published Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Epps: SEC turns its focus to QB competitions


by Darren Epps

It’s Sweet 16 time in college basketball. Let’s take a look at the Southeastern Conference teams still in the field:

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Now that we’re done with that, let’s get back to a sport the SEC can actually dominate: academics! Just kidding, it’s women’s gymnastics.

OK, it’s football. As sports editor Jay Greeson, who is good-looking and talented, and I discussed on our last wildly popular, Steven Spielberg-quality football video, the SEC is the best reality show going right now. Quarterback competitions are football’s answer to reality television, and the SEC has all the drama of “American Idol” minus the British accent.

More than half of the SEC’s schools are hosting quarterback competitions this spring, including three close to our melting pot of a college football town. Let’s take a more detailed glance at five quarterback showdowns:

Alabama

The favorite: Greg McElroy, a 6-foot-2 junior. At least he’s played, having completed 16 of 20 passes for two touchdowns as the backup to the remarkably durable John Parker Wilson. McElroy is taking the right approach to his job, learning all of the offensive positions and throwing daily with Mike McCoy. He’s already angered Auburn fans by completing a late touchdown pass in last year’s Iron Bowl rout, so he’s off to a nice start.

The challenger: Star Jackson, a 6-3 redshirt freshman. Fantastic arm. Good speed. Two factors in his favor: 1. A tie usually goes to the younger player. 2. If Alabama can’t block anyone up front, Nick Saban might choose the quarterback with a better chance to escape. But remember: Alabama opens against Virginia Tech and one of the nation’s best defenses.

The wild card: Thomas Darrah, a 6-6 sophomore. A very tall walk-on from Newnan, Ga.

Georgia

The favorite: Joe Cox, a 6-1 senior. The guess here is that Cox completes a higher percentage of passes than Matthew Stafford. But can he win a game in the fourth quarter if the defense continues to struggle? I’ve written it before, but this just has a Peyton Manning/Tee Martin feel to it. Like Alabama, Georgia starts with a difficult opponent (at Oklahoma State), which might give Cox an edge.

The challenger: Aaron Murray, a 6-1 freshman. Georgia is known for enjoying success with freshman quarterbacks. But Murray had to spend time rehabbing a broken leg, and he’s only used to taking snaps out of the shotgun.

The wild card: Zach Mettenberger, a 6-5 freshman. He’s a little less athletic than Murray. Logan Gray will also get snaps.

Tennessee

The favorite: Jonathan Crompton, a 6-4 senior. There are 10 new coaches and no depth chart at Tennessee, so this is a guess. Look, there’s no shortage of words to describe Crompton’s play last year. We’ve heard them all. Let’s look at the positives: First, the playbook is significantly easier to learn this year. Next, it’s not like any of the quarterbacks played well last year. So maybe it was the system. And, finally, Jason Campbell at Auburn and John Parker Wilson at Alabama both struggled with continual turnover at offensive coordinator before flourishing in their senior years.

The challenger: Nick Stephens, a 6-4 junior. A fractured wrist cost Stephens a chance to win the starting job before preseason camp. He was Tennessee’s highest-rated quarterback last year, but the number of interceptions and near-interceptions is troubling.

The wild card: B.J. Coleman, a 6-3 sophomore. The way Tennessee used him last season was borderline criminal. If Coleman can’t crack the top two this spring, his chances of playing time are reduced dramatically. There’s not enough time in preseason camp to split reps three ways.

Auburn

The favorite: Kodi Burns, a 6-2 junior. Again, a guess with spring practice just starting Tuesday under a new coaching staff. Even head coach Gene Chizik said finding a starting quarterback early in the spring “might be a little ambitious.” Burns struggled with maintaining his composure during games at times last year.

The challenger: Chris Todd, 6-4 senior. You wonder if Tommy Tuberville and Tony Franklin would still be Auburn employees if Todd’s shoulder was healthy last year. Franklin really liked Todd. Auburn’s new coaching staff hopes offseason surgery finally cured his chronic shoulder problems.

The wild card: Barrett Trotter, a 6-2 redshirt freshman. Remember when Tuberville threatened to remove Trotter’s redshirt? There was a good reason. Don’t forget about junior Neil Caudle. That’s four quarterbacks and 15 practices this spring. Critical times for Gus Malzahn.

Mississippi State

The favorite: Tyson Lee, a 5-11 senior. He’s now the incumbent with Wesley Carroll transferring to Florida International. Lee completed 58.8 percent of his passes last year and threw seven touchdowns to five interceptions. New coach Dan Mullen said he’ll adapt his spread offense to the personnel. Lee ran the spread in high school.

The challenger: Tyler Russell, a 6-5 freshman. He’s in high school looking forward to prom night. But Russell is one of the most decorated quarterback signees to sign with Mississippi State in recent memory and will compete for the job immediately this fall.

The wild card: Chris Relf, a 6-3 sophomore. He threw just nine passes last season, completing two.

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