Seeking a spark, Georgia keeps options open at quarterback

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says No. 4 Georgia is "probably the most talented team overall in the SEC."

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart calls Malzahn's compliment nothing more than coach speak.

"If you ask somebody the week of the game -- the team they are playing will have the most talent in the league," Smart said. "Then the next week, that team will have the most talent, then the next week, that team will have the most talent. That's called coach speak."

Malzahn, whose No. 7 Tigers play the Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app), might not be too far off when it comes to Georgia's defense, although Alabama might beg to differ.

On the other hand, the Bulldogs looked like one of the SEC's most confused teams on offense in last week's 37-10 victory at Arkansas. Only a few days after receiver Kearis Jackson predicted it would be a "Georgia team that nobody has ever seen before," the Bulldogs looked a lot like they have in the past: elite on defense and only so-so on the other side of the ball.

Georgia trailed 7-5 at halftime of its opener before scoring four times (its defense also added a pick-six) in the second half against the Razorbacks, who have lost 20 consecutive conference games.

"You can't always expect things to go 100 percent your way," tight end John FitzPatrick said. "You always want to achieve perfection in all that you do, but that's not practical. Things are going to happen, things aren't going to go your way. It's how you respond to that, and that's what we did. We responded with a great game."

Freshman quarterback D'Wan Mathis threw for only 55 yards with one interception and was sacked twice in his first start. Backup Stetson Bennett IV, a former walk-on, came off the bench to throw for 211 yards with two touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing.

Smart hasn't said which quarterback will start against the Tigers. USC transfer JT Daniels joined the competition on Monday, when doctors medically cleared him to play. Daniels missed all but one game in 2019 with a right knee injury, which had to be scoped again in the winter, according to Smart.

After graduating a year early from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, California, Daniels became the second USC true freshman quarterback to start an opener in 2018. He passed for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions that season.

Daniels transferred to Georgia in May, and the NCAA granted him a waiver to play this season. He had been practicing with the Bulldogs but wasn't being tackled.

"He's an extremely bright kid," Smart said. "He's delightful to be around, very intellectual. He asks a lot of questions. He digs deep into the game. The game is really important to him. He gets the ball out really quick. He's got a quick release and great arm talent. He's doing a good job. He's out there working. For us, it's not really different than it was before. He was practicing before. He's just practicing more now."

Smart said Mathis didn't perform as badly against the Hogs as it might have looked. The Oak Park, Michigan, native had emergency surgery in May 2019 to remove a brain cyst. He was thrust into the starting job after Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman opted out Sept. 2 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"D'Wan did a lot of good things," Smart said. "It's not his fault a play got called back for holding. It's not his fault a guy missed a pick up on third down -- and he almost turned that into a first down. He did a lot of good things early on there, and we just never could put good things back to back. Every drive he had came to a stop for some reason or another."

Bennett, a junior from Blackshear, Georgia, spent the 2017 season at UGA before transferring to Jones County Junior College in Mississippi the next year. He was set to sign with Louisiana in February 2019, until Smart called with a scholarship offer the night before signing day, causing Bennett to change his mind.

"I thought Stetson did a good job when he came in," Smart said. "He has played a lot of football. He had good composure, he handled the pocket well, he handled the protections well. Stetson has seen a lot of football in his time. The stuff he sees from our defense day in and day out, taking all the reps last year. He was very calm and poised."

Perhaps Georgia's slow offensive performance at Arkansas shouldn't have been much of a surprise. Smart replaced offensive coordinator James Coley in the offseason, bringing in former Cleveland Browns coordinator Todd Monken to take over the playcalling.

Like every other SEC team, the Bulldogs didn't have spring practice to install Monken's offense. Auburn faced the same dilemma with new coordinator Chad Morris, who took over the playcalling from Malzahn.

"I think the challenges this year for the first-year coordinators around the country, and specifically in our league, is they didn't get to go through the spring and iron out all the little things that you normally would," Malzahn said.

Georgia also had to replace much of its offensive firepower from 2019. Three-year starting quarterback Jake Fromm turned pro, and both starting offensive tackles, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, were selected in the first round of April's NFL draft; tailback D'Andre Swift went early in the second.

Against Arkansas, Georgia's tailbacks averaged 4.4 yards on 25 rush attempts.

The rebuilt offensive line will have its hands full against Auburn, which had eight tackles for loss and forced three turnovers in last week's 29-13 win over Kentucky. The Wildcats ran for only 3.6 yards per run, including only 1.7 after halftime.

"I think all of our backs have the ability to make people miss, but they have to do it at a higher level," Smart said. "We have to block much better on the second level in terms of our receivers, cut off blocking and turning a couple 10- [and] 12-yard runs into bigger runs. There were some missed opportunities there, and we have to move up front a little better. At the end of the day, that's what it takes to be able to run the ball."

That why Smart doesn't seem too concerned about who ends up playing quarterback, maybe even if it's more than one player. Everybody around whomever it is has to play better than they did a week ago.

"It's a lot more important how we play around him and how we support him because whoever's able to do that the best and get the most out of the people around them is going to be the guy who moves the ball and produces," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what we want to do. If that's one guy, two guys, we're not putting ourselves in a pigeonhole, saying, 'We can only have one quarterback.' We've got to develop all of our quarterbacks."