Bulldogs Beat

‘I would have bet on Nathan.’ Get to know UGA’s third QB through his high school coaches

Editor’s note: This the part two of a series from The Telegraph known as “Meet the backups” to profile those behind starting quarterback Jake Fromm. Part one featuring Stetson Bennett can be found here.

Nathan Priestley could have easily thrown in the towel.

His 1-8 Loyola (Ca.) High School Cubs trailed the Junipero Serra High School Cavaliers 14-0 as the fourth quarter of the final game of the 2018 season got underway. It was cold, the season was almost over and there was nothing to play for but pride.

But Priestley didn’t give up. After all, that’s not in the DNA of the guy who is now Georgia’s third-string quarterback.

“That resiliency stood out, but that was his career,” said Rick Pedroarias, head coach of Loyola from 2017-18. “Never count him out.”

Priestley hails from Burbank, which current Loyola head coach Andrew Casani called “as blue-collar of an area around here, in the suburbs of L.A., as you’ll find.” His upbringing, along with attending a very demanding school in Loyola, instilled a work ethic in Priestley that still manifests itself to this day at Georgia.

“(Offensive coordinator James) Coley will tell you, he takes the best notes I’ve ever seen in the quarterback room,” Bulldog head coach Kirby Smart said on Aug. 17.

Priestley earned the call up to the varsity squad as a sophomore. He played mostly on scout team that fall, although the coaching staff held him back a little due to a knee injury he had suffered.

A tall kid with what Pedroarias described as a “smooth” throwing motion with a lot of zip, Priestley had his days showing out well against the first-team defense. He also earned the team’s respect with his trademark work ethic.

“He never drew attention to himself,” Pedroarias said. “He was just the first guy out there. He was throwing the ball extra after practice with other guys. He was always doing extra reps, whether it be before practice or after practice keeping guys out there.”

By the time junior year came around, it was Priestley’s time to shine. He led the offense and did whatever it took to win, like throwing a perfect 45-yard touchdown strike as he got hit to seal a win over Cathedral High School.

But then, with Loyola on a four-game winning streak, misfortune struck.

He kept the ball on a read option in a game and scampered down the field. He tried to make a cut, his cleat got caught in the turf and his knee twisted. The diagnosis confirmed the worst: a torn ACL.

However, Priestley didn’t sit around and mope. Far from it, actually.

“As soon as the season ended four weeks later, he was in the weight room,” Pedroarias said. “He couldn’t lift, but he was doing all the leg work. He never missed a lift, even when we started with the voluntary ones in November.”

The work didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates — Priestley earned a captain’s spot for his senior year by receiving one of the highest vote totals on his team.

Potential colleges noticed the injury too. Schools that had been looking at Priestley, such as UCLA and Wyoming, began to back off. There was even some uncertainty over whether he would return to football or commit full-time to baseball, a sport he lettered in three of his four high school years.

But Priestley kept working to return. He spent extra time with receivers. He participated in 7-on-7s and passing camps. He tried to do things he wasn’t prepared for yet, to the point where Pedroarias had to tell him occasionally, “You’re not ready for this, slow down.”

Finally, Priestley was fully cleared and it was time for the season to begin. On top of everything else, he was learning a new offense.

The 2017 offense was more run-pass option based. For his senior season, Priestley had control of an offense that gave him freedom to check and change plays at the line of scrimmage.

“When you look at the tape, there’s a lot more he was doing out there than just coming up to the center and asking him to just hike the ball,” said Casani, a linebacker coach on the 2018 team. “He was really running the whole offense from the field based on what the defense was giving us.”

Priestley wasn’t surrounded by all-stars. His offensive line was worn down from playing both ways, and his young receivers didn’t always run the crispest routes.

But like a true leader, Priestley never pointed fingers.

“He never blamed anybody,” Casani said. “He never got on his o-line because he was getting hit and pounded. He never got on them because we couldn’t get an effective running game going. I can’t say the same for the rest of his team last year.”

As the season ended and the calendar rolled over to 2019, Priestley considered walking on at North Carolina. Then, one day over the summer, his younger brother Jalen showed up to practice with news: Nathan was heading east as a walk-on at Georgia.

Casani was surprised: as far as he knew, Priestley was going to Chapel Hill. But as far as the level of competition, he wasn’t shocked.

“Here’s a kid that’s big, he’s strong, he’s smart and he’s a good athlete and he’s got a talented arm,” Casani said. “Every coach that came through here asked me about him. I said, ‘You guys, his best football’s ahead of him.’ I don’t think this was a fair representation of what you’re going to get. So I was not surprised in that sense. I would have bet on Nathan.”

Now, he’s over 2,000 miles from home serving as Georgia’s third-string quarterback as fellow freshman D’Wan Mathis is likely out for the year after having emergency brain surgery to remove a cyst in May. He has been praised by Smart for good work after both of Georgia’s scrimmages in fall camp.

Giving up isn’t what he does. He showed it on that night against Serra, rallying a lifeless offense for a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to give his team a chance.

The resilient kid from Burbank gave it all he had in that moment. If and when he gets on the field for Georgia, Priestley will do the same.

“If he gets his shot, you’re going to get everything he’s got,” Pedroarias said. “He’s going to dedicate himself fully to the team goal.”

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