Chris Leak, Matt Flynn, Tim Tebow, Greg McElroy and Cam Newton have quarterbacked Southeastern Conference teams to national championships during the past five years, but will anyone be next?
With spring football already under way on half of the league’s 12 campuses, there is no SEC quarterback who could be described as elite. Auburn’s Newton, Alabama’s McElroy and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas were three of the nation’s top seven quarterbacks in passing efficiency last season and led their teams to a combined 34 victories, but their departures have left a notable void.
South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia will head into the 2011 season as the league’s most experienced signal-caller, but Garcia missed Tuesday’s opening practice in Columbia for violating team rules. Garcia has been suspended for the rest of this week, marking the third spring in which he’s been punished since enrolling early with the Gamecocks in 2007.
“I’m not getting into all that,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after Tuesday’s workout, “but sometimes when players are removed from the team, hopefully they’ll appreciate how privileged they have it practicing with their teammates. It’s no fun not being on a team, from what I understand.”
Not that Garcia’s three bowl performances in which he’s completed 48.9 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and seven interceptions had him knocking on elite status anyway.
Jordan Jefferson returns from an 11-win LSU squad but went seven straight games last season without a touchdown pass, and he is being challenged this spring by Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger. And the SEC’s top returning quarterback in efficiency, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, doesn’t believe a stellar statistical year as a redshirt freshman changed the perception of him one bit.
“You base a quarterback on wins and losses, and we didn’t even have a winning season last year,” said Murray, who threw for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns. “I look at it as I still have a lot to prove right now. I want to lead this team to places they haven’t been in a while, places like the SEC championship and the national championship. Once we get to that level, then maybe I’ll feel like the perception of me will change a little bit.
“Until I start winning some ballgames, I think the perception is that I still have a long way to go.”
The SEC is not hurting this year in terms of returning starters, as eight league teams have quarterbacks with limited to significant starting experience, and it certainly isn’t lacking for competitive races at the position.
Will John Brantley, Florida’s returning starter, be challenged by early enrollee Jeff Driskel under new Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis? Who can withstand the pressure of replacing Newton at Auburn? Will South Carolina backup Connor Shaw capitalize and eat into playing time for Garcia?
And how will LSU coach Les Miles handle the league’s most publicized three-way race?
“I like our quarterbacks,” said Miles, who oversaw his third spring workout Tuesday. “Both guys who are veterans look like veterans, and I think Zach Mettenberger will be a nice addition for us. There is certainly reason to believe we’re going to be better there.”
Spring status: The Crimson Tide are scheduled to start next Monday.
Spring game: April 16 (ESPNU)
At quarterback: Redshirt sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will vie to succeed Greg McElroy, while early enrollee Phillip Ely from Tampa is expected to follow McCarron and Sims by redshirting. McCarron completed 30 of 48 passes (62.5 percent) for 389 yards and three touchdowns last season, with roughly a third of those numbers compiled in the 48-3 opening rout of San Jose State.
McCarron, who also held on field goals, is considered the favorite going in, but don’t expect a plethora of quarterback updates from fifth-year Bama boss Nick Saban.
“I am not going to have a whole lot to say about it,” Saban said last month. “This is something that you have to let happen, and it is something you have to let develop. Even though it might be a news story every day, this is something that cannot be affected by anything other than what happens on the field.”
Saban and his staff did not have the SEC’s most physically gifted quarterbacks the past three seasons with John Parker Wilson and McElroy, yet the Tide went a combined 36-5.
Sept. 3 starter: A.J. McCarron
Spring status: The Razorbacks started Tuesday.
Spring game: April 16
At quarterback: Coach Bobby Petrino’s pre-spring depth chart has junior Tyler Wilson at No. 1, sophomore Brandon Mitchell as his top backup and redshirt freshman Jacoby Walker third. When Ryan Mallett was injured during the second quarter of last year’s 65-43 loss at Auburn, Wilson came in and completed 25 of 34 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns but had two late throws intercepted.
Petrino is no stranger to molding quarterbacks, and if Wilson can sizzle the same way he did on the Plains, the Razorbacks could be as solid at this position as any league team.
“The good thing about our quarterbacks is they get a lot of reps,” Petrino said. “We have a lot of reps in practice between our 7-on-7, how fast we go and the number of reps we have in scrimmages in spring, so they’ll get a lot of looks. It will be very similar to last spring. If you remember last spring, Ryan had zero reps [because of a foot injury].”
Sept. 3 starter: Tyler Wilson
Spring status: The Tigers are scheduled to start next Wednesday.
Spring game: April 16
At quarterback: Auburn had four players battling for the starting job last spring before it was claimed by Cam Newton over Barrett Trotter, Neil Caudle and Clint Moseley. Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national championship before announcing he was leaving early for the NFL, and he produced several more storylines that overshadowed the fact Caudle was a senior.
Now it’s down to Trotter, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound redshirt junior, and Moseley, a 6-3, 223-pound redshirt sophomore. Trotter was Newton’s top backup, with his year highlighted by 6-of-9 passing for 64 yards and the 34-yard run he ripped off against South Carolina in the SEC championship game.
Trotter and Moseley will not be lacking for quality reps in the upcoming weeks, but the quarterback landscape could change drastically this summer with the arrival of Kiehl Frazier. The 6-3, 210-pounder threw for 2,975 yards and 42 touchdowns and rushed for 1,164 yards and 22 scores as a Shiloh Christian senior in Springdale, Ark., and he was USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.
Sept. 3 starter: Barrett Trotter
Spring status: The Gators are scheduled to start today.
Spring game: April 9
At quarterback: New Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis recently made it clear that he’s a one-quarterback guy, and he will have fewer candidates from whom to choose since his hiring. Jordan Reed and Trey Burton took snaps last season along with primary starter John Brantley, but Reed now is a full-time tight end and Burton is slotted to play just about every skilled position other than quarterback.
Brantley, who looked out of place in the spread and had more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) a year ago, enters spring at No. 1 and stands to benefit in a more traditional attack.
“First of all, he’s a good fit,” Weis said. “Fortunately for him, with what he does the best and what he does the best athletically, it fits with what I like to do. Now that doesn’t guarantee him a spot, but it gives him an upper hand with the experience that he has now fitting into an offense that fits what he does. I think that gives him a pretty good chance.”
Early enrollee Jeff Driskel and redshirt freshman Tyler Murphy have been bracketed as the backups. Driskel was rated by Rivals.com as the nation’s top pro-style quarterback in the 2011 signing class.
Sept. 3 starter: John Brantley
Spring status: The Bulldogs started last Thursday.
Spring game: April 16
At quarterback: Redshirt sophomore Aaron Murray is the solid starter, so the bigger race is for No. 2 between sophomore Hutson Mason and early enrollee Christian LeMay. Mason appeared in four games last season as a true freshman, completing 9 of 17 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, while LeMay chose to sit out his senior prep season after getting suspended for the first few weeks.
Expect Georgia coaches to stay relatively quiet on the Mason-LeMay battle considering their youth, and expect them to give Murray additional room to grow.
“I think he’ll be a more consistently accurate passer,” head coach Mark Richt said. “His touchdown-to-interception ratio was great last year, and I think he’ll have more confidence to make certain throws that maybe he wasn’t sure of in the past. He erred on the side of being careful, which I think was good.
“I think he has a better idea of what he’s capable of doing and what is open and what is not open in this league. I think he’ll be more free to cut the ball loose.”
Sept. 3 starter: Aaron Murray
Spring status: The Wildcats are scheduled to start next Wednesday.
Spring game: April 23
At quarterback: The Wildcats had three in the hunt this time last year with Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski, but Hartline was a senior and Mossakowski announced in late January that he will transfer after this semester. Hartline started every game last season until getting suspended for the BBVA Compass Bowl, in which Newton went 21-of-36 for 211 yards in a loss to Pittsburgh.
Newton and midyear enrollee Maxwell Smith will be the top two for Wildcats offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and new passing-game coordinator Tee Martin. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Newton completed 4 of 7 passes for 54 yards before the bowl but started eight games during the ’09 season, connecting on 75 of 135 attempts (55.6 percent) for 706 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
The far bigger numbers for Newton in ’09 were the two upset victories on the road against Auburn and Georgia.
Sept. 3 starter: Morgan Newton
Spring status: The Tigers started last Friday.
Spring game: April 9
At quarterback: If Jordan Jefferson can build off a Cotton Bowl showing in which he torched Texas A&M for four touchdowns, three by air and one by land, there may not be a race. Jarrett Lee never replaced Jefferson as the starter last season even when Jefferson was at his worst, and Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns last fall at Butler (Kan.) Community College, owns the better arm but is not nearly the runner.
Jefferson had 67 yards on 12 carries against the Aggies and had an 83-yard touchdown run against Tennessee, but LSU ranked 107th last season in passing yards (155.6) a game.
“I think Jordan Jefferson is in the best shape that I’ve seen him in, and I think his attention to detail and his want to be a great quarterback appears to be there,” coach Les Miles said. “I think the Jarrett Lee-Zach Mettenberger pair certainly is the competition. We’re going to give those guys the opportunity to do things that they do, and we’re going to ask Jordan Jefferson to do the things he does and make us better.
“I don’t know that there will be any two-quarterback system, but we are going to let those guys who naturally throw throw, and we are going to let those guys who might naturally have athletic ability to do the things that they do.”
Sept. 3 starter: Jordan Jefferson
Spring status: The Rebels are scheduled to start March 28.
Spring game: April 16
At quarterback: Who could have guessed this time last year that former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would arrive in Oxford and claim the starting spot? And who could have imagined Masoli and the Rebels struggling to a 4-8 record that included a loss to Jacksonville State?
The Rebels will be the last SEC team to start spring drills and should have one of the better quarterback derbies.
If the winner is based on size, then the job will go to 6-foot-5, 220-pounder Zack Stoudt, who signed after playing last season at Iowa Western Community College. He is the son of former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Cliff Stoudt.
If the winner is based on speed, then Randall Mackey will get the nod. The dual-threat junior redshirted last season after arriving from East Mississippi Community College, where he threw for 3,122 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2009.
And if it’s based on NCAA Division I experience, then Nathan Stanley will be the choice. The junior has backed up Jevan Snead and Masoli the past two seasons and completed 17 of 32 passes (53.1 percent) for 261 yards with three touchdowns and an interception a year ago.
Sept. 3 starter: Nathan Stanley
Spring status: The Bulldogs started on March 3.
Spring game: April 9
At quarterback: Fifth-year senior Chris Relf entered spring as the one to beat, though third-year coach Dan Mullen insists every position is up for grabs and has said there will be an equal share of snaps with the first-, second- and third-team offensive lines.
Relf is coming off an MVP performance in the Gator Bowl, where he threw for 281 yards and accounted for four touchdowns as the Bulldogs humiliated Michigan 52-14. He completed 129 of 220 passes (58.6 percent) last season for 1,789 yards, and his 713 rushing yards enabled MSU to take control of surprising victories over Georgia and Florida.
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Russell rotated with Relf early last season but threw more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (five) and suffered a decrease in playing time. The wild card is Dylan Favre, the nephew of Brett Favre and a 2010 redshirt after throwing for 5,589 yards and 63 touchdowns as a senior in Bay St. Louis.
Favre, whom MSU pursued as soon as Cam Newton committed and signed with Auburn, was not a highly sought prospect because of his 5-10 height.
Sept. 3 starter: Chris Relf
Spring status: The Gamecocks started Tuesday.
Spring game: April 9
At quarterback: The Gamecocks return 81 percent of their rushing yards, 100 percent of their passing yards and 80 percent of their receiving yards from a team that won the SEC East championship, yet there continue to be concerns because of the inconsistencies of Stephen Garcia. The same quarterback who completed 17 of 20 passes in an upset of top-ranked Alabama threw a head-scratching interception the following week that sealed a loss at Kentucky.
Garcia passed for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, but he was intercepted 14 times. Can his 17-13 record as South Carolina’s starter honestly sit well with coach Steve Spurrier?
Backup Connor Shaw played in nine games as a freshman last season, completing 23 of 33 passes for 223 yards, but was intercepted twice. Spurrier could employ him even more this year, as evidenced by this description of Shaw in South Carolina’s spring outlook:
“He will continue to push Garcia for playing time and looks to be ready to take over the reins without a dropoff in production should Garcia struggle.”
Sept. 3 starter: Stephen Garcia
Spring status: The Volunteers are scheduled to start next Tuesday.
Spring game: April 16
At quarterback: The roles are reversed with Tyler Bray and Matt Simms. Bray was the backup last spring as a freshman but assumed the starting role in late October and wound up completing 125 of 224 passes (55.8 percent) for 1,849 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore could use more of a running game this year behind a maturing offensive line, as his final performance of last year was feast or famine. With a ground attack that averaged 0.9 yard per carry, Bray threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns but suffered three interceptions in the Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina.
Simms should be the league’s most experienced backup as a senior who threw for 1,460 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago, and no newcomer could provide more excitement than 6-5, 200-pound early enrollee Justin Worley. The Gatorade National Player of the Year completed 429 of 590 passes (72.7 percent) last season for 5,319 yards with 64 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in leading Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., to a 15-0 record.
Sept. 3 starter: Tyler Bray
Spring status: The Commodores are scheduled to start Friday.
Spring game: April 17
At quarterback: New coach James Franklin will develop his first offense in Nashville around the talents of his players and isn’t opposed to having five scholarship quarterbacks with whom to work, something he doesn’t have now.
Two-year starter Larry Smith is a senior looking to bounce back from a season in which he completed just 117 of 247 passes (47.7 percent) for 1,262 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. The Commodores are 4-20 the past two years after winning the 2008 Music City Bowl over Boston College to cap a 7-6 season.
Jordan Rodgers, the brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, was hoping to challenge Smith last season after arriving from Butte (Calif.) Junior College but sat out because of a shoulder injury that could limit him this spring as well. Rodgers was Vanderbilt’s first junior college signee in eight years.
Redshirt sophomore Charlie Goro, who signed in 2009 as Vandy’s first Parade All-American in more than two decades, did not play at all last season and will be Smith’s primary threat should Rodgers remain less than full strength.
Sept. 3 starter: Larry Smith
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...