More quarterback uncertainty in SEC this year

More quarterback uncertainty in SEC this year

May 4th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

SEC Southeastern Conference

EXPERIENCE NOT NECESSARY?

Several SEC quarterbacks in recent seasons have done well in their first year as a starter:

2009 -- Greg McElroy succeeds John Parker Wilson and leads Alabama to its first national championship since 1992.

2010 -- Cam Newton transfers to Auburn, wins the Heisman Trophy handily and guides the Tigers to the national title.

2011 -- AJ McCarron shakes off a loss to LSU and is impressive in the rematch, leading Alabama to a second BCS crown.

2012 -- Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel heads an 11-2 team and becomes the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman.

2013 -- Nick Marshall leads Auburn to a BCS championship game berth after directing the nation's No. 1 rushing offense.

This time last year, the great Southeastern Conference debate centered on which quarterback reigned supreme among Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray.

Manziel had a Heisman Trophy, McCarron had back-to-back national championships and Murray was on the verge of rewriting the SEC record books. A subplot to that debate was how South Carolina's Connor Shaw could be so underrated, but those four have moved on along with LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Missouri's James Franklin, leaving the league with a slew of rebuilding projects at that position.

"That was a big-time group of quarterbacks," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said this past week. "Those were some great quarterbacks, but I still think there will be quite a few really good offenses that will have new quarterbacks step in and have a lot of good players to work with."

McCarron's Crimson Tide outlasted Manziel's Aggies 49-42 in mid-September. Similar fireworks occurred later that month when Murray and Mettenberger met, with Murray's Bulldogs pulling out a 44-41 thriller.

Six SEC teams -- Texas A&M, Auburn, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and LSU -- averaged more than 35 points a game last season, but Auburn's Nick Marshall is the only starting quarterback returning from that bunch. Could such an exodus result in the league trending back to its defensive ways of 2011, when Alabama and LSU played twice that season and combined for one touchdown?

"That would be the initial consensus if you asked anybody, because all of us would prefer to have a returning quarterback," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "Having said that, there have been several examples of quarterbacks who did not have experience and came in and immediately had a huge impact on our conference and throughout college football. You look at what Manziel did when he first arrived on the scene with no experience, and Auburn's guy last year was a huge difference-maker for their team.

"We lost an enormous group of guys from this league, so you would think it would take some time to rebuild to that level, but there is always an exception out there as we've seen."

Auburn, Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State would seem to be the most secure SEC teams in quarterback experience, though Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina also have quarterbacks who have started and have been effective in at least a couple of key games. The other half of the league has more uncertainty, with Alabama and Vanderbilt having the potential to start quarterbacks who weren't even on campus this spring.

WELCOME BACK

Marshall last season became the latest in a growing list of SEC quarterbacks who have enjoyed tremendous success in their first year as a starter. He arrived from junior college, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and led the Tigers to a berth in the BCS championship game, nearly mirroring the accomplishments of Cam Newton during his only season with Auburn in 2010.

This is Malzahn's ninth season as either a college offensive coordinator or a head coach, and it was his first spring with the same starting quarterback as the autumn before.

"What it allowed us to do is really worry about other positions as far as taking the next step with detail as far as the whole offense is concerned," Malzahn said. "Nick had more comfort with our base offense and our base concepts, his reads and progressions and footwork and eyes. He was a lot more reactive this spring, and you could tell he wasn't having to think hard about the progression of everything.

"It's coming more natural, and we're hopeful he'll be even better in the fall."

Bo Wallace of Ole Miss is the top returning SEC quarterback in career starts with 26, having guided the Rebels to a 7-6 record in 2012 and an 8-5 mark last season. Wallace set a single-season school mark for total offense last year and ranks second behind Eli Manning in career passing and total-offense categories, but he has made too many mistakes along the way.

In last November's 17-10 overtime loss at rival Mississippi State, Wallace threw three interceptions and fumbled in overtime.

"He's thrown for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns, but obviously he needs to work on taking care of the ball," Freeze said. "He didn't have a complete year in either one of his seasons, and we're hopeful that will be the case in his senior campaign."

Mississippi State's Dak Prescott finished strong late last season to guide the Bulldogs to a 7-6 record and a thrashing of Rice in the Liberty Bowl, so it's possible that Marshall, Wallace and Prescott could comprise the preseason All-SEC quarterback balloting a year after Manziel, McCarron and Murray. Brandon Allen of Arkansas also is returning but was the league's only starting quarterback last year who failed to complete 50 percent of his passes.

Several SEC coaches are happy with their starting quarterbacks, despite their lack of starts last season. Florida's Jeff Driskel showed flashes when he was healthy in 2012 and could flourish this season under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, while South Carolina's Dylan Thompson, Georgia's Hutson Mason and Missouri's Maty Mauk played well last year when thrust into action because of injuries.

Thompson and Mason are fifth-year seniors at programs headed by former quarterbacks.

"Dylan Thompson has played well for us in the three or four games he's had a chance to play," South Carolina's Steve Spurrier said. "He's a fifth-year quarterback who's going to try and pack everything into one season. I know he's fired up and looking forward to the coming year."

ANYBODY'S GUESS

Though fifth-year senior Blake Sims took the first-team snaps in the A-Day spring game, Alabama's race is far from over due to the arrival this summer of Jacob Coker.

Coker, who was Florida State's backup last season to Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, is in the process of graduating in Tallahassee and will transfer to Tuscaloosa with two seasons of eligibility left. The first objective for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be getting Coker up to speed.

"I think we're basically talking about learning a system so that he has a chance to be able to, when the opportunity comes in August, have a better chance of going out and feeling comfortable and playing with confidence," Saban said. "It's the idea of terminology and understanding and feeling comfortable in the system that we have. The learning curve is going to be steep, but he's a bright young guy.

"He's got experience and knowledge in a similar system, so we're hoping we can make it a smooth transition for him."

New Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason watched Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary vie for the starting role this spring. The mix in Nashville could be altered if former LSU quarterback Stephen Rivers decides to transfer in a similar manner as Coker to the Tide.

Rivers, who also would have two seasons of eligibility, is the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

"I can't speak on that, so it's business as usual with our two guys who are here and our two young guys coming in for the summer," Mason said. "You want to solidify that as quickly as you can, so this summer is going to be critical, but you also have to make sure there is ample opportunity and competitive situations so you can see the psyche and control mechanisms of the guys who are sitting behind center.

"So it's going to go as fast or as slow as they take it."

Rivers' departure left LSU with a two-man competition this spring between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Jennings came in for an injured Mettenberger and led the Tigers to a win over Arkansas but struggled in the Outback Bowl against Iowa. Harris is an early enrollee who threw for 195 yards and rushed for 77 in the spring game while Jennings was throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.

"Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris had marked improvement during the spring, but neither one of them are playing well enough to be the starter," LSU coach Les Miles said. "Both of them have the ability to be quality quarterbacks in this conference."

An early enrollee could win the job at Texas A&M if touted signee Kyle Allen outperforms Kenny Hill in preseason camp, and the same could be said at Kentucky if Drew Barker surpasses Patrick Towles and Signal Mountain's Reese Phillips on the depth chart.

Tennessee has the same four quarterbacks competing from a year ago, with Justin Worley having made 10 starts the past three seasons, so Butch Jones will be among the many SEC coaches hoping someone can take charge and make something happen.

"Time will only tell," Spurrier said. "Nobody knew who Johnny Manziel was a couple of years ago until he stepped on the field, so who knows what quarterback will emerge?"

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.