Billy Napier, who nearly coached Stetson Bennett, on UGA QB: 'The kid is living his dream'
Florida hired Billy Napier in hopes of eventually taking the Gators back to their glory days of winning big and lifting trophies like their rival Georgia did in January.
The new Gators football coach had a unique perspective of seeing the Bulldogs win the national title as former walk-on Stetson Bennett helped rally Georgia in the fourth quarter to the 33-18 win over Alabama.
The quarterback had committed to play for Napier at Louisiana before making a signing day switch and accepting a scholarship offer to Georgia in December of 2018.
“I’m watching that game and I’m like, man,” Napier said. “It’s who the guys is, right? He’s an underdog, he’s a competitor. I love his approach to life, his perspective. I’ve got a ton of respect.”
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Napier, a former Alabama and Clemson assistant, was finishing up his first season with the Ragin’ Cajuns when Bennett was set to join the fold. Bennett was Napier’s top recruiting quarterback target after Bennett finished a season at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss.
Georgia announced Bennett’s signing with an email to writers at 10:51 the night of Dec. 19, 2018 with a modest subject line: additional signee. It included a 281-word bio.
It came at the end of a signing day when coach Kirby Smart fielded numerous questions about freshman quarterback Justin Fields who was on the way out and ended up transferring to Ohio State.
Georgia flipped four-star Michigan quarterback D’Wan Mathis from Ohio State that morning but it also wanted Bennett to return.
“Would he be interested in coming back?” a staff member asked Bennett’s father.
“He wouldn’t be interested in coming back the way it was,” his father said nearly two years later. “Not on scout team. The kid knew he was good enough to start at the University of Georgia the day he stepped on the field.”
Things came together that day. Bennett’s father said he didn’t tell Stetson until that day that Georgia was offering him. Bennett had missed calls from Georgia coaches when he woke up that morning.
“We had to fight and scratch and claw to get him to come back, and I'm certainly glad we did,” Smart said after the Auburn win in 2020.
Bennett served as a backup to Jake Fromm in 2019 and after Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out before the 2020 season, the position was in flux again.
More:'One more, Stet!': The unbreakable bond between Stetson Bennett and friends from JUCO season
Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels wasn’t ready after recovering from a torn ACL. Mathis, not Bennett, started the 2020 opener but Bennett came off the bench to lead Georgia to the win at Arkansas.
“My goal was always to start here,” Bennett said in 2020. “That’s why I came here in the first place instead of taking the smaller offer where I probably could have started earlier. Come here to play football and hopefully win an SEC championship and a national championship for the Georgia Bulldogs.”
He'll take the big prize of the national title and can work on the SEC championship this season.
It was the night of the 2017 national title loss to Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium that Bennett spoke to his father about possibly going elsewhere.
He didn’t think he had anything to do with the result after serving as a scout team quarterback that season.
“I said son, we were close,” Stetson Bennett III said. “He said, ‘Well I didn’t have anything to do with it. I said, ‘Son, we’re not in this game without you.’ I said there’s no way we win the Rose Bowl or any of those games without you. You prepared the defense. He said, well I want to go play.”
Bennett stuck around until the end of spring practices.
He returned to Georgia and the Blackshear product went from backup, to starter to a third-stringer struggling to get meaningful practice reps to now a returning national championship starting quarterback after stepping in for an injured Daniels last season and holding onto the job during a 14-1 season that ended with the program’s first national title since 1980.
Napier and Louisiana became a top 25 ranked team with Levi Lewis at quarterback and they went 11-3, 10-1 and 12-1 together. He led the Lafayeschool to four Sun Belt West division titles during his four seasons and finished No. 15 in the AP poll in 2020.
Napier and the Gators will go up against Bennett and the Bulldogs on Oct. 29 in Jacksonville.
“I love Stetson Bennett, and I’m really happy for the kid,” Napier said. “The kid is living his dream. He got an opportunity that he cherished. It was really special to him. Nothing but respect for the kid, the family and I couldn’t be more happy for him.”