Florida, Georgia pursuing opposite quarterback pipeline strategies

Yesterday, former USC quarterback JT Daniels announced his transfer to Georgia. It’s the Bulldogs’ second transfer quarterback pickup of the offseason.

Daniels follows former Wake Forest grad transfer QB Jamie Newman to UGA. Newman is the presumptive starter for this year unless Daniels can somehow get a waiver to play right away. It seems unlikely that someone who merely lost his job after getting injured will get one, but no one’s ever accused the NCAA of being consistent with its waiver decisions.

It’s hard to say no when a former 5-star quarterback with a year of Power 5 starting experience shows interest, but Georgia’s choice to pursue and take Daniels puts Kirby Smart’s quarterback pipeline strategy in stark contrast to Dan Mullen’s at Florida.

Smart inherited a commitment from 5-star Jacob Eason, and Mark Richt, to his credit, encouraged Eason to keep that commitment. Smart then signed high 4-star Jake Fromm in 2017, and Fromm passed up Eason in that year’s opener when Eason sprained his knee. It’s a little unusual to have a former 5-star starter passed up by a true freshman, but this much is not out of the ordinary.

It was in 2018 that things got interesting. Eason left for Washington after losing the job to Fromm, and backup QB/part time punter Brice Ramsey graduated. Richt didn’t sign a quarterback in 2015, and 2014 signee Jacob Park was long gone, so there was no fourth or fifth-year holdover as a backup.

It was down to Fromm and 2018 signee Justin Fields, the nation’s top-rated dual threat quarterback. Smart had Fields do some spot duty here and there, and overall his handling and usage of the gilded freshman was, let’s say, questionable. Fields left after the season to avoid sitting behind Fromm another year.

In 2019 with again no scholarship quarterbacks aside from Fromm returning, Georgia signed three quarterbacks. Low 4-star D’Wan Mathis was the highest-rated of them, and mid 3-star Stetson Bennett and 2-star Nathan Priestly were the ones who actually saw the field as reserve players after Mathis had to have a brain cyst removed after enrolling. They all appear to be depth additions rather than potential future starters.

Now for 2020 UGA has added three more scholarship quarterbacks. It signed low 4-star recruit Carson Beck in December, landed Newman as a grad transfer to give the team an experienced option beyond the ’19 signees, and now has landed Daniels in the fold. Smart has a commitment from 5-star Brock Vandagriff in the 2021 cycle as well.

Contrast that with what Mullen has done at UF.

In 2018, he signed his quarterback of the future in mid-to-high 4-star Emory Jones. Feleipe Franks was the returning veteran with experience, and Kyle Trask was a returning career backup.

In May of that year, Joe Burrow officially went on the transfer market. No one knew what 2019 Joe Burreaux would do, but I broke down what there was to see of him at the time. My final assessment was that he’d have a great chance to win the job if he came to UF since he was more accurate than Franks and more mobile than Trask. However, Mullen didn’t sound interested in landing a transfer back then, and there was never any real heat to the prospect of Burrow coming to Gainesville.

In 2019, Mullen signed low 4-star quarterback Jalon Jones. He left the program months later after being accused of sexual battery.

Mullen tried to get two quarterbacks in the 2020 cycle to compensate for the roster loss. He ended up with one, Anthony Richardson, after Beck chose Georgia instead. He has two commits for the 2021 cycle, with Carlos Del Rio the 4-star heir apparent and 3-star Jalen Kitna the developmental prospect.

Smart has pursued a strategy of adding the best quarterbacks he can whenever he can. At first glance, that sounds utterly rational. Why would you not try to accumulate the best quarterbacks you can?

The reason, if you’re worried about such things, is it can disrupt the pipeline. Once you start down this path, it can be hard to return to stability.

It never really bit Smart thanks to Fromm’s durability, but he had nothing but freshman backups the last two years. The freshman backup in 2018 was a heck of a player it turns out, but he left after reality didn’t match his expectations. If Daniels isn’t granted a waiver, Smart will have a sophomore who played no meaningful snaps in five games last year in Bennett plus two redshirt freshmen and one true freshman behind Newman.

Mullen went through something of this at Florida the first time around. He had true freshman Josh Portis as the only backup in 2005; Portis left after the year. True freshman Tim Tebow was the only backup in 2006, and then UF signed three quarterbacks in 2007. They were true freshmen Cam Newton and John Brantley and JUCO transfer junior Bryan Waggener. Waggener left after the year and Newton hurt his ankle in Week 1 of 2008, leaving the redshirt freshman Brantley as the only backup for most of that season.

Maybe it’s because of that experience, or maybe Mullen wanted to get Florida off the transfer quarterback treadmill that saw Jim McElwain bring in Luke Del Rio, Joshua Grady, Austin Appleby, and Malik Zaire in the three preceding years. Whatever the reason, Mullen didn’t pursue Burrow and instead tried from the beginning to set up a stable quarterback pipeline. It had a disruption with Jalon Jones, but he solved it by securing the commitment of Kitna, a guy who won’t be seen as an immediate challenger to Del Rio. It’s a strategic change even from the 2020 cycle when Mullen briefly lost Richardson’s commitment while pursuing Beck.

Newman has just one year of eligibility left, so he’s gone after this season. In 2021, Georgia will have Daniels, Beck, and Vandagriff.

Or will it? If Daniels gets and stays ahead of Beck, the latter may not stick around with Vandagriff the obvious quarterback of the future. But if Beck is able to beat out Daniels, will the USC transfer be content to serve as a backup in Athens or will he grad transfer to a third school to try to salvage his NFL dreams? I’d bet on the latter in that scenario. And if Vandagriff is everything he’s billed to be, he may pull a Fromm and take the starting job as a true freshman and clear the veteran QB decks after the year.

It may be that come spring practice of 2022, UGA will be crossing its fingers that Vandagriff doesn’t get injured without much behind him like it was doing with Fromm in 2018 and 2019. And, like with the Fromm years, it may work out fine. Or something unfortunate could happen and there will only be one of the lightly-regarded 2019 signees or a ’22 true freshman to turn to.

Florida won’t be in that kind of situation because Mullen preaches development. Even as Emory Jones admits he expected to play more early, he also says he’s bought in on Mullen’s development plan. It’s too much to say that Mullen has resurrected the model from three decades ago when programs sought to sit quarterbacks for three years and only start redshirt juniors and seniors, but he’s been closer to that than what Georgia is doing now with the transfer portal giving and taking away.

So far things have gone fine for UGA. Fromm never missed time, Newman figures to be at least a decent stopgap if not more, and then it’ll go with either a 5-star junior, a guy Mullen wanted, or a 5-star freshman. It’s a higher-risk strategy, but it can work.

Mullen is going for the less risky traditional model where signees understand that they will sit and learn while their elders play. It’s hard to pull off as evidenced by the increasing number of quarterback transfers, but it means there is less drama about the future each year.

Quarterback pipeline cultivation is one of the more visible ways the top two SEC East programs differ in their approaches. We’ll see which turns out better over the next few years.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2