Jacob Eason, UGA and the Emergency Brake

LAKE STEVENS, Wash. - It was a sensation Jacob Eason had never felt before.

As Eason eased into his driveway following a Wednesday night practice, the brakes failed on his 1980 Mercedes sedan. Rolling down his sloped driveway without breaks head-on into the family garage isn’t an ideal way to get ready for a playoff game. Eason, who is not used to even tapping the brakes while on the gridiron, downshifted his manual-transmission car, and then used the emergency break for its exact purpose - an emergency.

“The breaks just gave out,” he said. “I just sort of made it happen on the fly I guess.”

Eason had to make it happen on the fly, or perhaps wind up the captain of a boat with wheels in Lake Stevens itself. Needless to say, Eason wasn’t interested in that happening for a lot of obvious reasons, but mainly because he really loves his vintage car — a vehicle that won’t be making the 2,727-mile trip to Athens, Georgia in a few weeks.

“My car is a little bit older than me,” Eason admitted. “Its original. I don’t think I have seen anyone at my high school with a car like me. It’s not the fastest thing. That’s probably the reason my dad got it.”

“Exactly. We got it on purpose,” his father Tony said. “I think it goes from zero to 60 in about 30 seconds.”

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The brakes failing last week was a metaphor of sorts for the recruiting world of Jacob Eason the first week of November. He committed to Georgia in the summer of 2014 — picking the Bulldogs over virtually every school in the country. He connected with coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

A lot has changed since Eason committed.

Last winter Bobo left to coach Colorado State. After years of stability, this fall the Bulldogs have struggled to find a quarterback to provide them with an offensive spark — or in some instances, one that could throw for 100 yards in a game. Georgia is on pace for the fewest yards passing in a season since a 4-7 season in 1990. After the 20-13 win over Auburn on Nov. 14 where the defense and special teams set up or scored ten points, Richt admitted the Bulldogs “have tried to realize who we are right now is a team that’s got to grind it out,” to score points on offense.

This isn’t the Georgia of old when scoring over 35 a game was common. Fans, and perhaps coaches too, are looking for light at the end of the tunnel, and (right or wrong) Eason is the focus of their optimism. That’s a lot of pressure for a teenager who will arrive in Athens not only as a cultural newcomer to the South, but a true freshman quarterback with giant expectations on his shoulders from Day One.

“I talked to Coach Richt on the phone recently about the pressure,” Eason said. “With social media these days, and the spot that I am in with everything blowing up — and it isn’t anywhere like it is going to be when I am in Athens — I see a little bit what it is like. I am kind of an easy guy. I can brush some of it off, but it will be eye opening when I get down there. But I am excited to see what’s going on.”

One former starting quarterback at Georgia told me about Eason’s situation: “The easiest and probably best way for him to develop and get used to things is to take a year and redshirt. Learn the system. Learn about college. Learn where everything is. But everyone is seeing him as the messiah. That’s really dangerous for these kids. I know how that can get. It is asking a lot.”

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Many see Eason as the key who will unlock the door that leads the Bulldogs to their first national title since 1980 — that pressure has not gone unnoticed by Eason’s family — particularly his mother Christine, who, understandably and naturally, wants only the best for her youngest son.

“She’s going to be the one who is hardest to let go of,” Eason said. “My dad has done this already — going away for school. I have a strong relationship with my mom, and she will get emotional about me leaving.

“Oh, she cries all of the time,” Tony said with laugh. “We are helping her through it.”

“We will have our time,” Eason said of his relationship with his mother. “And it will be fun. We have a relationship from when I grew up, and that will still be strong.”

The first week of November must have made Christine concerned and nervous in a way that she had not been before. Rumors of infighting amongst the Georgia staff prompted many to question whether Richt would remain coach much longer. The off-the-field kerfuffles at Georgia were one thing, but Lake Stevens’ (where Eason had guided the Vikings to an undefeated season) state playoff appearance was front and center in the Easons’ minds. The week was already going to be full of the natural anxiety to win (both at Lake Stevens and at Georgia), but the goings on in Athens added unneeded worry.

After a 27-3 defeat to rival Florida, Georgia’s coaching staff came under scrutiny like never before. Pressure to fire Richt was at a fever pitch. Any move Eason made — like following Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on Twitter — was considered newsworthy enough to be reported by some outlets in today’s fast-moving recruiting world.

“Who reports about someone following someone else on Twitter?” said one of the folks in Eason’s camp.

The answer to that is today’s media, which has become consumed more than ever before with recruiting news. Right or wrong, news about Jacob Eason, specifically, equals eyeballs, and eyeballs equal dollar bills. For instance, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is paying a local videographer $200 a week to video Eason’s games every Friday. Recruiting is big business, and right now Eason seems to be the prize pig on that front — not only because of his talent, but because of perceived uncertainty at Georgia.

“It just makes you want to be aware of what you put on your twitter and who you follow,” Eason said of the matter. “I didn’t even know people looked at that stuff.”

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Eason’s father Tony found the entire discussion of who his son does or does not follow on Twitter overblown: “Jake has known Nussmeier since before he was fired at Michigan. There’s really nothing to it.”

And that theme continued all week — Jacob Eason was going to Georgia. Period. Things can change — no question, but in the time I spent in the Pacific Northwest, I could not get a single person to tell me that Eason was going to play football anywhere other than Georgia.

The prospect, his father, his coaches — no one said Eason would play football anywhere other than Georgia. In fact, it was puzzling to figure out which school would even be the No. 2 on Eason’s list. Talking about the runner up school was going down a rabbit hole of “That wouldn’t work”, or “No, not that guy. No, not that school.”

Questions? They did come up — no doubt about it. What would happen if Brian Schottenheimer was fired or left? Who would be brought in to take over the offense? Would Eason be counted on to come in and start right away, or would he be allowed time to grow into himself and the new situation he was in?

What would happen if Richt was pushed out or retired? Who would replace him? That seemed to be the only question that mattered the most — even if the odds that Richt would be terminated or retired were low. It sure seemed that if Richt was there Eason was nearly a certainty to play for the veteran coach. Even if Richt were no longer the coach, the Bulldogs might still have a good shot to land Eason so long as an option-based offense wasn’t put in place, but it wouldn’t be a slam dunk — new questions would have to be answered.

But, again, that seemed like another rabbit hole, and Eason isn’t Alice in Wonderland. All of the noise in the air taken into consideration — Georgia was the place for Eason; that seemed clear.

That’s a remarkable statement about the brand name that Georgia is, and how much a draw Richt is to players across the country. It also speaks to the sort of relationship Eason has with offensive lineman Ben Cleveland and several other players who will join him in Athens, some who have not gone on the record publicly with their commitment.

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“I just tell them how I feel about Georgia, which is really good obviously,” Eason said. “I try to build a relationship with those guys, throw some jokes here and there, try to dig deep with them, too, as a person — not just football. I am going to be spending four years with some of these guys. That’s the big thing — some of these guys will be in my life for the rest of my life.”

Eason’s parents, both natives of the Pacific Northwest, said the decision for Jacob to play at Georgia is as much about him growing as a person as well as a player. Georgia’s pro-style system is used by most NFL teams. The competition in the SEC has been the best in the country for some time.

“This is about Jake growing,” Tony said. “We don’t want things to be easy for him. It is about him being challenged. There’s a lot he’s going to have to learn by going down there — not just about football, either.”

On the football field there will be significant challenges for Eason. Yes, he’s got elite arm talent. He’s considered one of the top players in the country by Scout and the No. 2 signal caller in the land. Lake Stevens runs a spread system — not a pro-style system. Lake Stevens, too, had not been confronted with a fourth-quarter game the entire regular season.

“Getting under center, identifying everyone and making calls at the line of scrimmage — that’s all going to be new for him,” former Washington Huskies offensive lineman and NFL veteran Jeff Pahukoa said after Wednesday night’s practice. “That’s really going to be the challenge for him, and if we are being honest, that is a real challenge, but I think he can do it.”

Tony said that his son practices all sorts of throws to get ready for playing in college. He also practices some throws that he uses today that he will have to get rid of in the future — including some off his incorrect foot. Pahukoa says Eason has been throwing that way out of necessity, and he takes the blame.

“We really can’t give him a pocket,” Pahukoa, who coaches the offensive line at Lake Stevens, said. “Its really our fault. We can’t protect him the way we need to. Some of the time he’s forced to throw it that way. But when he gets to Georgia that’s the sort of thing that he’s going to get out of the habit of. He’s going to have to live in the pocket and make decisions in there.”

Anyone watching Lake Stevens play will notice how much the Vikings move Eason around, allowing him to take advantage of his ability to sprint out and use his arm talent. Eason, like most high school quarterbacks with major arm talent, makes mistakes in judgement. He should have had two balls picked off in the second quarter of the Vikings’ first playoff game, but escaped those moments. He ended the night with five touchdowns and two interceptions. 

Eason has been judicious with the ball this season, his coaches say, but often the growth of a quarterback is a painful and public thing. Interceptions and bad decisions are part of development — it is a concept fans have a hard time accepting.

Still, Eason’s play in the first quarter — with laser-like throws into the end zone and a deep ball that was impressive — is what college coaches drool over. Only after receivers had several unexpected drops did Eason start pressing and making mistakes.

“We’ve not had a lot of guys around here like him,” Lake Stevens head coach Tom Tri said of his quarterback.

That’s certainly an understatement, and that’s one reason local programs like Washington and Washington State were eager to make sure the lanky (6-6, 215) prospect knew that they wanted him. The Huskies, who have been what was described by those close to the Eason camp as “slow” with their recruitment of him, sent him a letter outlining the success in-state players have had in going on to the NFL after playing at home compared to those who left the state and never went on to play professionally.

It was a to-the-point recruiting pitch — stay and play in the NFL or leave and you might not know what will happen.

Leaving home, however, isn’t new to the Eason family. Jacob’s father left the area to play tight end for Lou Holtz and Notre Dame in the 1980s. His game-worn Notre Dame helmet is one of many athletic goodies around the house. Photos of the Easons' three children line the halls of the downstairs of their home. Football, volleyball, baseball and wrestling — sports is the main theme running in each captured moment.

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Jacob, who follows a game-day routine on Fridays, had a busy week running up to the first playoff game. Practices were held each day after school. It gets dark early in the Seattle area, so the team often works with the sun setting midway through practice and with a mix of rap and country music over the PA system at the high school. Eason, with good energy on Wednesday night, bopped up and down with the music when he liked the song. Washington’s massive and often snow-capped mountains surround the high school were covered by mist and fog, which is common this time of year. The coaches seemed to be excited that the “rain season” hadn’t started quite yet — a phenomenon where it can rain much of the week for the winter and much of spring.

“You are lucky,” Tony said of the early November week. “No rain yet. It really has been pretty nice for this time of the year.”

The temperature was in the low 50s when he said that without an ounce of sarcasm in his voice.

The Vikings gathered in the east end zone to wrap up Wednesday night’s practice. Although it was just before 6 p.m., it had been dark for some time. It was easy to see heat come from players’ heads as moisture escaped into the atmosphere.

“Look guys tomorrow is a big night,” Tri said to his undefeated Vikings. “It is senior speeches. Seniors know what you are going to say to the team. Guys — I want you to know that this could be an emotional thing.”

Tony, with his role as the coach of the defensive backs for the Vikings, would be there for the senior speeches. Christine would miss it in order to support her daughter Lilly, who was trying to win a region title in volleyball.

In many ways the journey that is football has very much been a father-son phenomenon for Jacob and Tony. More than a decade ago, Tony would wait for the school bus with his youngest son and play catch.

“Dad has been there ever since I can remember when I was little,” Eason said of his father. “Even before I could understand what he was trying to do at that point — I was just throwing the ball around — he was looking right into the build-it-right perspective, and obviously that has worked out with the situation I am in now, and I could not be more thankful for that.”

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Eason said he knew what he would say during his senior speech.

“It has gone by fast — that’s one of the things I am going to say,” he said. “I am going to talk about growing up with some of these guys and being on the same team. I’m going to talk about going out with my dad as one of my coaches. I am sure it will get real emotional.”

The team would gather at a local buffet. The rules were simple: eat all you want, “but no pop. only water.”

Perhaps we will know Jacob Eason has fully assimilated into SEC life when he calls any soft drink “Coke” like a real Southerner. That might be the final step on the road to being a big-time SEC signal caller.

That Friday night, Eason and Lake Stevens took the field as favorites in the first round of the state playoffs. The Tahoma Bears took a quick 3-0 lead, but Eason and company got rolling to a 13-3 lead. The Bears scored once before before the Vikings, led by Eason’s five touchdown passes and 287 yards passing, scored 48 unanswered points to win 61-10.

“Touchdown thrown by Skinny Eason,” rattled the PA announcer five times that night. Nicknames are OK to use in a tight-nit community like Lake Stevens. The Vikings and their powerful quarterback had more than enough in the tank to take care of business on the field that night. It wrapped up a week of wondering what the future would be like.

Of the off-the-field questions surrounding the chaos at Georgia that week, Eason said he woke up on Thursday of that week to “at least 15 text messages” about what was going on at the school he was committed to. On a typical Thursday the rest of the fall Eason said he usually had none.

“Obviously not as much was going down,” those weeks, he said. “It has just been pretty eye opening how fast things can switch, and how fast rumors, that are false or not, can get out.”

It does appear, however, that Eason can roll with the punches. That’s the good news. Because life as a quarterback in today’s SEC doesn’t come with an emergency brake.

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