Young and Bennett take different paths to CFP Stadium

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Alabama’s Bryce Young and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett both traded in 2018. One got a lot more attention than the other.

Already a famous quarterback prospect before his freshman year of high school, Young made headlines in Southern California when he decided to hang out with powerhouse Mater Dei. There, he would replace five-star recruit JT Daniels, who had decided to skip his senior year and enroll early at USC.

As for Bennett, after spending 2017 leading the scout team in Georgia, he moved on to Jones County Junior College near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He threw 16 touchdown passes and led the Bobcats to a 10-2 record.

While Young seemed destined to be a Heisman Trophy winner since college, Bennett seemed better suited to the Sun Belt than the Southeastern Conference — even when he returned to Georgia as a scholarship winner in 2019.

On Monday night, the former five-star and former extra arrive at the same destination when Alabama’s No. 1 takes on Georgia’s No. 3 in the College Football Playoff Championship game.

At a time when national championship contenders are more likely than ever to have elite NFL quarterback prospects — from Deshaun Watson to Joe Burrow to Mac Jones — Bennett’s run as a that QB1 for Georgia was one of the most surprising stories of the season.

“Stetson is a resilient kid,” Georgia All-America defensive tackle Jordan Davis said Saturday.

Graduating from Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Georgia, a small town in the southeast of the state, Bennett’s scholarship offers ranged from Mercer to Middle Tennessee State.

Instead, he marched to Georgia, where his most notable rookie moment was playing Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in the Bulldogs’ Rose Bowl build-up.

“I don’t rely too much on that experience,” Bennett said. ”I didn’t expect to play.”

With the arrival of another five-star quarterback to Georgia, Justin Fields, in 2018, Bennett transferred to junior college.

Taking the bus to games in Mississippi is a far cry from playing for the No. 1 team in the nation, but many high-caliber players go through these JUCOs.

Jones’ coach Steve Buckley said the team Bennett played on had eight defensive players who eventually signed with the Power Five schools.

Buckley said Bennett was still recovering from a shoulder injury when he arrived at Jones and didn’t start pitching in practice until the Tuesday before Game 1.

Knocking down the rust, Bennett completed 55% of his passes and threw 14 interceptions that season. Still, he showed enough potential to attract FBS scholarship offers and he was headed for Louisiana-Lafayette until Georgia came in late.

The Bulldogs needed a replacement for Jake Fromm after Fields’ transfer and familiarity with Bennett made him a safe bet.

“I said don’t think about it,” Buckley said of Georgia’s offer. ”Absolutely not.”

It wasn’t that Buckley didn’t think Bennett could play at Georgia. The coach was skeptical whether Bennett would get a legitimate opportunity against higher rated players.

“So what do you want for next year?” Buckley remembers asking Bennett. “Do you want to go play or do you want to be on a team?”

Fromm left after the 2019 season, but it looked like Buckley’s concerns for Bennett would become a reality. Georgia brought two transfers in 2020: Jamie Newman from Wake Forest and Daniels from USC.

But Newman pulled out of the pandemic-altered season and Daniels’ injuries created opportunities for Bennett, who took them despite doubters.

“That’s the nature of the beast. You’re either the hero or a zero,” Bennett said.

There was never any doubt about Young’s ability.

Young began taking lessons from a professional quarterback coach at age 5, aligning himself with players who were three or four years older than him.

“I had to beg (coach) and say, ‘Look, he’s super mature,'” Bryce’s father Craig Young said.

Bryce Young played for one of Pop Warner California’s most prestigious teams, the IE Ducks, and received his first scholarship offer as an eighth-year coach at the then Texas Tech , Kliff Kingsbury.

“It was a huge blessing,” Young said Saturday. “It has kind of become a reality that I will be able to play football at the top level.”

Young became one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits at Mater Dei, a school that produced former USC quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley. When Young opted out of USC and returned to Alabama, it was national news.

When he arrived in Tuscaloosa, it was fair to wonder — as many have — if Young could beat Mac Jones and start as a freshman.

Young found himself sitting behind Jones, who led the Crimson Tide to the national championship last year and became a first-round pick and starting rookie for the New England Patriots.

Young slipped into the starting job with ease this season, becoming the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman and leading the Tide back to the title game.

Although their experiences have been very different, Bennett and Young share at least two obvious traits. Both are undersized, listed at 5-foot-11 and under 200 pounds. More importantly, they are both convinced that they are exactly where they are meant to be.

Even if one of them took a most unusual route to get there.

“It’s not ignorant confidence, like I believe I can do anything,” Bennett said. “But I believe I can play football very well, and it’s thanks to the work I’ve put in over the last few years that I’ve played football.”

Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll

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