— -- ATHENS, Ga. -- New Georgia head coach Kirby Smart is taking it upon himself to divert some of the towering expectations being dumped on freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
With Georgia in need of vastly improved quarterback play and Eason enrolling early as the nation's No. 1-rated pocket passer, Smart wants to take as much pressure off Eason as possible as he transitions from the high school level to college this spring.
"The pressure's not on Jacob," Smart said during his national signing day news conference on Wednesday, "the pressure's on me. I'm the first-year head coach. The pressure's on me and [offensive coordinator] coach [Jim] Chaney to protect him. There's no pressure on him, no expectations for him.
"We don't want him coming in thinking that he's gotta win this job. There are some other guys here, too, who played some football last year. We have to find what's the best remedy for our offense, and that will be very important at spring practice. To say that it all falls on Jacob -- I don't think that's the case. I would rather take that burden myself."
Eason, who threw for 3,585 yards with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions as a senior at Lake Stevens High School in Lake Stevens, Washington, has been given savior-like status from fans and has been viewed by many recruiting analysts as one of the most college-ready prospects in the 2016 class. The 2015-16 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year has become the early favorite to win Georgia's starting job with embattled senior Greyson Lambert and little-used Brice Ramsey returning.
While Lambert, who transferred from Virginia last summer as a graduate student, went 10-2 as a starter for the Bulldogs in 2015, his inconsistency in SEC play hurt Georgia, especially in losses to Alabama and Tennessee. He was later benched in favor of third-string quarterback Faton Bauta in Georgia's 27-3 loss to Florida that essentially eliminated the Bulldogs in the SEC Eastern Division race.
Eason understands that he is being put on a rather tall pedestal, but he embraces expectations and isn't shy about wanting to be Georgia's starter for the season opener against North Carolina.
"That's everybody's goal," Eason said. "That would be my goal, but obviously Greyson and Brice ... are great quarterbacks in their own respective games. I want to learn from them. I want to learn from all the coaches and buy into the system, and whatever happens will happen. I'll be happy either way."
Georgia headed into the evening with the nation's No. 7 recruiting class with 19 players signed largely because Eason stayed committed to Georgia, even after longtime coach Mark Richt was fired following the end of the regular season. Eason said there were stressful moments during Georgia's coaching search, but even though he officially visited both Florida and Washington, Eason said he "wasn't that close at all" to wavering on his commitment.
With Eason reaffirming his commitment to Georgia shortly after Smart was hired, the Bulldogs gained some positive momentum in not only trying to add new prospects but also in keeping most of their committed prospects solid with their pledges.
"Keeping Jacob a part of this class was critical," Smart said. "It showed momentum. It should confidence in our program as the University of Georgia."
Though Smart wants to protect Eason the best he can -- both on and off the field -- he said Georgia's staff is "holding him to a high expectation as a leader on this team." The wheels are in motion for Eason to be the face and future of this program, but Smart doesn't want to burn his young quarterback out before he even has a chance to prove himself.
"As a young guy I'm gonna want to live up to being the great quarterback, but that's a long shot," Eason said. "I'm gonna be the guy to come in and work my hardest to do the best I can to fill my potential. I look at the expectations and they're great and people have high hopes for me and I'm going to do the best I can to fulfill them. Lot of hard work from here."