The ball came out of Jacob Eason’s hand and fluttered through the air, a brown sphere silhouetted against the night sky in Columbia, Missouri. The pass came on fourth-and-10 from Missouri’s 20-yard line. Georgia trailed by six points.
The ball fell over the head of defensive back Aarion Maxey-Penton and into the arms of Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
The Bulldogs took a one-point lead on the ensuing extra point. The Bulldogs’ defense made a stand. The game ended.
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In that moment, as Missouri’s fans stood in shock, Eason was Georgia’s hero. He was a freshman dubbed a savior. He had been the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country. Adults he had never met stressed over his college decision. Then there he was, everything Georgia’s fans dreamt he would be.
“Impressive poise for an 18-year-old true freshman,” TV analyst Jesse Palmer said at the time.
That was a year ago.
This Saturday against the Tigers, Eason almost certainly won’t start. If undefeated Georgia uses Eason the way it did against Vanderbilt, he won’t play unless the game is in hand.
“It’s a feel thing,” Kirby Smart said after the win over the Commodores.
Three days before Georgia’s first game, Eason sounded confident. He said he felt more comfortable taking snaps under center. He talked about a better ability to make checks at the line of scrimmage. Last year, Eason threw for 2,430 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 55.1 completion percentage. Smart said Eason had improved.
Then, on Georgia’s third offensive drive, Eason sprained a ligament in his left knee. Freshman Jake Fromm took over at quarterback. Fromm has started every game since and Georgia is dismantling SEC opponents. Entering the season, Eason was the undoubted starter. Now he’s competing in practice for the job again, and some fans have turned on the 19-year-old.
“I don't think his attitude has been affected at all,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “He has come in each and every day working his tail off just like any other day.”
Eason took his first snap against Vanderbilt five minutes into the fourth quarter with Georgia leading 45-7. Eason was sacked by a blitzing cornerback. He fumbled the ball, and a Commodore returned it to Georgia’s 1-yard line.
“I wanted the kid to be able to come in and throw the ball,” Smart said. “I called that play and put him in a bad situation. So that’s on me, not on Jacob Eason.”
A few hours later, in response to the play — Eason’s 10th since getting injured — a fan wrote this on a message board: “Skinny (Eason’s nickname) looked like he was standing there thinking about a beer and some (expletive) up in the third row.”
On a separate discussion board, another fan wrote: “Anyone else OK with Eason transferring now?”
“Yep !! He gone,” someone responded.
Last year, Eason’s calm demeanor was viewed as a “clutch” gene. This year, some fans perceive it as a lack of infectious energy when he is on the field.
These people’s comments do not represent the entire Georgia fan base. A large number believe Georgia will need Eason at some point this season. A lot of social media users have to come to Eason’s defense against those who have expressed opinions otherwise.
Still, there is a stark difference between the hero Eason once was and the object of criticism and debate he has become.
Eason has not been made available to the media since returning to the football field. When asked how Eason has handled the injury that derailed his season and not immediately returning to a starting role, tight end Jeb Blazevich said, “I know on my end I'm just trying to love and support him. I can't imagine having that (early)-season injury like that and what he's going through.”
He added Eason has remained positive since returning to practice.
“From what I see, he's consistent,” Blazevich said. “I think he's fighting the good fight, you know? He's getting out there, he's trying to get better. He's doing everything he can. I'm really proud of him for how he has handled this.”