By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) — Get ready for another week of the Georgia Bulldogs playing: Who’s at quarterback?
Heading into a huge Southeastern Conference game between No. 4 Georgia and seventh-ranked Auburn, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is again taking a coy approach to who will get the start at the most prominent position on the field.
It may not really matter.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we can’t play multiple guys,” Smart said Monday. “I certainly think it’s easier when it’s one guy, in terms of continuity with your team and things like that. But we’ve got to do what gives us the best chance to win.”
Redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis started the season opener against Arkansas, but he was yanked after completing just 8 of 17 passes for 55 yards. Junior Stetson Bennett took over with the Bulldogs — a 28-point favorite — stunningly trailing the Razorbacks.
Bennett sparked the offense in the second half, finishing 20 of 29 for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Georgia rallied for a 37-10 victory.
Off that performance, it might seem like a no-brainer for Bennett to get the starting the nod against Auburn (1-0). But the Bulldogs have never thought of the former walk-on as a long-term option at quarterback, and Smart isn’t about to give up on Mathis so quickly.
Further adding to the intrigue, Smart revealed Monday that transfer JT Daniels, who formerly started at Southern Cal, has finally been cleared to play after recovering from a serious knee injury.
Mathis and Daniels got most of the work with the first team during preseason practices.
“I thought Stetson did a good job when he came in,” Smart said. “He had good composure, he handled the pocket well, he handled the protections well. Stetson has seen a lot of football in his time.”
After watching the film, Smart insisted that Mathis’ performance wasn’t as poor as the numbers might have indicated.
“D’Wan did a lot of good things,” the coach said. “It’s not his fault a play got called back for holding. It’s not his fault a guy missed a pick-up on third down — and he almost turned that into a first down. He did a lot of good things early on there, but we just never could put good things back to back.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn shrugged off the uncertainty of playing a team still sorting out its quarterback position.
“Each quarterback is probably a little bit different,” he said. “It’s kind of like playing a first game … we’re just going to have to adjust and be ready to make changes if needed as the game goes on.”
The Bulldogs were counting on Jamie Newman, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, to bring some stability to the quarterback position for at least one year.
But, just a few weeks before the opener, Newman opted out because of COVID-19 concerns. Daniels has been able to take part in most of the practice drills, but his recuperation from a knee injury that kept him out most of last season at Southern Cal prevented him from taking any contact.
With that no longer an issue, Smart isn’t ready to just hand the job to Daniels, who was one of the nation’s most highly recruited quarterbacks coming out of high school and just the second true freshman to start his first college game for the Trojans.
“JT will be cleared, but I don’t know how much that changes the picture in terms of reps and development,” Smart said. “We will be looking at everybody across the board. JT has got to be able to show us that he can function efficiently and do it with his knee being able to do it.”
Smart said he’s not just looking at the next game when he decides who to send in at quarterback.
“I know you all are looking at it in terms of Auburn,” he told reporters. “We’re trying to look at our entire roster and say, ‘How are we going to be the best we can be in week two, three, four, five, six, down the line?’
“There are some guys on our team that are going to be better down the line than maybe the guy in front of them, but the only way they’re going to get there is through playing.”
While Smart would surely prefer to nail down a starter, he also seems content to let this issue ride for a few more games — maybe even longer.
“If that’s one guy, two guys, we’re not putting ourselves in a pigeonhole, saying we can only have one quarterback,” he said. “We’ve got to develop all of our quarterbacks.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Montgomery, Alabama contributed to this report.