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Georgia Football

Insider Look at the Georgia Bulldogs' 2018 Season: Jake Fromm & Justin Fields

January 10, 2021

The article, which was published leading into the 2019 season, was our inside look at the dynamic between Justin Fields and Jake Fromm, and Kirby Smart’s challenge to balance the two along the way. It was the final part of our-three part series about former Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm. It is a peek behind the curtain of Georgia’s 2018 season.

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It was the worst statistical game of Jake Fromm’s Georgia football career. In 2017, Fromm went 7-of-15 for 84 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the Vols in Knoxville. His performance didn’t matter, though. Georgia was firing on all cylinders with Fromm under center—five straight wins, two of them against ranked opponents, and four of them blowouts. 

But rumors and chatter about the quarterback position, as they often do, continued to rumble. Jacob Eason had come in at the end of the game in Knoxville and gotten his first snaps since going down against Appalachian State with a sprained LCL

If Eason was fully healthy, people, both inside the locker room and out, thought he should at least get a shot to prove why he was named the starter earlier that fall. It was the debate that always seems to surface in sports: Stick with the winning hand, or go with the original decision? 

It was no secret that Eason was the more physically gifted of the two. 6-foot-5 with a missile-launcher of a right arm, Eason had NFL-caliber arm talent, something that Fromm couldn’t match. Still, the team looked like it belonged to Fromm.

Six days after the 41-0 annihilation of Tennessee, a recruiting bomb dropped. Justin Fields, the nation’s no. 1 overall player and quarterback out of Kennesaw had committed to the Dawgs.

It was a huge pickup for the program—the crown jewel on what would end up being the top recruiting class in college football for 2018.

To Fromm though, that news didn’t matter. Not yet, at least. His focus was on the Vanderbilt game that following day. 

As the 2017 season went on, Fromm’s grip on the starting job grew stronger and eventually certain. Inversely, questions began to arise about two things: Whether Eason would remain in Athens, and if Fields would even make it there. 

It was unclear which would happen, but one thing seemed sure—at least one of them, if not both, wouldn’t be in Athens in 2018. 

Come December 20th, eleven days before Georgia’s CFP semi-final and Rose Bowl matchup against Oklahoma, Justin Fields signed on to be a Bulldog. By January 5, only three days before the National Championship against Alabama, the practice field in Athens was littered with three likely future NFL quarterbacks—Eason, Fromm and Fields, all together at once.

Justin Fields, Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm at a practice just before the 2018 CFP National Championship Game.

But the party only lasted a few days. Eason had seen the writing on the wall. This was not his team, and it hadn’t been for awhile. One day after the game against Alabama, the news broke. The former five-star, who was once touted to be the savior of Georgia football, was out the door on his way back home to Washington.

That left two scholarship quarterbacks on Georgia’s roster: Fromm and Fields. One had just been named SEC Freshman of the Year, won the SEC Championship, Rose Bowl, and was one snap away from bringing a National Championship back to Athens for the first time since 1980. The other was a true freshman and one who hadn’t even seen suited up for a game at the college level. 

When put that way, there didn’t need to be much discussion about who would start in 2018. But backup quarterbacks have a way of being very popular - especially when the backup is someone with the skill set of Justin Fields. ESPN, Bleacher Report and several different national outlets pegged it as the position battle to watch for in the spring at UGA.

 Behind closed doors, the reality was very different. 

“There wasn’t really any traction for Justin,” said one person who was around the team in spring of 2018. “Everyone was fascinated with him, but we all knew who the starting quarterback was going to be. We were just curious how he would be used behind Fromm.”

In the days before the 2019 Sugar Bowl, UGA offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said he felt, at the time, like the Dawgs had used Fields properly

“You look back on the season, I don’t know,” Chaney said at a press conference before the Sugar Bowl. “I’ll reflect back on it when the season is all the way over. Right now I think we did right, and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Within ten days of that statement, both Fields and Chaney would be gone from the program. Still, at the start of the season, there was no telling what the role would be for the freshman.

In late 2020, Kirby Smart talked for some time about Fields leaving the program with Bryant McFadden on his podcast All Things Covered.

“A lot of comparisons happened early with Justin and Trevor (Lawrence),” Smart said. “So it was very evident to us early on that year as Trevor had success and began to play Justin felt the same way: ‘I’m as good as him, and I should get an opportunity to play.’

“At the time we had Jake Fromm, who has playing pretty well - playing pretty good football. He went toe to toe with Alabama. We didn’t play really well defensively, but Jake played a really good game. It was really a tough situation to manage because Justin was extremely talented.”

“In today’s day and age with the transfer portal - it gives you a way out. You get to go play somewhere right away. You can’t say that hasn’t benefited (Justin) because he got to go to a really good program, and he got to play right away. He’s played a lot more football because he got to go there. You can’t say it was wrong or right.”

But Fields leaving was the last thing anyone was thinking about during spring football in 2019. In the days leading up to G-Day that year, Fromm took anywhere between 75 to 80 percent of the first-team reps. Fields took the remaining 20 to 25 percent, which is a normal amount for the backup quarterback. 

Beyond the reps that they took, insiders say it was easy to see the difference in the two signal-callers by the conversations each had with Chaney. As was the case with Eason, when Fields talked with Chaney, the conversation was more like a coach teaching his player, according to two insiders with a direct understanding of the situation. 

Fromm was wired differently. Having the sophomore on the field was akin to having a second offensive coordinator playing — someone who could see plays before they happened. Chaney brought that value from the booth. Fromm brought that onto the field. 

Insiders say Chaney knew the way defensive coordinators thought and called his plays accordingly. Chaney also pitched in on occasion to help the defense identify trick plays during his time in Athens. 

Fromm developed a reputation for diagnosing defenses in a way that got the Bulldogs in the best possible situation. His coach-like perception of things came from Fromm “nerding out” according to a former teammate, with his preparation for situations. 

"Kirby and Jake are football junkies," said one former teammate of Fromm's. "That's all there is. Jake is a total football player. A total football mind.”

When Chaney asked his quarterbacks to identify basic to mild concepts of the defenses, Fromm never stuttered. It was innate to the middle-Georgia product. When Fields answered, it was never with the same accuracy or speed of Fromm. That difference showcased through spring and summer training.

“I had a couple moments in my head kind of where it felt like high school,” Fromm said on the offseason before the 2018 season. “I knew the defense, what they were gonna run before they ever ran it. I knew who was supposed to be in this spot, and the games felt a lot slower to me then, and it’s continued to get slower and slower.”

That’s the aspect of Fromm’s game that solidified his role as the starter during the 2017 season, and it’s what kept him his spot as the incumbent starter.

Still, throughout the content-dry summer, people around college football hyped up the Fields-Fromm fight as the biggest one to watch not only in the SEC, but nationally, too. The problem was that’s not quite how things were going at the time. 

Things exploded further when Fromm was involved in a fishing accident that sent him to the hospital. His fishing buddy managed to put his hook in the quarterback’s leg. 

“It wasn't my fault,” Fromm remembered with a smile. “It was my buddy's fault. It was dark, and we were fishing. Honestly, I thought it was a really big mosquito bite. Once he started reeling in I was like: 'Ouch, that really hurts.' I didn't really think much about it because it was still in my leg. I think the first reaction I had was to get the thing out of my leg. It really didn't hurt until you tried to get it out.”

Fromm sent an image out of the end result from the hospital where the hook was removed. The internet exploded. 

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“Well he’s not sitting at home playing Fortnite all day. He’s socializing. He’s going out. He’s doing things,” Kirby said in response to the accident—dismissing it completely.

Despite Kirby’s non-committal answers in the spring and summer as to who the starter was, it was clear inside the program that Fromm was the steady hand Kirby and the Dawgs had grown to depend on from the season before—fishing accidents notwithstanding. Fromm had just led Georgia to its best season in some time, and people weren’t going to forget that. 

Still, recruiting, which produces shiny new objects like Justin Fields yearly, can be a little blinding. And at the start of fall, the reflection off Fields was bright. The razzle-dazzle he brought to the table was something that Fromm couldn’t match. Fromm’s game isn’t flashy. Fields had the ability to improvise on the spot with his legs, something that stuck out to players in practice. That, and the undeniable arm talent he possessed made some within the program wonder and even reconsider their view of the quarterback fight.

“Some people thought Jake was too much of a system QB,” one insider said. “They thought that Justin would open up the offense more and allow for more big plays.”

Fall camp consists almost entirely of practice—a place where Fromm’s fortune-teller-like brain is limited. When the season opener against Austin Peay rolled around, Fromm finally got the chance to show what makes him special. 

In a 45-0 dismantling of the Governors, Fromm went 12-of-16 for 157 yards with two touchdowns. It wasn’t anything special, but the offense was running at peak efficiency with him under center. That’s what you’re paying for with Fromm as your starter—a clean, fluid offense.

Behind him, Fields went 7-of-8 for 63 yards with a touchdown while picking up another 33 yards with his legs.

Still, as the weeks went on, Georgia’s offense seemed to lose the fluidity the program had gotten used to with Fromm in the driver’s seat. UGA looked great as the Bulldogs routed South Carolina and obliterated Middle Tennessee State.

But when the Bulldogs traveled to Missouri, something changed. UGA was bailed out by two non-offensive touchdowns in a game that was decided by 14 points. UGA won 43-29, but the offense was sloppy. Fromm went 13-of-23 for 260 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Fields was used sparingly, only carrying the ball once for three yards. 

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Georgia QB Jake Fromm celebrates throwing a 61-yard TD during No. 2 Georgia's 43-29 win over Missouri at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2018. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Fields hadn’t done anything spectacular, and Fromm hadn’t done anything overtly bad. But one thing was clear—Georgia did not look like the national title contender it wanted to be, and that’s one way a backup quarterback starts getting more fans.

“I'm not pleased with the discipline and composure we played with," Kirby said following the win over the Tigers.

During a 38-12 slugfest against Tennessee, Fromm threw 16 completions on 22 attempts for 185 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Fromm didn’t look great, but he was steady. Meanwhile, Fields had the biggest game of his career. The blue-chip prospect had taken five carries and turned them into 46 yards and two meaningful touchdowns. 

The game showcased two things: The limits that can come with Fromm, and the plays that Fields can make with his legs.

Even then, Smart stood strong on his hill.

“The plan is, there is no plan,” Smart defiantly told the press after the game about his use of Fromm and Fields. 

Kirby Smart not having a plan was hard to imagine. 

Plan or not, it seemed Fromm was slowing while Fields was improving. People were eager to see more of what Fields could deliver given the chance to do so with the starting unit. 

“Justin saw that his window to do something at UGA was closing,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “He came in with real personal expectations of what he would like to achieve. And the more Fromm played, the more he usually played well. And because of that Justin just had a harder time figuring out how he was going to make an impact.”

And all of that was bubbling under the surface just before Georgia’s biggest game of the season to that point—a showdown with LSU in Baton Rouge.

UGA would use Fromm according to the flow of the game, Smart maintained. Kirby and Chaney didn’t want to force Fields in games if they didn’t have to. If they saw an opportunity to use him, they would. 

It ended up being a lopsided loss in Baton Rouge. The Tigers won 36-16, and it raised eyebrows around the league. And questions began popping up about Fromm’s performance, which had been lackluster. He left Baton Rouge going only 16 of 34 with 209 yards, two picks and a single touchdown. That stat line, coupled with several bad sacks, officially threw Fromm into the fire for the first time in his career. 

BATON ROUGE - Georgia QB Jake Fromm during No. 13 LSU's 36-16 win over No. 2 Georgia at Tiger Stadium on October 13, 2018. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

“That’s really bad on my part,” Fromm said following the game. “I take responsibility for it.”

He was also going to take grief from fans and the media. 

“He has all the qualities you want. I would take him because he’s not going to get you beat, and he’s not stupid,” one SEC coach said of Fromm. “But everyone has a game, and you are going to really find that out. We saw that at LSU for them last year. The people around him had a really bad game, and they lost.”

For the third time in four weeks, Fromm looked limited. This time UGA lost, and criticism of the quarterback wasn’t hard to find. When he would try to extend plays, it ended in disaster on several occasions. In obvious passing situations, he had difficulty making high-level throws. It was painful for Georgia to watch, and it made people ask the question: how would Justin Fields have done had he played? 

“He’s got to play better, or he’s going to get replaced,” a former Georgia football player told Dawg Post after the game. “I mean, that was as bad of quarterback play as I have seen. I mean, that just was horrible at LSU. Horrible.”

“Chaney is very stubborn with how he wants to run his offense,” one person familiar with Chaney’s thinking said. “But he’s also loyal, and I think he wanted to do his best to keep promises that the staff had made to Justin.”

That pressure had never been felt more until after Georgia’s demoralizing 36-16 loss to the Tigers. The game will be remembered as the primary reason UGA was kept out of the 2018 College Football Playoffs, and to date, it serves as the worst game of Jake Fromm’s career.

Smart, in public comments, stood firmly behind Fromm. 

“Could he have played better? Sure, he could have played better,” Smart said about Fromm a few days following the loss. “A lot of people could have played better. A lot of people could have coached better, too. But that’s over with.”

The loss to LSU meant the season was on the line in the next two games. The bye week arrived after the humbling loss to LSU. It was just in time to allow conjecture about if Fromm should be starting, and if he wasn’t going to give up that spot, just how much more Fields should be playing instead.

Top-ten match-ups against the Gators and Kentucky still loomed for Georgia. Auburn was in the way as well. And after LSU, those were all must-wins if Georgia wanted to play in the SEC Championship and for a National Title.

It was back to the drawing board for the Bulldogs. For 13 days the program took a hard look in the mirror. The coaching staff evaluated every position to see what needed to change—including quarterback.

Nothing was said about it publicly, but inside practice in the two weeks prior to Jacksonville, the quarterbacks were watched closely. Fields was splitting first-team reps with Fromm.

Jake Fromm had talked about liking competition and being a competitor for some time. Now he would get the chance. He was in a competition now, and it appeared he was competing for his starting spot—certainly for snaps. 

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“Yeah, but that was about development,” said someone with particular knowledge of the situation. “You have a young guy, well a lot of young guys, in the program. They are good, and you want to continue to develop them. That wasn’t about moving Jake away from the starting unit. That was about us having an off week, and giving some of the starters a little bit of a breather and developing some of the younger guys. We were at, I think, week seven there before a break. That’s a long time into the year before a bye week.’

It was the height of the Justin Fields movement—real or imagined. Some people throughout the team had begun to firmly believe that Georgia’s best shot was with Fields, according to one insider. Among the players, it was mostly skill guys that thought it would be beneficial.

“Some of the big-name wide receivers and guys all over at skill spots were vocal,” that insider said. “For the team, they thought the offense would become more explosive.”

In those two weeks of practice, Fields’ explosiveness was seen on occasion, and it riled up the supporters even more. In the two-minute drill, there would be times where Fromm would get shut down while Fields would make impressive plays with his athleticism.

Was the drumbeat to play Fields bothering Fromm?

“He never mentioned anything about Justin,” said someone close to Fromm. “And we talk pretty much every day. He didn’t mention him once the entire year.”

Yet, despite the plays Fields made and the support garnered, when Georgia lined up against the Gators, it was Fromm, and only Fromm under center for the entire game. 

Two weeks after playing the worst game of his career, Fromm played what stands as one of the best games he’s played since arriving in Athens. Fromm ripped the Gators up going 17-of-24 for 240 yards with three touchdowns. He ran the offense perfectly and made game-changing throws to Terry Godwin and Jeremiah Holloman.

“If you look at those two throws in the Florida game—anyone could have made those throws,” one SEC coach said. “There's nothing physically to be scared of, but he manages the game. He takes what he is given. If you take that over and over again you move the ball a lot.”

Fields, on the other hand, had hit the low point of his short Georgia career. For the first time that season, he hadn’t played a single snap. No passes, no runs, no handoffs... no nothing. Fields had been entirely benched for Fromm only one week after seriously competing for the spot. 

At least part of the reasoning behind playing Fromm over Fields traced back to the very end of a 2016 shootout against Nicholls State. Instead of letting Eason close out the game he had started, Smart and Chaney decided to insert Grayson Lambert on the final drive because they knew “he wouldn’t make any mistakes,” said a staff member from both of those years.

ATLANTA - Georgia QB Jake Fromm throws to Georgia TE Isaac Nauta during No. 1 Alabama's 35-28 win over No. 4 Georgia during the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 1, 2018. (Brad Morris/Dawg Post)

“But you have a guy who just took his team to the national title game as a true freshman—a true freshman,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “That’s not going to be someone who is easily replaced—no matter how good the other person is. And you aren’t going to hear me say something bad about Justin because he’s a good kid. His expectations were very high.”

No matter what kind of prowess Fields had in practice, he was still a freshman, and an inexperienced one at that. Fromm did what was asked of him and hardly put the team in danger. 

The coaches loved that.

For Fromm, the Florida game cemented his status as Georgia’s starting quarterback and leader of the team. Inversely, the Florida game frustrated Fields. The true freshman had come to Georgia with an expectation to play, and after looking like he may get a shot, came up completely empty-handed.

“That Florida game had to be Fields’ most negative situation of the season,” a UGA insider said about the case. “He was isolated after the game. We had just beaten Florida, and he was just kind of quiet, sitting by himself in the locker room for the most part.” 

Jacksonville was the turning point for both quarterbacks. From there, Fromm rattled off win after win, dominating rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech, and displacing a top-15 Kentucky team in Lexington with relative ease to capture the SEC East once more.

Fields, however, turned the opposite way. Following Florida, he returned to his usual 20-25 percent of first-team snaps in practices. Besides a load of snaps in an out-of-conference UMass game, there wasn’t much opportunity for the touted freshman. 

His last chance came on a fake punt gone wrong in the SEC Championship game. 

“Coach Smart told us he didn’t come here to do anything other than win the game,” Fields said. “He called it, and I just tried to execute the play to the best of my ability. It was there at first, but I think (an Alabama defender) went out on D’Andre, and D’Andre got covered. There was nowhere else to go with the ball.”

Kirby was bombarded with criticism for making that call. Fields was criticized, as well. It would be his last snap at Georgia—even though he denied that he was looking to transfer. UGA still had one more game, Fields said, and he hadn’t thought about leaving. 

ATLANTA - Georgia QB Jake Fromm throws a hail mary on the final play of the game during No. 1 Alabama's 35-28 win over No. 4 Georgia during the 2018 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 1, 2018. (Dylan Webber/Dawg Post)

"I am a competitor. Everyone wishes they had more playing time—of course. It is what it is,” Fields said. “Coach Smart is my coach, and I trust him. I think he knows what's best."

A little more than two weeks later, the news broke—Justin Fields was intending to transfer from the University of Georgia. He had entered the new NCAA Transfer Portal. 

The news wouldn’t be confirmed by Fields until January 4, only a few days after the Sugar Bowl, when he tweeted out that he would be leaving Athens to go to Ohio State. Fields was the second 5-star quarterback in less than a year to transfer from UGA.

One way or another, Fromm was the only quarterback left standing of the trio. 

“It's not for me to make anyone leave or anything like that,” Fromm said leading up to the Sugar Bowl. 

Despite the collapse against Alabama or the stunningly-bad performance against the Longhorns, the losses weren’t pegged on Fromm the same way LSU had been. In fact, he was seen as one of the few bright spots in the two games, throwing for three touchdowns in both.

Still, Fromm was very dissatisfied with the Sugar Bowl result, saying immediately after the game that he wasn’t OK with the way that game was played. 

“Me and a couple other leaders are going to step up. We are going to have a great offseason and come back better than ever. I am fired up for it,” he said. 

The offseason saw a change at offensive coordinator from Chaney to James Coley who worked with the quarterbacks in 2018. 

Fromm told reporters at 2019 SEC Media Days that he thought he was playing well as the 2018 season closed. He also said in the 2019 offseason that a slight change in the offense from Jim Chaney to incoming offensive coordinator James Coley could be very important. 

“We are going to do slightly different things, and I think that could be the difference,” he said. 

UGA fans have been waiting for the difference for the last 39 years.

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