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It was New Year’s Day 2019 and Stetson Bennett IV was in the family section at the New Orleans Superdome. He and four friends had made the two-hour drive from Ellisville, Miss., to see Bennett’s old team, Georgia, play Texas.
After a year at Jones County Community College in Ellisville, Bennett had “no thought” of ending back up in Athens, where he’d originally walked on in 2017. The Blackshear, Ga., native was in New Orleans as a fan, watching as the Longhorns upset the Bulldogs, 28-21. He saw some old friends on the team, and met some new faces.
The early signing period had already passed, and though Bennett hadn’t made a decision on his future, he didn’t see Georgia as a factor. Been there, done that.
After Bennett led the scout team in practice going into the 2018 Rose Bowl, he was told the next spring he would get an opportunity to be the second-string quarterback.
“That didn’t really happen,” Bennett told The Post.
Bennett wasn’t a well-known recruit and he didn’t have any tape. Jay Johnson, Bennett’s quarterbacks coach during his first stint at Georgia, had a connection with Steve Buckley, the head coach at Jones. And so it was that Bennett arrived in Ellisville, driving a black Ford F-150 Raptor and enduring a torn labrum that prevented him from throwing a pass right away.
As with many who end up at junior colleges, Bennett’s goal was to earn a Division I scholarship. Bennett did that. He found something else at Jones: a set of close friends, and enough advancement in his game to go back to Athens when the time came, step into the starting job and take the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff.
Bennett knows the Georgia fan base does not want him starting Friday night against Michigan in the Orange Bowl. He knows Georgia’s coaching staff failed to see his value the first time he was in Athens, and he doesn’t try to hide the fact he’s a little bothered that, upon his return, they took two transfers to play over him. At 23, he carries complete confidence in who he is and a matter-of-fact nature about it. On the field or off.
“Stet’s kinda the odd one out in our group,” J.D. Rutherford, a close friend at Jones, said.
Bennett listens to audiobooks in his car. He owns a record player and watches old Westerns that his friends can’t sit through. His favorite song, says close fried Alexis Galle, is “Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla” by the 19th century composer Richard Wagner. He does not wear shoes if he can avoid it, preferring to feel the earth beneath his feet.
Those are all traits that shone through when Bennett was in a new place — having gone all the way down in the college football world to go back up — and meeting new people. Those people now love him for it.
Ellisville is a town of 4,448 that’s 22 miles up the road from Hattiesburg and a good deal further from anyplace bigger. In that context, it’s not surprising Bennett met his close friends there.
“We wake up, go to football, go to class,” Galle said. “We get done with that, we’re all hanging out in the dorm together. We’re all playing video games, all hanging out, doing homework, going to the library, doing everything together. That’s, all we got is each other.”
His friends are immensely proud, but if they want to tell him, they can’t do it on social media. Bennett got rid of his iPhone for a flip phone this year — a decision he discusses in terms of productivity.
“I’m not gaining anything from it,” Bennett said of social media. “I’ve got so much on my plate. School, football, family. Why do I need 30 minutes on Instagram?”
When it comes to football, Bennett carries the same nature. His roommate at Jones, Davis Harrison, said Bennett doesn’t carry a chip on his shoulder. Bennett admitted he uses criticism as motivation, but his friend isn’t wrong. When he talks about the situation, Bennett sounds more like someone stating facts than someone who wakes up every morning fueled by it.
When Kirby Smart called on National Signing Day, a month after that Sugar Bowl, with an offer and the demand to make a decision right then, Bennett told him to wait. He calculated that if Jake Fromm left after the 2019 season, he would have a chance to start at Georgia. His mom didn’t want him to go. Neither did Buckley. Bennett had an offer he planned to sign at Louisiana-Lafayette, one that came with playing time.
“They thought that Georgia wasn’t gonna give me a shot,” Bennett said. “They ended up being right. I also ended up being right.”
But he’s starting in the College Football Playoff. It’s hard to argue the situation didn’t work out in his favor, criticism aside.
“Now it worked out, yes,” he said.”Like I said, they tried not to give me a shot again.”
On Friday night, Bennett will have a chance to prove them wrong again.