Nobody expected Stetson Bennett IV to win the position battle. Even his teammates were skeptical that he could get the job done. But Bennett believed in himself, and now Georgia is in the national championship game because of it.
To be clear, I’m not talking about Kirby Smart’s decision in 2021 to make the former walk-on Georgia’s starting quarterback, with Bennett helping lead Georgia to a national championship. I’m talking about the decision this offseason to make Bennett, already a Georgia legend, the holder on the field goal unit. “He’s really bought in to his role as holder,” says long snapper Payne Walker, about the Heisman finalist.
“Pod didn’t want me there for a little bit,” Bennett says, referring to Georgia kicker Jack Podlesny, who described Bennett’s assessment as “accurate.” “It’s had its ups and downs,” says Podlesny of the kicker-holder relationship.
They’re joking, or at least I think they are. But Bennett knew he could execute at the highest level—mainly because he does not think holding is very difficult. “I was, like, dude, I could catch that ball. That’s all you do.” When I asked him about it, he mimed out catching a ball and putting it down to show how easy it is.
On virtually every other college football team (and all 32 NFL teams), the holder is the punter. Watch all the biggest kicks of the 2022 season—TCU’s fire-drill game-winner against Baylor; Army’s double-OT field goal against Navy; Tennessee’s wobbler to beat Alabama; the Ohio State miss that sent Georgia to the national championship game—and you will see punters holding. The tongue-in-cheek award given to the nation’s “best holder” (it’s mainly an excuse to give money to charity) is named after former Minnesota punter Peter Mortell.
In 2020 and 2021, Georgia had all-SEC punter Jake Camarda on holds. But he went to the NFL this year, leaving a void. Smart decided to put his starting QB into the role. “We don’t have holder tryouts,” Smart said in September. And apparently, his kicker didn’t have veto power.
And so when Bennett throws a touchdown in Monday night’s national championship game, he won’t head to the sideline like almost every other QB in college football. He’ll stay on the field and hold the extra point, turning six into seven. Incidentally, 2022 was the sixth season of Bennett’s college career; 2023 is somewhat of an extra point.
Bennett is a throwback college quarterback, very much in line with the college football tradition of the unspectacular QB on a roster filled with studs, following in the footsteps of the Greg McElroys and the Ken Dorseys of the world. Georgia’s championship team last year featured five defensive players who were picked in the first round of the NFL draft, plus running back James Cook and wide receiver George Pickens going in Round 2. This Georgia team has two future NFL stars at tight end, Darnell Washington and Brock Bowers.
Before Georgia’s recent run, the game manager QB seemed to have disappeared from college football’s top contenders. From 2017 to 2021, five straight national titles were won by future first-round NFL draft picks—Deshaun Watson, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, and Mac Jones. Four of those were blue chip recruits as well. (We’re still figuring out the whole “Mac Jones” thing.) Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney were telling us that in the current landscape of college football, you couldn’t win a title without a QB that facilitated a top-tier passing game.
To be clear: Stetson Bennett will not be a first-round NFL draft pick. He is 5-foot-11 and 25 years old. That reads like a dating profile, not a draft bio. Players his age have already been drafted, busted, and moved on to their second, third, or seventh NFL teams. But Bennett has succeeded in ways Georgia’s top quarterback prospects have not. Last year, he won the job over five-star recruit JT Daniels, a transfer from USC, and was the quarterback when Georgia finally beat Alabama. (It had been awhile.) And this year, Georgia is 14-0. Sometimes it seems like Bennett’s play holds Georgia back. But trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter of the Peach Bowl semifinal against Ohio State, he started ripping beautiful pass after beautiful pass to win the Dawgs the game.
Now, Bennett will try to win a second national championship. (His first as a holder.) His presence in the college football ecosystem hints at a world where quarterbacks aren’t as special—and yet, he’s the only guy anybody seems interested in talking about, even when surrounded by future pro superstars. He represents something unique about college football, perhaps best summarized by his willingness to hold.
Just say the name a few times. Stetson Bennett the Fourth. Every syllable makes him more likely to be a Georgia quarterback, including “the fourth.” When Stetson Bennett IV throws a pass to Ladd McConkey, an angel gets its Masters quarter-zip from the gift shop at Augusta National.
The general consensus is that Bennett’s future involves owning a car dealership. Seriously, I cannot stress enough how literally everybody assumes that Stetson Bennett will own a car dealership someday. (The Shutdown Fullcast specifies that it will be called Stetson Bennett Kia of Waycross and Blackshear.) But it makes sense. People in Georgia love the Dawgs, and surely, when the man who led them to their greatest modern-era triumphs looks them in the eye and tells them they need to make a down payment on a brand-new Sorento, they’ll listen.
But once upon a time, Bennett couldn’t even sell himself. He used to wear a USPS hat to stand out at recruiting camps to be more memorable to recruiters—highlighting his nickname, “the Mailman.” Because “he delivers,” or “he can throw the ball in a mailbox,” or something like that. It wasn’t fully clear, but the branding was his idea. Unfortunately, schools still didn’t want him. He was small and didn’t have a big arm, and could only get a scholarship from Middle Tennessee. He walked on at Georgia, where his parents were both alumni, and ran the scout team, earning praise for his impression of Baker Mayfield ahead of the 2018 Rose Bowl. But when Georgia landed five-star QB recruit Justin Fields, Bennett realized he wasn’t a part of the program’s plans, and transferred to Jones College, a junior college in Mississippi. (Fields, if you recall, was also willing to contribute on Georgia’s special teams … but it didn’t go as well.) When Fields left for Ohio State, Bennett made the rare choice to transfer back to Georgia, this time as a scholarship quarterback with hopes of actually playing someday.
It feels like you know the story at this point. Bennett was undersized and overlooked, but when he got a chance to play, he blew everybody away and proved everybody wrong. Except, like, that’s not really how it’s gone. There are times when Bennett’s play is frustrating, like when he lost them the Alabama game in 2020 with three costly interceptions. He honestly never really outplayed Daniels, the USC transfer. Daniels threw touchdowns at a higher rate, completed passes at a higher rate, and averaged more yards per attempt during his Georgia career than Bennett’s career averages, and Georgia won literally every game Daniels played in. Look at how mad fans got in early 2021 when Bennett got playing time over Daniels. But Daniels suffered an oblique injury and Smart didn’t give him back the starting gig when he was healthy; he transferred to West Virginia after Bennett won the natty.
It really does not take a quarterback guru to understand why Bennett is not QB1 on draft boards. For all the heart and moxie and leadership capabilities, he misses sometimes. Sometimes badly. He doesn’t have great arm strength. And he makes a lot of ill-advised throws, which is exactly the sort of thing an undersized backup on a team of future NFL stars shouldn’t do. Even six years into his career with a national title under his belt, Bennett’s decision-making still draws criticism from Kirby Smart. There is some talk of Bennett being a suitable NFL backup, and he cracked the top 10 of Mel Kiper’s available QB prospects, but it’s fringe.
So what is Bennett’s defining trait? The trite answer is that he’s A Winner. But, like, we know that Bennett is not the sole reason Georgia is winning games. Their roster is filled with kaijus. More than anything, Bennett represents an unstoppable desire to play college football—even if it means walking on to a school where he’d be buried on the depth chart, or transferring to a juco. He’ll even hold kicks if it comes down to it.
Quite frankly, it does not make sense to have a quarterback be the holder. Quarterbacks get hurt frequently. This was an issue earlier in the year, when Bennett started vomiting after a touchdown pass against South Carolina, forcing Australian punter Brett Thorson to come on to hold the extra point. Quarterbacks spend all practice working with the offense, and don’t have a lot of extra time to work on field goal stuff. Podlesny estimates that Georgia gets only three to six reps per week with the entire live field goal operation, including Bennett and the entire offensive line. The era of the quarterback holder seemingly died with Tony Romo’s botched hold in the 2007 NFL playoffs. If you do see a quarterback holder somewhere in college football, they’re likely a fourth-stringer. (That’s how Mac Jones got the holder job at Alabama, although he held on to it after becoming the starting QB.)
Meanwhile, punters almost never get hurt, have plenty of time to work on field goal stuff, and generally hang out with the kickers anyway. “Special teams, there’s a clique,” says Podlesny.
Bennett might be one of the most famous college football players in the country, but he was an outsider on special teams. So Bennett stayed after practice “to please me,” according to Podlesny. After Podlesny is done kicking (kickers have a limit on how many swings they can take per day in order to preserve their legs) he’ll watch Bennett put down hold after hold to make sure he’s doing it right. “I figured out how mental kickers are,” Bennett says.
Bennett could be doing anything else with his time: Reaping the social benefits of being a national-championship-winning QB, studying up on the finer details of car dealership entrepreneurship to prepare for his future, or even prepping for his main job as quarterback. He could even get a damn job, like a normal 25 year old. Instead, he puts in extra work to get good at a job he believes to be relatively easy.
Stetson Bennett IV may or may not be good enough to go pro, so he’s fighting to savor every ounce of college football he can get—every season of eligibility, every game, every snap, even if it means adding an invisible role on special teams on top of his gig as star QB. He’s holding on so tight, he’s even holding.