Becoming a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference last season was accompanied by great peril.
Clint Moseley replaced Barrett Trotter as Auburn's top quarterback during the seventh game, leading the Tigers to a 17-6 win over Florida, and made his first college start the following week at LSU. Moseley never had a chance in Baton Rouge, getting sacked six times and having an interception returned for a touchdown in a 45-10 humbling.
"I don't want to say it wasn't that bad," Moseley said after the game. "It was awful."
It was awful for a slew of SEC quarterbacks last season, with a record nine league teams feeling the need to make performance-based changes. Even league champ LSU, which made a switch by dumping Jarrett Lee for Jordan Jefferson after its overtime win at Alabama in early November, experienced volatility under center.
Only Alabama's AJ McCarron, Tyler Wilson of Arkansas and Georgia's Aaron Murray started wire-to-wire, but the league should be more stable at the position in 2012 with all but LSU and Texas A&M returning quarterbacks who made multiple starts in 2011.
"I think there are a lot of good quarterback prospects in our league," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "AJ played better and better as the year went on, and hopefully he'll be one of those guys in our league this year. Georgia has a very productive, experienced quarterback. Tennessee has a productive, talented quarterback. Arkansas has a very productive, talented quarterback, and some other people have some guys who can be good as well and have played some and will continue to develop.
"The league will be better because of that offensively."
Stellar quarterback play was expected to be somewhat infrequent last year following the departures of Auburn's Cam Newton, Alabama's Greg McElroy and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. Those were three of the top seven quarterbacks nationally in passing efficiency in 2010, with Newton winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Tigers to a 14-0 record and the national championship.
Yet the struggles last year were profound, as youth and inexperience often were no match in a league that produced four of the nation's top five defenses: Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia.
"There were not a lot of proven guys, and when you play a lot of proven teams, it's hard for anybody on offense to look better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "The quarterback is the one guy getting harassed by these defensive linemen and edge rushers, and he's the guy trying to throw it into a tight window against cornerbacks playing receivers a little tighter.
"You try to find someone to pick on, but it's hard to find someone to pick on in our league. So the quarterback just has to be more precise in what he does. Sometimes you have to manage bad situations, but that is part of the learning process."
The SEC did not have a quarterback rank among the top 20 in efficiency, though Wilson (22nd), South Carolina's Connor Shaw (23rd), McCarron (25th) and Murray (26th) came close. Shaw replaced the troubled Stephen Garcia and finished with a flurry, throwing eight touchdown passes and one interception in the last three games to cap South Carolina's first 11-win season.
Seeking to join the ranks of upper-echelon SEC quarterbacks are Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Vanderbilt's Jordan Rodgers. Bray missed five games last season due to a broken thumb, getting replaced by Matt Simms and then Justin Worley, but heads into this season with the league's top crop of receivers.
Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, replaced Larry Smith and led the Commodores to the Liberty Bowl. He was a disaster in Memphis, however, completing 4 of 14 passes for 26 yards and an interception before being pulled.
"I think it is a real positive when you have some opportunities like that for growth," Vandy coach James Franklin said. "He spent a lot of time thinking about it and watching film, and the two of us have had some really good discussions. I think we're going to be much more on the same page this year, as well as my coordinator and quarterbacks coach."
The most scrutinized league quarterback this season will be Zach Mettenberger, who joins a loaded LSU lineup looking to atone for a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game.
Auburn's Moseley threw more interceptions returned for touchdowns against Georgia and Alabama, and he nursed a shoulder injury this spring while battling Kiehl Frazier in a race that will head into preseason camp. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel took turns starting and struggling at Florida last season when John Brantley was hurt, and that pair came out of spring neck-and-neck as well.
No league team had a more wide-open competition this spring than newcomer Texas A&M, which had four quarterbacks in the hunt to replace NFL top-10 pick Ryan Tannehill.
"I think whenever you have a returning quarterback and a guy who has some experience, it's huge," Franklin said. "I've been in this game for a long time, and I don't care if you're in Pop Warner, little league, high school, college or the NFL, if you have a guy at that position, you have a chance. He has the ability to make everybody on your team better, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
"The league in general will always be great on defense, and when we have returning quarterbacks, I think it makes for an even more exciting year in the SEC."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photo
Arkansas senior quarterback Tyler Wilson was a first-team All-SEC selection last season, but no league quarterback ranked among the top 20 nationally in passing efficiency.