Jacob Eason charged through the tunnel at Sanford Stadium, heard the thunderous roar and momentarily succumbed to the sensory overload slicing through his helmet.
Just three months after graduating early from his suburban Seattle high school, Eason was about to play in the University of Georgia’s G-Day spring game — in front of a crowd three times the size of his hometown’s population.
Nearly 3,000 miles from home, the 18-year-old quarterback was already a household name among most Bulldogs fans in April of 2016, and the jam-packed stadium was crunk with anticipation as he took the field.
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"You go down to Georgia and the spring game has 93,000 people there and you’ve got Ludacris performing (before the game) — it’s like, What’s going on?" Eason recalled last week after a throwing session in Southern California, where he has been training for the NFL Scouting Combine since early January. "I mean, it’s nuts. The Georgia fan base is insane. It was a scrimmage, really, and you couldn’t tell from the fan base if we were playing Alabama at home or if we were playing against each other. They’ve got the red and black on, they’ve got the whole ‘Dawg Nation’ with the spiked pads and everything, and it’s just loud. I remember running onto the field and the fans going crazy."
Eason, a five-star recruit from Lake Stevens, Washington, who less than five months later would become the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs since Matthew Stafford, soaked it all up and smiled. As Ludacris might have put it:
Wanna hang with the big boys and play with the big toys
And be with the people makin’ all that got damn noise, man
He has been through a lot in the ensuing four years, including a pair of quarterback competitions, a horribly timed injury and a transfer back to the Pacific Northwest, but Eason remains a captivating case study as he attempts to take his tantalizing talent to the next level. After a strong junior season at the University of Washington, Eason declared for the NFL draft, joining a much-hyped quarterback crop that includes Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU, former Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa and ex-Oregon standout Justin Herbert.
On Thursday night in Indianapolis, when the 6-foot-6, 227-pounder takes the field with the other quarterbacks for throwing (and other) drills at Lucas Oil Stadium, there will be far less noise than there was during that G-Day game four years ago — but a whole lot of discerning and influential eyeballs will be watching and judging.
"The guy can drop f—— dimes," an NFC general manager said. "He’s an extremely talented passer, and he’s gonna rise up the board as the draft gets closer, because people are gonna look at his build and see him throw and go, ‘Where (else) am I gonna get a guy like that?’ "
Said an AFC team’s GM: "He’s a big guy who’s athletic with good arm strength, and he can make all the throws. It would’ve helped him to stay in school another year — there’d be less uncertainty — but I could see teams liking his traits and projecting him as someone they could develop into a starter."
Beginning in Indy, and throughout the pre-draft process, Eason expects to face an ample amount of scrutiny. From his reputation as a partier (earned, he concedes, during his early years at Georgia) to his ability to process opposing defensive alignments to demeanor, footwork and work ethic, Eason will try to assuage the concerns of potential suitors and fight his way into the first round — perhaps even the top half of the first round.
"I think some guys will want to see him have some fire to him, but there are different ways to succeed," said former Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach and Arizona Cardinals QB Ryan Lindley, who is working with Eason and other Rep 1 Sports clients during this draft-prep cycle. "In some ways it comes off like it’s always come easy to him — that’s because he throws it so well and is a smart football player. And he’s been exposed to so much that nothing flusters him."
Eason, who became Georgia’s starter in his second game as a true freshman, went 7-5 in 2016. The next year, after beating out incoming freshman Jake Fromm in a preseason competition, Eason knew he had a chance to do something special with a stacked Bulldogs squad — but he went down with a knee injury early in the season opener against Appalachian State, suffering a torn lateral collateral ligament that kept him sidelined for several weeks. By the time he returned, Georgia was rolling with Fromm under center, and Eason remained on the bench as the Bulldogs reached the national championship game, suffering a heartbreaking overtime defeat to Tagovailoa and SEC rival Alabama.
With Fromm now cemented as the incumbent starter, Eason elected to transfer after the season, returning home to Washington. While sitting out the 2018 season, as per NCAA rules, Eason said he gained a renewed appreciation for the game. As senior Jake Browning closed out his career as a four-year starter, guiding the Huskies to a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance, Eason immersed himself in helping his team prepare during the week.
"It was another one of those things where it’s like, ‘OK, I can’t play on Saturdays, but I gotta figure out how to keep that competitive edge,’ " Eason said. "So I was actually the scout team quarterback, which was very new and unique ’cause I’d never done that before. At the end of the year, I was the Scout Team Player of the Year, nominated by the players and coaches. It was awesome. I was able to go out there and just cut it loose. And that’s where the love of the game just kinda all comes together."
By then, Eason had settled into a collegiate existence far less conspicuous than the one he enjoyed at Georgia.
"Obviously, looking back now, there are a lot of things that you realize were immature, as an 18-year-old," Eason conceded. "At the time, it was, ‘Oh yeah, I can handle this. I’m a big boy now. I’m a college kid.’ But yeah, looking back on it now, there were times I was definitely immature. Just getting down there and playing, especially in that conference and at that age, it was a lot.
"That’s where a lot of the questions get raised as to the party side and the fun side of college. I wasn’t fully aware of the cell phones and the Snapchats and the videos and the social media. Until I actually set foot on campus and went out with my guys and started enjoying my college life, I wasn’t aware of the repercussions. The amount of rumors that would fly around — girls saying things, guys saying things. I’m sitting in class and I get a message popping up on my phone, somebody popping off about something I did, and I look and I’ve never seen this person before.
"I was just hanging out with my guys, and people would get mad because I wouldn’t want to take a picture with them. But after awhile, I’m trying to play a game of pool and I got a line of people trying to get a picture. I just kinda wanted to fit in and be myself. I’m 6-6, my hair was down to my shoulders, so I kinda stuck out — and the guys I was out with were my teammates who were also tall. And the fan base is so into it: It was like an NBA team walking into a random bar."
For what it’s worth, numerous NFL coaches and talent evaluators say they don’t view Eason’s past partying exploits as a serious concern. "He partied hard early, but he has matured," said the head coach of an NFC team likely to draft a quarterback. "I really like him."
While Eason’s social profile was far lower at Washington, he developed a new stigma: Some observers felt that, compared to the highly detailed Browning, Eason short-changed his preparation.
"There’s people questioning the party-boy side of me and all those things (from the Georgia years), and there’s the questions that arose comparing my work ethic with Jake Browning’s," Eason said. "A lot of that stems from the way we approach things, and the comfort level we have with our strengths. I wouldn’t say I worked any less hard than Browning did in terms of film work and on the field. I think that we both knew our strengths and weaknesses, and Browning did what he needed to do to get ready for Saturday, and I did exactly what I needed to do to get ready. I got to the point where I was extremely comfortable with everything going on and what I could do. Everybody’s different. Some people question the work ethic, but I busted my ass and put everything into these programs."
Since early January, Eason has been grinding away in Orange County, trying to fine-tune his footwork ("He needs to clean it up a little," said an AFC GM), enhance his football IQ and learn to show off his arm strength without over-throwing. Said an AFC offensive coordinator: "He may have to speed up his post-snap processing, going through his progressions … but he has very good fundamentals, and man, can he sling it."
If the 22-year-old Eason puts it all together, he likely won’t regret passing up the chance to return for his senior season.
"I thought he should have stayed, to get another year of playing experience under his belt," said the NFC GM. "But because of his skills, he’s gonna get drafted high. It’s not fair to him to make these comparisons, but the same thing happened with guys like Christian Ponder, Jake Locker and Brady Quinn — because of the dearth of talent at the position, talented dudes get snapped up early."
For now, with Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert all projected to go in the top 10, Eason is part of a second tier that includes Utah State’s Jordan Love and, yes, Georgia’s Fromm.
"Jake’s a great guy and a great friend of mine," Eason said of his former teammate. "I look forward to seeing him and going out and competing again. It’s always a competition."
Except this time, when all is said and done, Ludacris won’t be the only performer getting paid.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.
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