By Sarah Bahr | @smbahr14
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES — When freshman Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm takes the field New Year’s Day in Rose Bowl Stadium to the roar of thousands of screaming fans, he doesn’t expect to feel nervous.
Pitching in front of 30,000 fans in the Little League World Series tends to do that for you.
A two-sport athlete at Houston County High School, Fromm may be the first World Series participant to start in the Rose Bowl. (USC quarterback Matt Cassel played in the 1994 Series and was on the Trojan roster for the 2004 Rose Bowl win over Michigan, but didn’t start.)
Fromm’s 2011 squad from Warner Robins, Georgia came within two games of reaching the national championship. The Georgia quarterback showed he has a golden arm in more than one sport, firing fastball after fastball on national television and striking out 11 of 18 hitters he faced in four LLWS games. He wasn’t bad in the batter’s box either, launching three homers and recording eight runs batted in.
That experience helped prepare Fromm for the moment that changed his brief college career and Georgia’s football season, the third offensive possession in the first quarter of the opening game against Appalachian State, when Georgia’s starting sophomore quarterback, Jacob Eason, limped to the sideline after being hit by Mountaineers defensive tackle Myquon Stout.
Eason, who had been named to the pre-season watch lists for the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards, was out with a sprained left knee.
Fromm’s immediate task?
“I had to find my helmet,” he said.
Fromm had also found an opportunity, and Eason had lost his starting job.
Fromm showed himself to be a more-than-capable replacement, engineering a 31-10 Georgia victory while completing 10 of 15 passes for 143 yards, sans any sacks, fumbles or interceptions.
If Fromm keeps playing the way he has this season — a 63 percent completion rate, the winner of 12 of 13 games, owner of a Southeastern Conference Championship, a Rose Bowl berth and a chance to win a national title in Atlanta – he could take his place in Georgia history. Just as Herschel Walker led another group of Bulldogs to the 1980 championship.
Doing his homework — even before knowing the due date.
“When I get the most nervous is when I don’t prepare,” Fromm said. “But this season, I think I’ve prepared more than any freshman quarterback, or any quarterback in the country.”
Fromm’s head coach isn’t surprised that coming up on the biggest start of his life, his freshman quarterback is oozing confidence.
“There has not been a moment that’s been too big for Jake Fromm since he’s been a little kid,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart told the Macon Telegraph after Fromm stepped in for the injured Eason Sept. 2. “He’s always been that way.”
Can Fromm become the first true-freshman quarterback to lead a national championship team since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in the 1986 Orange Bowl?
Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy thinks he’s up to the task.
“When you see how the guy prepares, you don’t worry at all,” Bellamy said. “That guy is different.”
Still, singular or not, what oddsmaker would take Fromm over Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning quarterback, Baker Mayfield?
Mayfield has nearly double Fromm’s total passing yards this season — 4,340 compared to 2,173 — and 41 passing touchdowns to Fromm’s 21.
While Mayfield was running past Auburn, 35-19, in last year’s Sugar Bowl, Fromm was sitting on the couch at home in Warner Robins, watching on television.
The matchup is far more complex, partly because of Georgia’s game-wrecking tailback tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
The two have racked up 2,123 yards and 26 touchdowns this season as part of a Georgia offense that averages 263.5 rushing yards per game, somewhat sheltering Fromm from the possibility of rookie mistakes such as the fumble against Notre Dame in his first start Sept. 9.
“I remember Notre Dame, having that fumble in the middle of the game, and I had to own up to it,” Fromm said. “Just kind of come back from it.”
Georgia went on to inch by the Irish, 20-19. Fromm passed for 141 yards, going 16 for 29 with one touchdown.
The Notre Dame game might’ve been the moment Fromm nabbed national notice, but his teammates aren’t surprised by his rapid ascension.
“He’s a natural leader,” Georgia senior tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “He’d challenge guys, he’d step up, and he’s the same guy you see now as he was when he came in the door.”
It’s not just his teammates that are high on Fromm.
“He has our trust,” Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “He’s a heck of a good football player. He’s grown at a rate that a lot of freshmen don’t.”
Fromm is as surprised as anyone at the way this season has played out.
“If you would have told me the way it was written, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. “But I’m extremely thankful at how it’s worked out.”
Fromm said his biggest challenge initially was settling into his new role as a locker room leader.
“Just a little bit of, just kind of feeling like you don’t belong,” he said.
Then he grinned.
“But, man, I haven’t had that feeling in an extremely long time.”
As the Bulldogs faced the media in a hotel ballroom, Fromm did not receive the star treatment, the podiums reserved for high-profile veterans. The only sign of his relevance was a piece of adhesive tape on the edge of a table with JAKE FROMM written on it.
There was no tape to reserve a place for Eason. He stood not far away, politely answering questions about his status. “It is what it is,” Eason said. “I’m a team player. I’m celebrating with the guys, too.”
Smart has often commended Eason’s handling of what he acknowledges is a tough situation.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” Smart told the website Dawg Nation in September. “He’s very mature. He’s handling things the right way.”
Eason’s maturity has not gone unnoticed among his Georgia teammates.
“He could have done one of two things,” Blazevich said. “He could have done the right thing, which is to be a great teammate, or he could have been selfish and started to pout like, ‘Well, this isn’t fair, I got injured.’ But he did the right thing, he did the unselfish thing, and he’s still going out there and competing every day.”
For now, Eason seems content to live in Fromm’s shadow for the good of the team. “Of course I’d love to be starting,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”
But Eason insists there’s no clash between the road-trip roommates.
“We get along great,” Eason said, and then he backtracked.
“Well, I snore,” he said. “And I sleep in. [Fromm] wakes me up.”
Fromm is equally effusive about Eason.
“Jacob, man, he’s been incredible,” Fromm said. “He’ll help me out on film, he’s always there on the sideline when I come off from a drive, telling me what kind of looks we saw. I couldn’t ask for anything better from him.”
With his status for next season up in the air, Eason is unconcerned. He studies film. He helps Fromm diagnose plays.
And come Monday, he’ll be cheering for his teammate to outwit the Oklahoma defense in a battle of alpha units.
But he’ll be staying loose on the sideline, just in case.
“Like Coach Chaney preaches, you’re one play away, just like what happened to me,” Eason told Dawg Nation Dec. 2. “That’s why you have to stay in the game plan, stay alert in practice, take every rep seriously. That moment, I doubt if it will come. I hope it doesn’t come.
“But if it does, I’ll be ready.”