SEC spotlight: Ranking the QB situations
From potential first-round NFL Draft picks to four-man competitions heading into preseason camp, the SEC features a wide disparity at the quarterback position. Here we break down where each team stands at quarterback and what their head coaches are saying about the position heading into the season.
Breakdown: The Razorbacks return the conference’s leading passer from 2016 in senior Austin Allen, who was one of two quarterbacks in the league to pass for more than 3,000 yards. Allen also had one of the conference’s best completion percentages (61.1) but also led the league in interceptions with 15. He will need to cut down that number but still figures to be near the top of the league’s passers again in 2017. Former Rivals250 quarterback Ty Storey is expected to be Allen’s backup.
Bret Beilema: “Austin has done some pretty good things. There's some things he has to do better. We had conversations about that. I wouldn't do anything but truly sit back and watch a guy that's going to be able to go to some heights that people never thought he would be able to do. In the end, he'll probably be the one smiling.”
Breakdown: Alabama comes into the year with Jalen Hurts as the established starter, a year after he helped the Tide get within one play of winning the national championship. Hurts took his share of criticism late in the season last year, but it’s easy to forget he was a true freshman going through his first year in college. Expect Hurts to be even better as a sophomore, with a pair of Rivals250 freshman in Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones serving as his backups.
Nick Saban: “Offensively, this is the first time that we've had a returning starter at quarterback since 2013, which creates the opportunity for that guy to develop in the things that he needs to do better, which Jalen has done a good job in the offseason of becoming a better passer, understanding the passing game better, and we have some good running backs, and we have some good receivers and skill guys, and the offensive line has developed nicely.”
Breakdown: The Gamecocks have one of the conference’s brightest young stars in sophomore Jake Bentley, who helped save South Carolina’s season after burning his redshirt midway through 2016. Bentley’s 65.8 completion percentage was tops in the league among starters and while he has a pretty limited resume, many are expecting him to take a leap forward and be even better in 2017. Redshirt junior Michael Scarnecchia is expected to serve as Bentley’s backup.
Will Muschamp: “I saw a guy go from August to September into October, continued to improve his skill set. And we were struggling offensively. And that was not on a quarterback position, that was multiple areas. But when he came in, he brought us a spark and a charge. To see him go through the offseason program to spring ball now into the summer, really understands how to be a quarterback. And that's what excites me.”
Breakdown: Mississippi State returns one of the conference’s most versatile weapons at quarterback in Nick Fitzgerald, who finished 2016 just 12 yards behind LSU running back Derrius Guice in the race for the conference rushing title. The former two-star recruit is also a pretty good passer, but will need to be more efficient for the Bulldogs to bounce back from a down year in 2016. Behind Fitzgerald, talented freshman Keytaon Thompson should serve as a capable backup.
Dan Mullen: “The Nick part, you know, for him, it is the constant development of being a quarterback. Guys, if you look at skill sets, Nick's got size. I'm not going to make him any taller. He's got a great build at about 230 pounds to be a quarterback in this league. He's a great runner. And he's got a strong arm. So he has the skill set to do it.”
Breakdown: Despite all the off-field drama in Oxford, the Rebels still enter 2017 with one of the conference's most exciting playmakers at the quarterback position in former five-star Shea Patterson. After established starter Chad Kelly went down with an injury, Patterson burned his redshirt and an impressive playmaking ability that drew comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Patterson is now the face of the Ole Miss program and seems poised for a breakout year in 2017. Junior college transfer Jordan Ta’amu is expected to serve as Patterson’s backup.
Breakdown: The Dawgs have a stable situation at quarterback heading into the season with former five-star Jacob Eason entrenched as the main man in Athens. Eason showed flashes of the talent that made him one of the nation’s best high school players, but will need to take a step forward in 2017 for Georgia to reach its lofty goals. After a year of experience and a full offseason of development, expect Eason to be much more consistent this year. Five-star freshman Jake Fromm should serve as Eason’s backup.
Kirby Smart: “I'm really excited about Jacob Eason's growth, to watch him over the spring, the confidence he played in the system with, his ability to throw the ball and understand where pressure's coming from. He's grown tremendously. I think coach (Jim) Chaney has done a great job with him in this offseason making him realize his weaknesses and continue to work on those.”
Breakdown: Junior quarterback Drew Lock enters the year as the established starter in Columbia, coming off a 2016 season in which he quietly had one of the best years of any quarterback in the SEC. Lock was second in the league in total passing yards and third in touchdowns. But Missouri will need Lock to be more consistent in SEC play, where he struggled at times last year. Junior college transfer Jack Lowary is expected to serve as Lock’s back up.
Barry Odom: “I feel like Drew can be the next guy that plays really, really well at a high level at that position. We need 10 guys around him to play really well, too because we're going to put a lot on Drew's plate. And we have, and we'll continue to do that and push it. He's got a high football I.Q. He understands what we need out of that position.”
Breakdown: There is still a quarterback competition underway at Auburn, but most expect that former Baylor and Rivals100 quarterback Jarett Stidham will be the answer for the Tigers. During his time with the Bears in 2015, Stidham showed incredible flashes of talent while running the school’s high-powered offense before an injury ended his season prematurely. After not playing football at all in 2016, Stidham has some rust to shake off, but all reports are that he’s poised for a big year in 2017. Former starter and Rivals250 prospect Sean White is expected to serve as the primary backup.
Gus Malzahn: “Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man. I think that's a common sense deal. What he's done since he's been at Auburn, just his leadership. He's really done a good job trying to win over his teammates and his work ethic.”
Breakdown: A year after stepping in for injured starter Drew Barker, Stephen Johnson comes into 2017 as the established starter in Lexington. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers in 2016, but it’s hard to argue with the success the team had with him under center as he went 5-4 as a starter. He will be asked to carry an even bigger load in 2017 if the Wildcats are to replicate their successful close to 2016. Barker, a former Rivals250 prospect, should serve as a more than capable backup.
Mark Stoops: “We're very proud of Stephen. I don't want to use the word ‘surprised,’ but I would like to use the word ‘pleased’ with his progress.
“He got thrown into the fire. Getting thrown into the fire at the Swamp when Drew Barker got hurt, it's not exactly the way you want to go into it. But the great thing about Stephen, and you'll get a chance to visit with him, is he has a great demeanor about him. He's never too high, never too low. He's constantly trying to get better.”
Breakdown: Junior Kyle Shurmur returns as the established starter in Nashville after a 2016 season that saw him lead the Commodores to the first bowl game in the Derek Mason era. The former four-star didn’t put up big numbers for most of the year but had a career game with 416 yards and two touchdowns in the Commodores' 45-34 victory over Tennessee that clinched a bowl berth. Shurmer will have to complete a higher percentage of his passes in 2016 and cut down on turnovers to be successful in 2017. Former three-star Deuce Wallace will serve as Shurmur’s backup.
Derek Mason: “Kyle Shurmur is going to have a great year. He's going to lead this -- this team's going to lead this unit. It's all about the veteran skill players around him.”
Breakdown: Tennessee is one of the teams opening fall camp with uncertainty at the quarterback position as junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano battle it out for the starting position. Both are former four-star recruits, with Guarantano finishing 2016 as one of the nation’s top players at any position. Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has talked about the possibility of the duo splitting time under center, but that is rarely a successful proposition. Expect one of the two to seize control of the job before the Vols open their season.
Butch Jones: “I'm really, really excited about the quarterbacks that we have in our program, and I think the competition at that position is really elevated the level of play of everyone else around them. You know, you have two kind of distinct personalities. You have a young individual in Jarrett Guarantano, very energetic, very demonstrative, very passionate, very, very talented, and then Quinten Dormady, who is a coach's son, who has kind of been in our football program. So a little bit different in terms of personality-wise, but these two individuals are very, very talented.”
Breakdown: LSU starts fall camp with a quarterback competition underway with four quarterbacks working to unseat last year’s starter Danny Etling. While talented freshman Myles Brennan is intriguing, most in Baton Rouge expect Etling to begin the year as the starter. If he struggles, as he did at times in 2016, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Tigers turn to one of their younger options.
Ed Orgeron: “Right now if we were to play, Danny would be our starter. And by the way, Danny loves the competition. He loves that we made it a quarterback competition. Actually he thrives in it. So to answer the question about the quarterback competition, there's still a competition there, but right now Danny is the leader.”
Breakdown: An interesting quarterback competition is underway in Gainesville as graduate transfer Malik Zaire steps into a preexisting battle between redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. The Gators pursuit of Zaire leads many to believe that the young arms weren’t quite ready to seize the job and most expect the former four-star and Notre Dame quarterback to being the year as the No. 1 option, but last year’s starter Luke Del Rio is also involved in the competition. While Zaire has shown flashes of talent in his previous action for the Irish, he’s still a relative unknown in relation to some of the conferences others signal callers.
Jim McElwain: “We're now up to finally our number in the scholarship count that we want to be in the quarterback room. We've got some real options there. And that's a good thing. And yet, you know, [Zaire’s] a guy that can light up the room with his smile. He's excited to be there and excited to compete, and we're looking forward to seeing what happens this fall.”
Breakdown: The Aggies have had a tough time finding stability at the quarterback position since Johnny Manziel left school and they enter fall camp with three quarterbacks, senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and five-star true freshman Kellen Mond battling for the starting position. Obviously Hubenak is the most experienced of the group and appears to be the favorite to win the job out of camp, but he might just be keeping the seat warm for one of the talented freshmen.
Kevin Sumlin: “I tell you, the big thing that gets back to what I just talked about, those three guys have done a phenomenal job in the offseason, working together, organizing 7-on-7s, moving the team, being leaders, enjoy each other's company. But we'll see you in the fall. We'll see what direction we go. Noel Mazzone does a great job with them.”