgia coach Kirby Smart this week had to address multiple times his starting quarterback’s status. “Maybe you guys are making a big deal [out of it]. It’s not to me,” he told reporters at one point. “I don’t listen to that.” It’s hard not to hear it, especially after Fromm’s struggles in Georgia’s 36–16 loss at LSU. He completed 16 of his 34 pass attempts, threw two interceptions and was sacked four times. The film shows a quarterback who didn’t feel the rush, missed three touchdown passes in the first quarter alone and had at least three more passes hit LSU defensive backs’ hands. Not all of the blame falls onto Fromm’s shoulders. His offensive line was spotty in run blocking, his receivers dropped at least three passes, and LSU’s DBs performed at a high caliber in a rocking environment. But what emerged from the Bulldogs’ first loss of the season was a question at quarterback: Is it time to give highly decorated freshman Justin Fields more playing time?

That question has been asked and answered elsewhere. In fact, Fromm is the lone starting quarterback of last year’s playoff teams to remain in his starting position. At Alabama and Clemson, young guns supplanted veteran starters: Tua Tagovailoa over Jalen Hurts and Trevor Lawrence over Kelly Bryant. At Oklahoma, Kyler Murray replaced NFL-bound Baker Mayfield. It would be a fitting time for a potential change. The Bulldogs (6–1) are off this week before a critical showdown with Florida (6–1) in Jacksonville. Smart kept the door open for a possible change during his news conference this week, but given that Smart used words like “growing” and “developing” to describe Fields, the odds feel slim.

An interview earlier this season with Atlanta-based private quarterback coach Ron Veal, who mentors both Fields and Lawrence, the top two QBs in the 2018 class, sheds some light on the situation. Veal described Georgia’s offense and its pro-style leanings as vastly different from the one Fields operated at Harrison High in Kennesaw, Ga. Lawrence captains an up-tempo spread system at Clemson that is similar to the one he ran at Cartersville High School, 20 miles northwest of Fields. “With Clemson, they run a lot of what Cartersville ran. It’s just got a different name to it,” says Veal. “It’s just a different verbiage.”

Mental hurdles are common road blocks for young players, and it feels as if this is the case for Fields, whom the Bulldogs used solely as a runner against LSU. Fromm’s issues aren’t necessarily mental. This is where we turn to the film of his performance in Baton Rouge.

Missed TDs

It’s one thing to overthrow, underthrow or otherwise miss a receiver occasionally over the course of an entire game. It happens. It’s another thing to do it three times in one quarter on plays that would have scored touchdowns. That’s what happens in the video above.

Each time, Fromm makes a different error, twice in the physical department and once in the mental department.

1. He overthrows an open receiver streaking down the sideline.

2. He doesn’t see an open receiver in the end zone to the left, eventually throwing the ball out of bounds to the right. The weird thing about this play is Fromm looked left at the snap before turning right, away from his open man.

3. He throws high and behind his intended target, who, while well covered, likely makes a grab if the ball is thrown low and away, as CBS color analyst Gary Danielson points out.

These are just examples of some misses in a small window. There were plenty of other misfires through the game.

Pocket awareness

The best quarterbacks can feel and elude the oncoming pass rush even if they don’t see it, either buying more time for a throw or escaping the pocket and scrambling. Pocket awareness is an essential trait, and for whatever reason, Fromm struggled with it in Tiger Stadium.

Two of his four sacks came on these kinds of plays. In the third quarter, on a first-and-10 sack, he actually turned into the pass rush instead of away from it. Two drives later, he was sacked for a nine-yard loss after his offensive line blocked for six seconds. Fromm couldn’t find an open target, ran around and was dropped from behind by LSU’s JaCoby Stevens, who came on a nickel blitz.

Smart was visibly frustrated after that play, even confronting Fromm as the QB walked off the field. Why? The Bulldogs had actually picked up Stevens’ blitz, but you can only block for so long. Also, the sack moved UGA out of field goal position at a critical point in the game, with the Bulldogs trailing 19–9 early in the fourth quarter. LSU scored a touchdown on the next drive to seal the win.

Third down troubles

A quarterback is often judged by his third-down efficiency. On Saturday, Fromm completed three of his 10 pass attempts on third down, was sacked twice (including that aforementioned back-breaker) and threw an interception. With the ball in Fromm’s hands (he rushed for one first down), Georgia converted four of 13 third-down attempts.

The baffling series in the video above summed up Georgia’s offensive day well. The Bulldogs began at the LSU 38 after a nice punt return. They gained no yards on first down with a jet sweep, a play this LSU defense saw in practice all last year against its own offense, then coordinated by Matt Canada. On second-and-10, Fields entered at quarterback, only to hand off for a four-yard rush. Fromm’s sack followed on third-and-six, caught from behind in a dismal play that resulted in an earful from Smart.

What now?

Judging solely off of what has played out on the field in the first half of the season, Georgia coaches are hesitant to toss a freshman into the starting lineup without knowning he has complete knowledge of the playbook. “The negativity is they haven’t been in the offense that long,” former LSU coach Les Miles says. “The guy’s not necessarily ready to get onto the field for a big stage and make plays and play well.”

Miles dealt with that in 2014. He started freshman Brandon Harris at quarterback for a game at Auburn. Harris finished 3-of-14 through the air, and LSU lost 41–7. It’s an extreme example of it backfiring, but it’s a possibility. Will Smart stick with Fromm or switch to Fields? The answer will be revealed in Jacksonville on Oct. 27, but in the meantime, if Fromm visits his hometown during the bye week, it’s best if he stay out of Kroger.