Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer 374d

Why Georgia's freshman QB wasn't fazed in his first college start at Notre Dame

College Football, Georgia Bulldogs

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- One night last week, after Georgia announced that freshman quarterback Jake Fromm would make his first start at Notre Dame, Lee Fromm picked up her cellphone and called her son. Their conversation went a lot like the ones parents have with their children who are away at college for the first time.

"Just do what we've been doing the last five years," Lee Fromm told him. "Make sure you're getting enough sleep, make sure you're eating well and make sure you're focusing on your job."

"Mom, I got this," Jake told her.

Lee and Emerson Fromm had no reason to believe their son wasn't ready for the biggest stage of his football career. He'd excelled in the spotlight at nearly every other stop along the way, whether it was as a 13-year-old pitcher and shortstop at the Little League World Series (he appears at the 14-second mark in the video below) or as an all-state quarterback at Houston County High School in Warner Robins, Georgia.

But making your first college start on national television at Notre Dame Stadium, in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, and where the Four Horsemen, the Gipper, seven Heisman Trophy winners and Theisman and Montana played? That's a tall order for any quarterback, let alone a 19-year-old freshman.

"I'd like to say we did something miraculous as parents -- that we did something special and trained him to handle pressure -- but Jake is just a different cat," Emerson said. "He's not there to play in front of the crowd. He's there to compete against you and beat you."

Fromm's parents had made plans to attend the Notre Dame game months ago, even though they weren't sure how much Jake would play. Now that he'd been thrust into the spotlight, they were unsure what to expect.

As Emerson pondered the challenge while sitting in his home last week in Warner Robins, he was hoping his son was ready.

"Jake hasn't accomplished anything yet," Emerson said. "He's got to go do something. I haven't seen him whiff on anything -- but he's got to go do it.

"Failure is coming. I don't know when it's coming, but it's coming. I just haven't seen it yet. I just hope it's not Saturday."

Kirby Smart insisted to anyone who asked that he had a quarterback battle this past spring. Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, who was the No. 1 pocket passer in the 2016 ESPN 300, was back after starting 12 games as a freshman. Fromm had enrolled in classes in January and competed in spring practice.

"[Eason's] also got a little competition going as well this spring with a young man by the name of Jake Fromm," Smart told ESPN's Paul Finebaum Show in March. "That part has helped as well. I think it's been good to have Jake in meetings, and [Eason] realizes: 'Hey, this kid is coming up on my tail pretty quick.'"

Was Smart only trying to motivate his returning quarterback, who had been up and down during an 8-5 campaign in 2016? Or was Fromm truly in the mix? And did Smart really want to go through a second straight season with a true freshman under center?

Shortly after Smart was hired to replace longtime Bulldogs coach Mark Richt in December 2015, Fromm was the first player to whom he offered a scholarship. According to Emerson Fromm, the previous Georgia coaching staff made no such offer to his son.

In January 2015, longtime NFL assistant Brian Schottenheimer replaced current Colorado State coach Mike Bobo as Georgia's offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer had been on the job only a few weeks when he traveled to Warner Robins to see Fromm work out. He also evaluated Bailey Hockman, another in-state quarterback from McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia. At the time, the Bulldogs were trying to decide which quarterback to take as part of their 2017 recruiting class. Fromm and Hockman were both highly rated prospects. 

It was cold and windy on the day Schottenheimer watched Fromm throw, and his father admits it wasn't a great workout. About three days later, Emerson pulled Jake out of school and took him to Athens to meet with Schottenheimer and the rest of Georgia's assistants. Emerson said Jake was immediately turned off by Schottenheimer's first question: "Do you have any other offers?"

Jake had already received scholarship offers from more than a dozen schools, including Cincinnati, Kentucky, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Penn State and South Carolina.

"Jake is pretty quick," Emerson said. "He either likes you or he doesn't. When Schottenheimer asked him that, it just really turned him off. Jake was just disinterested after that."

Emerson says he believes Georgia's coaches had another reason for not offering Jake a scholarship: They didn't think he'd accept. Eason had already committed to enroll at Georgia in 2016, and Emerson wonders if Georgia coaches believed his son wouldn't want to sit behind a five-star prospect for three years.

"Jake wanted to go to Georgia," Emerson said. "He didn't care if Bailey Hockman went there, too. He just wanted to go to Georgia. But Georgia was not going to offer him if he was going to say no."

A couple of weeks later, Fromm made an unofficial visit to Alabama and was offered a scholarship during a meeting with Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Fromm committed to the Tide before their game against Arkansas on Oct. 10, 2015. His main recruiter at Alabama was Smart, who was working as the Tide's defensive coordinator.

On Nov. 30, 2015, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity fired Richt after the Bulldogs finished 9-3 in his 15th season. Smart was hired as his replacement after a short search. The day after Smart was hired to coach his alma mater, he texted Emerson Fromm, who was duck hunting with his sons at a lake in Dry Branch, Georgia. He called Smart, who told him, "I'm the coach at Georgia now, and you're my first official scholarship offer. I want Jake to be my quarterback."

In March 2016, Jake flipped his commitment from Alabama to Georgia. Hockman signed with Florida State.

"I don't think he ever cared [about Eason being at Georgia]," Smart said. "He loved Georgia. The kid has loved Georgia since he was growing up and he has wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog all his life, so that is what he chose to do. It didn't matter who was here. He is pretty confident in himself and the best ones are. That's what he made the decision based on."

To a man, Georgia's returning players have talked about Fromm having the "it" factor. When the Bulldogs broke for the summer in May, it was Fromm who grabbed the reins of voluntary 7-on-7 drills, shouting instructions to the team's veteran defensive players, urging them to hurry up or slow down.

"Just right there it showed us that he's not afraid of the moment," outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said. "This is a freshman coming in against a defense with 10 returning starters telling them to hurry up."

"He's no ordinary true freshman," added senior receiver Javon Wims. "He has the poise of a senior."

Bellamy said he was also surprised at how quickly Fromm picked up the offense.

"He has the mind of a 22-year-old trying to make an NFL team," Bellamy said. "It's like 'Let me get this playbook down.' And he came in showing that day one. It's very unique."

Still, it did not come as a huge surprise when Eason was named the starter during preseason camp.

"I watched them warming up, and I thought, 'Good God, this kid throws a missile,' " Emerson said of Eason.

But early in the first quarter of the Bulldogs' opener against Appalachian State, Eason was hit out of bounds and sprained ligaments in his left knee. He walked back to the huddle, but then collapsed to the ground in pain.

"We thought he was maybe going to be out for one play," Lee said. "Jake started warming up, and Jacob was still out there. But when Jacob started walking into the tunnel, I thought it was going to get interesting."

Fromm led the Bulldogs on three first-half scoring drives in a 31-10 victory. He ended up throwing for 143 yards with one touchdown.

Smart announced last week that Eason would be sidelined for an indefinite amount of time and that Fromm was replacing him. Suddenly, his parents' trip to Notre Dame became a lot more stressful.

On Saturday morning, Fromm's family members loaded a charter bus for the two-hour drive from Chicago to South Bend. They were allowed to board the bus first, and only a few people recognized them as being Jake Fromm's parents on the way there. That changed when they reached a parking lot outside Notre Dame Stadium. Over the next couple of hours, several fans approached them and asked them to pose for photographs.

"By the time we got to South Bend, they figured out who we were," Emerson said. 

When Fromm's parents reached their seats in the south end zone of Notre Dame Stadium, they couldn't believe what they saw. There were tens of thousands of fans wearing red shirts in sections throughout the stadium.

"It really felt like a home game for me," Emerson said. "I'd be upset if I were a Notre Dame coach or player because so many fans sold their tickets."

Early in the game, Fromm threw a 31-yard pass to Terry Godwin down the right sideline to set up a field goal. But then his inexperience started to show. He fumbled a handoff exchange with tailback Nick Chubb and tried to pick up the ball, instead of falling on it. Notre Dame's defense recovered at Georgia's 32-yard line, setting up the Irish's first touchdown for a 10-3 lead.

But then Fromm took the Bulldogs right back down the field, and Godwin made a spectacular one-handed catch while falling out of bounds for a 5-yard touchdown that tied the score at 10. Notre Dame kicked another field goal to take a 13-10 lead at the half.

In the final minutes, Bellamy sacked Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush and forced him to fumble. Bulldogs linebacker Lorenzo Carter recovered to seal Georgia's 20-19 victory.

Fromm finished with 141 passing yards with one touchdown and one interception on 16-for-29 passing.

"I'm proud of the kid," Smart said. "I think this will be a great learning experience for him. You've got to figure he's going to grow a lot from playing in this kind of atmosphere and environment."

When Emerson and Lee Fromm found their son outside Notre Dame Stadium late Saturday night, after he'd led the Bulldogs to one of their biggest road wins in recent memory, his mother wasn't happy with what she saw. Jake was wearing a suit with a pair of his father's old work boots. Emerson had worn the brown leather boots while pouring concrete for his pool construction business.

"I think in his mind, he was ready to go to work," Emerson said.

Georgia freshmen aren't permitted to speak to the media, so Fromm was unavailable for an interview. He will go back to work Saturday when No. 13 Georgia hosts FCS opponent Samford. Smart says Eason's knee is improving and he'll be back at some point this season. For now, Fromm is the Bulldogs' undisputed leader.

"I thought Fromm played with good poise," Smart said. "I never felt like it got too big for him."

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