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ATHENS, Ga. — One day this summer, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett knocked on an apartment door, wearing a mock U.S. Postal Service uniform. He handed a package to a woman who answered the door.
“Hey, here you go,” Bennett told her. “This place is nice.”
“Excuse me, why is Stetson Bennett actually delivering our mail?” a man standing at the kitchen island asked him.
“I deliver, that’s what I do,” Bennett told him.
Bennett, who helped deliver Georgia its first national title in 41 years with a 33-18 victory over Alabama in January, is reaping the rewards of becoming a statewide hero.
Entering his fifth season with the No. 3 Bulldogs, which begins with Saturday’s opener against No. 11 Oregon in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Bennett is nearing $1 million in name, image and likeness deals, according to his NIL agent, Jeff Hoffman of Everett Sports Management.
The aforementioned mailman skit was actually a TV commercial for a real estate development and investment management firm. He also has NIL deals with a power company, bank, clothing line, software firm, chicken restaurant, trading cards, autograph memorabilia and AARP (he turns 25 on Oct. 28).
In one of his first NIL deals for Raising Cane’s, a nationwide fast-food chain, Bennett surprised hundreds of Georgia students by handing out chicken fingers and signing autographs in the drive-thru at an Athens restaurant. He joked with one customer that his total was $33.18, referring to the score in the Bulldogs’ victory over Alabama.
Bennett’s hometown of Blackshear, Georgia, threw him a homecoming parade on Jan. 30. He has been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, appeared on Good Morning America and flew with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels at the Vidalia Onion Festival’s air show in Georgia, about three months after he had Bulldogs fans tearing up in Indianapolis.
Not bad for a former walk-on who wore a U.S. Postal Service hat to recruiting camps to draw attention to himself, who left Georgia after one season for more playing time and who started the 2021 season as the Bulldogs’ third-stringer.
“My life has gotten more public,” Bennett told ESPN this week. “You still feel like the same person. Everything you do is still pretty much the same. But that kid you were to everyone else, that’s what changed, which is weird. I just throw a football.”
As Bennett enters his sixth season of college football, he’s keeping it simple even as his life gets chaotic.
Bennett is still generously listed at 5 feet, 11 inches. He still weighs less than 200 pounds. Those are the same measurements that made him a lightly recruited player at Pierce County High School in tiny Blackshear. One national recruiting service ranked him as the 2,569th player in the country as a high school senior in 2017.
That’s what makes his story even more remarkable.
“He just won me over,” said Buck Belue, who was the last quarterback before Bennett to lead Georgia to a national title in 1980. “There’s been so few national titles, his name is always going to be remembered and respected by the Bulldog people. That puts you in a small class of people, and I’m thrilled to have a little company. I’ve got respect for the guy that can persevere, and he’s got one of the best stories of perseverance that we’ve ever seen.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart remembers the first time he believed Bennett could lead his team to a national championship last season.
The No. 1 Bulldogs were playing on the road at Tennessee on Nov. 13, and the Volunteers were having success against Georgia’s menacing defense. The score was tied at 10 midway through the second quarter, and the Bulldogs had a first-and-goal at the UT 9.
Bennett, who became the starter after JT Daniels was hurt against Vanderbilt on Sept. 25, took the snap and immediately rolled to his right on a naked bootleg. The play was designed for him to throw to running back Kenny McIntosh in the flat, but linebacker Aaron Beasley and defensive lineman Ja’Quain Blakely were barreling down on Bennett.
Instead of throwing, Bennett tucked the ball and outraced four Tennessee defenders to the end zone. Georgia would score again before the half and rolled to a 41-17 victory.
“We didn’t block a guy, the guy got in his face and he stuck his foot in the ground and tucked it up and just burst,” Smart said. “People don’t know how hard and tough that Tennessee game was for us on the road. They had an offense that can negate your strength, which was our defense.
“At that point, people were saying, ‘Oh, that’s Tennessee, no big deal.’ I’m saying, ‘Man, that was on the road in a tough environment against a team that we were going to need our offense in.’ And he stepped up and made the plays.”
The Bulldogs won their next two games and finished the regular season unbeaten. There was just one hiccup, an ugly 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Georgia would recover to rout Michigan 34-11 in a College Football Playoff semifinal and then avenge its only loss to the Crimson Tide.
Suddenly, Bennett, who grew up dreaming of playing quarterback for the Bulldogs, was a statewide hero. He was the Offensive MVP of the Orange Bowl and CFP National Championship after throwing three touchdowns against the Wolverines and two fourth-quarter ones against the Crimson Tide. It seemed like the perfect time for Bennett to exit stage left — or maybe not.
“For me, why you do everything isn’t just about the end,” Bennett said. “What I love so much about the sport is everything that you do day to day – the competition and battle with yourself trying to get better, the friendships and brotherhood with your teammates. There were thoughts of whether I should stay or not, but it wasn’t because of whether we won or not. It was never like, ‘Well, we can’t do anything more.'”
Before deciding to return, however, Bennett wanted some assurances from Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken that he would be given a fair chance to be the starter in 2022. After Bennett led the Bulldogs to the promised land, that seemed like preposterous insecurity. But Bennett remembered starting the 2021 season as the third-stringer, behind starter Daniels and backup Carson Beck. He wanted to know where he stood with the coaches.
“I think he just wanted to know that we had his back and that he was going to be the guy and to make it worth coming back,” Smart said. “He went through a lot of time here where he didn’t get reps, he didn’t get quality reps.”
Smart reminded Bennett that the coaches stood behind him after the Bulldogs’ loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Bennett threw two interceptions, including a pick-six by safety Jordan Battle that gave the Tide a three-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter. Even though Bennett threw for 340 yards with three touchdowns — and the fact that Georgia’s vaunted defense surrendered 536 yards of offense to Alabama — the quarterback took the brunt of criticism from some Georgia fans, who wondered whether Bennett was good enough to beat the Tide.
“I think we proved it by sticking with him after the first Alabama game and standing by him throughout the latter part of the season,” Smart said. “There were ups and downs within the season where he played really good against UAB and then not as good against South Carolina. And then it was up and down and up and down until he got in the groove and started starting and was playing. He could get frustrated too, because he felt like he was the guy and he felt like he was better than [Daniels].”
For the first time in Bennett’s career at Georgia, he took the majority of first-team reps in the offseason. He got so little action in practice before the 2021 season that he nearly decided to leave the Bulldogs again. He had transferred to Jones College in Mississippi after his freshman season, before Georgia’s coaches persuaded him to come back after Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State after the 2018 season.
“For the first time in his whole career, he’s taking reps with the ones,” Smart said. “He’s the starter. He went through, I don’t know how many springs he’s been here, two or three, where he didn’t go with the ones or twos much. And to go through a spring or an offseason as the starter and get the ones reps, it’s been great for him. It’s allowed us to have more continuity and some more confidence there. You didn’t have to keep changing the parts, or this receiver likes this guy, and this tight end likes that guy, and all that s—. You don’t deal with that when you get him.”
Another thing that has changed for Bennett: His younger brother, Luke, is a walk-on freshman receiver at Georgia. (Luke’s twin brother, Knox, is a baseball player at Chipola College in Marianna, Florida.)
The Bulldogs will have to replace 15 players who were selected in the NFL draft, including five defensive players in the first round. With so many new faces on defense, Bennett might have to do even more than last season, when he threw 29 touchdowns and set a school record for passing efficiency (176.7). He was third among FBS players with an 86.7 total QBR, behind only Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Alabama’s Bryce Young.
Oregon coach Dan Lanning, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator last season, knows what kind of quarterback the Ducks are going to face on Saturday.
“Stetson exudes confidence, right? He’s a really confident player,” Lanning said this week. “He knows what he knows, he’s very intelligent. There’s not a throw he doesn’t feel like he can’t make and obviously he’s elusive, you know when he’s in the pocket and the way he’s able to move and extend plays.”
For the small segment of Georgia fans who might still believe the Bulldogs won it all because of their defense and in spite of their quarterback, Bennett can start trying to prove them wrong against the Ducks.
“People ask, ‘Do you play with a chip on your shoulder?'” Bennett said. “If you do, then that’s where that question [turns into] a question. If this guy can only be Superman when everyone thought he couldn’t be, what happens when everybody thinks he can? Can he have that extra edge?
“Good or bad, I really don’t worry what other people have to say,” Bennett said. “It all comes from within, because for me, I know what it feels like, and I know what it looks like to be good, and I want to be that. Myself, my teammates, we’re not trying to shut up the doubters, to prove everybody wrong. I take it how it comes. I wake up and try to be better than I was the previous day.”
And that’s probably a lot better than anyone else ever thought Bennett would be.