By Robert Wilson
In January 2018, Jones Junior College football coach Steve Buckley came across an article talking about Georgia playing Oklahoma in the National College Playoff semifinals. The article talked about a walk-on quarterback named Stetson Bennett who was on the scout team and had done a great job impersonating Heisman Trophy winner and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“I heard Stetson was looking to go play somewhere and I was looking for an out of state quarterback,” Buckley said.
Freshman Jake Fromm had led Georgia to the SEC championship and the National College Playoffs. And five-star quarterback, freshman Justin Fields, was his backup. Bennett was a lightly recruited, two-star quarterback coming out of Pierce County High in Blackshear, Ga. He wanted to play somewhere.
Georgia defeated Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime and then lost to Alabama when Tua Tagovailoa came in and led the Crimson Tide to a dramatic, 26-23 win in the national championship game.
Buckley got in touch with Bennett that next summer and talked to him about to coming to play for Jones.
“I was going into my third year at Jones, and we had had great success so far,” Buckley said. “We have great facilities and also had back-to-back former players be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft (defensive back Johnathan Abram played one year at Jones before becoming a star at Mississippi State and was taken in the 2019 draft by the Las Vegas Raiders and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw played one year at Jones before becoming a star at South Carolina then was taken in the 2020 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers). Stetson and his parents were interested and came over for a visit. They liked what they saw. I had done research on him and I liked him. I told them they could do research on me and my staff as well. I told them myself and all my staff have Division I coaching experience. I run my program like a Division I school does. I wanted them to check me out liked I checked Stetson out. He was what we needed at quarterback.”
Bennett decided to transfer to Jones, but he had shoulder surgery that summer and couldn’t throw a pass until the week of the first game. Bennett threw for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns and led Jones to 10 wins and the state championship game. East Mississippi CC defeated Jones 26-20 for the state title and went on to win the national championship.
“Bennett wasn’t getting a lot of interest by Division I schools, but Bennett was being recruited by Louisiana (Lafayette) and Samford and I thought both of those schools would be great choices for Stetson,” Buckley said. “Two days before signing day in December, Justin Fields announced he was transferring from Georgia to Ohio State. Georgia called Stetson and offered him a scholarship to be the backup quarterback. Jake Fromm was coming back, and they were also bringing in a five-star quarterback from high school. I asked Stetson if he wanted to play quarterback in college or just want to be at Georgia. He loved Georgia, but I thought he was crazy to go there.”
Stetson decided to sign with Georgia. Now, three years later, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Bennett is the starting quarterback Monday night in the national championship game against defending national champion and No. 1 Alabama.
“Based on his performance at Jones, I’m surprised Stetson is where he is today,” Buckley said. “Am I shocked? No. Stetson always believed in himself. He’s talented. He has tremendous velocity on his passes, and he can run a 4.5 (second) 40 (yard dash). He’s smart. He’s tough and he loves Georgia. Put all that together and what he is doing doesn’t shock me. I’ve never coached at player who believes in himself like Bennett does and I was on staff at Southern Miss when Brett Favre was playing quarterback. He reminds me of Brett because he strongly believes in himself, he has great velocity, he believes he can throw into the tiniest window to complete a pass (he threw 15 interceptions at Jones). But we all know what Brett accomplished and Bennett has worked his way up to this point in his career.”
After transferring from Jones, Bennett was Fromm’s backup and completed two TD passes and ran for one TD in four games. Bennett was the backup quarterback to D’Wan Mathis and replaced Mathis in the second game of the season as the starter. Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels replaced Bennett after his fifth start. Once again, Bennett came into this season deep on the depth chart to Daniels and others. Bennett worked his way up the depth chart, then Daniels was injured early in the season. Bennett replaced him and has been the starter for the past 10 games.
Bennett passed for 340 yards in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. He tied a school record with five TD passes against Alabama-Birmingham. Bennett is one of three finalists for the 2021 Burlsworth Trophy, presented to country’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. He ranks second nationally in yards per pass attempt (10.07) and fourth in passing efficiency (177.4) and yards per completion (15.70). Bennett has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 2,638 yards with 27 TDs and only seven interceptions.
Bennett was named the Offensive MVP in the Orange Bowl National College Playoff semifinal, 34-11 win over Michigan after he completed 20 of 30 passes for 313 yards and three TDs. Now, he is one win away from being a national champion. And Buckley is one of the coaches who helped get him there.
“I’m proud of what Bennett has accomplished,” Buckley said. “I’m glad I, my staff and our school were a part of his journey.”