ATHENS, Ga. -- First-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart has what appears to be a great problem on his hands with the nation's No. 1 quarterback following him to Athens.
The future could be strong at the most important position, but with that comes gaudy expectations and impatience. Georgia fans have watched marginal quarterback play for the last two years and will be breathing down Smart's neck until he starts Jacob Eason.
"They're going to go out there and cheer and scream for him, but I've got to make the best decision for this team," Smart said. "Ultimately -- the fans -- who their fan favorite is, that's going to be the guy who wins the games, I promise you. If [Jacob] Eason loses a game, they won't like him, either.”
He's exactly right.
For all the hoopla surrounding the golden child with the golden arm, Smart knows that the biggest decision of his coaching tenure to date does not -- and should not -- ride on the voices of the fans.
Make no mistake, the fans are clamoring for Eason, the 6-foot-6, rocket-armed chosen one straight from central casting. If Eason lives up to the hype, he could eventually be the missing piece for a Georgia team looking to take the final step after firing a coach who averaged nearly 10 wins per season in Mark Richt.
"We have to do what's best for our team and we've also got to develop a talented kid in Jacob Eason while we do that," Smart said. "That's the toughest part.”
Eason will be attached to Smart -- through the good and bad -- for the next three or four years and is undoubtedly the most important person in this football program not named Kirby Smart.
(Sorry, Nick Chubb.)
He's a proposed prodigy billed as the nation's No.1-rated quarterback coming out of high school, who despite a coaching change and colossal attention stayed loyal to the Dawgs. He gives Smart lasting hope at a critical position that has struggled over the last two years.
He's the franchise.
If Eason ascends to greatness, he's the biggest recruiting win ever for Smart. If he's a bust, who knows how far it sets Georgia back. He could be a blessing or a curse. Just ask Smart's old teammate, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, about his rocky tenure strapped to Jeff Driskel.
Smart snagged a whale. Making sure that whale is an orca is crucial to the direction of Georgia's program.
"A lot of people are going to expect so much from him," safety Dominick Sanders said of Eason. "The one thing you have to do is block that out, and not worry about that. ... Time will tell.”
Blocking it out is no doubt hard, though teammates have described Eason as humble and quiet. Some say he isn't concerned with fame, and he's focused.
Put yourself in his shoes. He moved from Washington to Athens. Gray skies and coats to sunshine and shorts. He's celebrity figure in a college town eager for him to become a legend.
Tight end Jeb Blazevich, who helped host Eason during a recruiting visit last year, remembers walking around Georgia's campus and playing second fiddle to the high schooler.
Who's Jacob Eason with?
"Oh, thanks, guys," Blazevich jokingly thought.
"He's just one of those guys who creates that buzz. I do not envy him in terms of that and what he's gone through, especially through recruiting. Personally, I don't know how he did it, just didn't go crazy."
Sanders has seen the hordes of people dwindle slightly the longer Eason's been on campus, but the fame isn't leaving anytime soon.
"I wouldn't say it's gone down," he said with a laugh. "It's always going to be Jacob Eason.”
So far, Smart and his coaching staff have done a great job of handling Eason, his hype and the quarterback situation in Athens. There's no question that Eason, who arrived in Athens before the spring, is the future of the program and the most talented quarterback on the roster. But he was held back during the spring, sitting behind embattled starter Greyson Lambert and enigmatic backup Brice Ramsey. He's currently sharing reps with the ones in the same three-headed battle.
At some point, Eason will be the starting quarterback. That doesn't mean that it has to be on Sept. 3 inside the Georgia Dome against North Carolina. It doesn't even need to be three weeks later against Ole Miss. True freshmen quarterbacks are a rarity in this conference. And if they get on the field, typically, not a ton of good things seem to happen. See: Lock, Drew (2015, Missouri).
Tim Tebow was a backup to Chris Leak. Cam Newton backed up Tebow. Matthew Stafford started halfway through the season. Johnny Manziel and Aaron Murray redshirted. Dak Prescott became a star as a junior. AJ McCarron and Jake Coker needed time before winning titles.
Even Peyton Manning started only eight games as a true freshman because Todd Helton suffered a knee injury.
Slow-playing Eason isn't a bad thing, and in a year of so much uncertainty with the talent around Eason, Smart knows that to rush him out onto the field in a starting role could be detrimental to his psyche and progression.
"The better help we're able to put around him the better he'll be able to do," Smart said. "I think if Jacob ever for one second -- let's just say he's the player, he's the starter -- he can't try to win the game.”
That'll come, as will those legendary moments, but patience -- for now -- is key. Smart can't rush this and burn out his young phenom, but when the time is right, Smart will have to unleash his star and be ready to hold on tightly to Georgia's new savior.