The gray Ford F-150 trudged south on Highway 129 toward Warner Robins, Georgia. After spending the day upstate in Athens, Jake Fromm had plenty of time to think through his decision on the two-hour drive home from his unofficial recruiting visit to the University of Georgia in March 2016. He didn’t need it. As Fromm’s high school coach, Von Lassiter, remembers it, new Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart had offered Fromm a scholarship a few days prior, and while sitting in the truck alongside Lassiter and his father, Fromm elected to call Smart and inform him of his choice. But first he needed to dial Nick Saban.
Fromm, then a four-star quarterback prospect, had verbally committed to Alabama in April 2015. He’d always wanted to play for nearby Georgia, but former coach Mark Richt had never expressed interest. All of a sudden things had changed, and so too had his recruiting status. With one of college football’s greatest coaches listening on the other end of the line, Fromm declared that he was going to Georgia.
Saban’s quarterback of the future was heading elsewhere—and to a conference rival, no less.
“He was the guy Alabama locked in on … he was not a priority at Georgia,” John Garcia, an analyst for 247Sports, says of Fromm’s recruitment. “The irony is that Mark Richt at the time wasn’t all over the kid. [Georgia] liked him, they didn’t love him, and they never really pushed for him. All the while, Alabama had been, including [former offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin. [Fromm] was recruiting for Alabama. He was the glue of that class.”
Fromm enrolled early in Athens as part of the Class of 2017. He took the starting job when quarterback Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury in the Bulldogs’ season-opening win against Appalachian State in September. In the College Football Playoff national championship game on Monday night, the QB will take the field as his two primary suitors collide in a clash of SEC juggernauts: The 12-1 Crimson Tide will look to capture their fifth national title under Saban, while the 13-1 Bulldogs will look to celebrate their first championship since 1980.
Fromm isn’t the cornerstone of this Georgia offense, nor was he a Heisman Trophy contender this season. But the true freshman quarterback who got away from Alabama has now emerged as the key to beating it.
A mobile 6-foot-2 passer, Fromm originally didn’t fit the mold of the quarterbacks Georgia was interested in. Richt, the school’s head coach from 2001 to 2015, long had a preference for taller pocket passers. The Bulldogs’ three starters prior to Fromm were the 6-foot-3 Hutson Mason, the 6-foot-5 Greyson Lambert, and the 6-foot-5 Eason. Fromm seemed to have no place on his hometown team and his father’s alma mater, so he gave his pledge to Alabama instead. “You’re always in contention for a national championship or feel like you are,” Emerson Fromm, Jake’s dad, said of the Crimson Tide at the time. “I don’t know where else you can go to get that.”
The commitment lasted just more than five months. Richt was fired at the end of the 2015 regular season, and the Bulldogs replaced him with longtime Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. As Smart set out to replicate Saban’s model style in Athens, Fromm went from being a poor fit at Georgia to the perfect player to execute this vision. Fromm’s dad called his son’s decision to flip to the Bulldogs a “no-brainer,” even though Smart wasn’t the coach who recruited Fromm at Alabama.
Fromm played in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense at Houston County High School, and finished his career with a school-record 12,745 passing yards and 116 touchdowns. That sheer statistical volume was enough to entice major college programs, and that’s before fully appreciating his uncommon skill set. Fromm boasted fluid movement and clear athleticism. He delivered a pretty ball outside the numbers. Meanwhile, the tales of his single-minded preparation (Lassiter says he was often kicked out of the Houston County film room after spending too much time there) formed the perfect package.
“We were trying to snap the ball every 13 seconds,” Lassiter says of his offensive approach when Fromm was on his roster. “From the time the ball was blown dead, he had to get the formation, the play, get everyone lined up, tell the running back what to do, set the protection, and snap the ball as soon as the next play was blown in.”
Most QBs in the SEC aren’t expected to be gunslingers. Fromm isn’t—or at least hasn’t needed to be one this season. He’s come through when called upon, though. And his awareness is all natural. “Being able to process that information quickly has paid off for him,” Lassiter says, “because now he has more time, but [his college playbook] is much more sophisticated.”
Like a 3-point specialist in the NBA, Fromm rarely tries to do too much, staying comfortably within his role. By virtue of touching the ball on every play, he’s asked to effectively manage the offense while keeping mostly out of its way. It’s a job he’s thrived in, and one that’s allowed him to show tantalizing flashes of his upside.
This season, Fromm’s 166.44 passer rating ranks fourth in college football, behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, UCF’s McKenzie Milton, and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. While Fromm has thrown for only 2,383 yards with 23 touchdowns—less than half of the respective totals of the three QBs mentioned above—mass production isn’t Fromm’s forte just yet. On a Georgia team that boasts a devastating defense and a dynamic rushing attack, he’s simply needed to be efficient. He has been: He won 20-19 at Notre Dame in his first career start, threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 28-7 SEC title game victory against Auburn, and showed precocious poise in an instant-classic 54-48 double-overtime win against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl playoff semifinal.
Flipping Fromm from Bama wasn’t just a boon for Smart on the field, however. The quarterback might have also represented the start of a power shift in the SEC recruiting hierarchy. Georgia signed one of the state’s most prized in-state players who was once committed to the sport’s preeminent dynasty. Now, the Bulldogs are besting the Tide in 2018 recruiting: Georgia has the top-rated class, per 247Sports, with six five-star prospects in tow. Bama has the fifth-rated class, with a single five-star recruit.
While Fromm occupies a position of natural leadership on the football field, he has been willing to rely on veteran players to elevate him. In the Rose Bowl Game on New Year’s Day, it was Georgia’s senior running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who carried the Bulldogs across the finish line, combining for 326 rushing yards with five touchdowns. Their success made Fromm’s task against Oklahoma simple: avoid mistakes and do enough to keep the defense honest. For a 19-year-old only a season removed from facing Class 6A high school competition, that was easier said than done.
At times, the game did expose Fromm’s youthful inexperience. He was flagged for a baffling intentional grounding penalty early in the fourth quarter with the Bulldogs clinging to a 38-31 lead, a pivotal moment in which Fromm tried to shovel the ball to an nonexistent receiver before getting swarmed by a duo of Oklahoma defenders.
In those moments of football adolescence, his backfield looked out for him. Before Michel broke off a 38-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter, the back turned to Fromm to exchange words prior to the snap. “I was just making sure that was the right play,” Michel said after the game.
Alabama’s specialty is stopping its opponents’ premier playmakers and using brute force and unrivaled depth to neutralize them for 60 minutes. Only a few rare talents, like former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, have proved able to overcome it. On Monday, the Tide will look to take away Chubb and Michel, putting the onus on Fromm to carry the load. His margin for error will be smaller than ever before.
If nothing else, Georgia’s newest batch of recruits believe in Fromm’s ability to defy Bama once again. In an interview from the day after the Rose Bowl, Justin Fields—a consensus five-star quarterback prospect who signed with the Bulldogs in December and plans to enroll early this spring—was asked who he thought would have to be the MVP of the national championship game for Georgia to win. Fields’s response was telling: Jake.