The SEC is set for a quarterback boom this season. The conference is stacked with young signal callers bursting with talent and a variety of skill-sets.
With the season approaching, it’s time to look at each quarterback’s most impressive attribute. Four potential quarterbacks are not included: Feleipe Franks (no live game action), Malik Zaire (deep-dive here), Quinten Dormady and Jake Hubenak (quarterback competitions with freshmen) are not included.
Austin Allen, Arkansas, Throwing off play action
Allen might be the most underrated quarterback in the country. His feel for pressure, timing, accuracy and decision making are excellent. Where’s he’s at his best, though, is punishing defenses with throws off play-action.
Allen has great touch and accuracy to all levels. He doesn’t have a howitzer attached to his shoulder, but he makes up for it by mixing up his trajectories and velocities when it’s needed.
Arkansas runs a ton of creative actions. And Allen is well poised to take advantage. He processes well and has a quick release. But he’s equally willing to hang in the pocket an extra beat to spring receivers open, sometimes at the cost of taking a walloping.
Allen rounds it out with his pocket mobility, a skill as underrated as Allen himself. His nimble feet allow him to manipulate the pocket to create throwing lanes, buy time for receivers to get open and allow him to slide to avoid pressure before delivering from funky throwing platforms.
As the Razorbacks’ play-action packages pull defenders out of position, Allen’s classic skill-set from within the pocket makes him the perfect quarterback to take advantage.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina, Figure-it-out-ness
Bentley is the smart guy in the room. He isn’t necessarily the most physically gifted or talented (though he has plenty of that). He figures out when to run or throw; when to fit the ball into a tight spot or not; when to hit his check down; how to get the ball where it needs to be; and how to keep the offense moving on time.
He is the best of young quarterbacks from the neck-up, rarely putting the ball in harm’s way.
Bentley has an ability to make time stand still and force the pass rush to conform to his beat. He’ll drop back, survey the defense, dawdle around the backfield, stop for a drink break, take another look at the defense, then opt to pull the ball down and take off or release a pass. It’s like he’s seen an advanced copy of the game.
Even when the bullets are flying and there are arms and elbows and hands and helmets and menacing pass-rushers around, Bentley seems unfazed.
Football snobs will admire how he creates throwing windows while under pressure. He shifts linebackers and safeties at the last second, throwing LeBron-like no-look passes. It’s one thing for a quarterback to manipulate defenders as they drop back (he does that, too), it’s another level to fake them as the QB is releasing the ball.
When a defense thinks it has corralled the Gamecocks signal caller, or locked down Bentley’s receivers, his shiftiness allows him to bail out of the pocket and conjure up something else.
Bentley led the SEC in pass rating under pressure in 2016, by a substantial margin, per Pro Football Focus. Whether it’s staring down the barrel, or slithering away and finding a receiver downfield, Bentley figures it out.
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State, Fun-ness
It’s probably best to call this “play making.” Fun indicates Fitzgerald’s performances are superficial, lacking the substance of some of the SEC’s other young studs. But come on people, Fitzgerald is fun. Can you name a more exciting quarterback to watch (put your biases aside Shea Patterson lovers)? It’s all substantive, too.
The Bulldogs ran an expansive option attack in 2016, and Fitzgerald took advantage. He averaged 7.1 yards per attempt on the ground, using speed on designed plays whenever he felt like it.
His vision and crisp movements form a deadly combination. He finds holes before they appear. But he’s willing to wait for the right time before scooting through the gaps in the defensive front, showing the patience to let his offensive line set up intricate angle-blocking concepts and not out-running them like many young play makers.
Sure, he can get better within the pocket, improve his accuracy and make better decisions. But would that be as fun as watching him go out and play backstreet ball for prolonged stretches?
Jacob Eason, Georgia, Arm talent
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Eason’s arm took on near mythic status before he even arrived on campus. Last season didn’t disappoint in that regard.
It’s not only power, Eason has an understanding of how to switch up the trajectory and velocity of throws to different spots on the field. He may be able to rip it as well as anyone in the country, but he doesn’t need to on every play. And he knows that.
Some of the most gorgeous passes from his first season came on the rarest of throws: the bucket throw — dropping a ball over the linebackers and in front of the safeties, or splitting a safety and corner against a two-deep look.
It does not get better than this:
And it looks effortless. It’s like he’s a souped up MyPlayer created on an NCAA video game.
Last season also exposed some of Eason’s flaws.
His mobility is a concern. It’s fine to not be a dual-threat player, but you must excel at mobility within the pocket (say it with me, stick, slide, climb, throw), playing with nimble feet and not cementing them to the floor. It’s a similar issue with his footwork when dropping back. Everything is too stiff. It affects the rhythm of plays and is a factor in his inconsistent accuracy.
But it’s the raw arm talent — making any throw, from any platform — that gets coaches and analysts salivating. Some, like this one against Ole Miss (from the same drive as the throw above), are stunning.
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss, Manziel-ness
Out and out creativity. That’s what Shea Patterson is about. Consequences be damned.
It’s the trait that made Johnny Manziel an offense unto himself, and it’s the one that will make Patterson a household name across the nation.
The question remains whether Hugh Freeze can build a structure around Patterson in the same way Kevin Sumlin did for Manziel. It took time, but Manziel and Sumlin found the correct balance between playing within a system and allowing the quarterback to freelance.
Behind Ole Miss’ offensive line, Patterson’s dazzling footwork and turn of speed will be imperative to keeping the offense moving. But given time, he can play and win from the pocket, too.
Patterson showed good anticipation skills in his limited time playing at the end of last season. And he made a bunch of “wow” throws, slinging passes from funky body positions, and making up for bad form with rare arm strength — often combining it with rare accuracy downfield.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn, Mental Processing
Stidham may not have played a game in the SEC yet, but his previous stint at Baylor should have fans excited (unless, of course, you’re playing against the Tigers).
On talent alone, he may be the best in the league. There are players with excellent physical traits, who’re developing mentally. And there are players who’ve grasped the subtleties of the position, but are lacking physically. Stidham combines both.
His mental processing is what sets him apart. It’s not just his decision making, it’s the speed of the decisions. Everything is in double-speed. That makes RPOs a lethal part of any Stidham-based offense.
The ball is snapped, he diagnoses everything, reads the defender he needs to, and can deliver the ball to any spot on the field — be it a quick read or the more advanced second and third-level RPOs that have spread throughout football.
How do you go about defending that?
The usual method would be to muddy things; combination coverages; funky pre-snap looks; disguised looks; and overload one side of the formation. The goal is to force the quarterback into a misread, or to take away the single read.
That doesn’t appear to work against Stidham. Take away the RPO read, and he’ll calmly move along, finding a better matchup than the predetermined one.
Stidham is a brilliant guy who has been asked to command plug-and-play fool-proof offenses. He’s about to do big things in an Auburn system that will evolve to take advantage of the quarterback’s advanced skill-set.
What’s this, an Auburn quarterback going through a full field read?
Drew Lock, Missouri, Arm power
I’ve already dropped “arm talent” on you — coaching parlance for the combination of arm strength and accuracy. Well, Lock has arm power.
He’s a fastball pitcher. He doesn’t mix up his trajectories or velocities very well, he just rips one 90 mph fastball after another.
Having a huge arm is more important than sheer vanity, though. It opens the length and width of the field. And it forces linebackers to stick onto slot receivers and tight ends who drift into soft spots in zones — they cannot close the gap in time if Lock finds the receivers — often creating better throwing lanes down the seams.
It has downsides, as well. Lock’s accuracy comes and goes, and passes that should be completed will tear the hands of receivers.
But that speaks to a bigger issue with Lock’s game: his inconsistencies. The raw power is a special gift.
Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt, Toughness
Shurmur’s play has taken a beating during his time with the Commodores. He hasn’t lived up to the expectations of being a coach’s son. He was never a dominant physical specimen, but it was assumed he’d be further along in his mental development.
It hasn’t played out like that, yet. He doesn’t process things quickly enough, nor does he play “on-time” as often as Vanderbilt’s system demands.
He is tough, though. There’s no denying that. He’s willing to stand in and take punishment. If the other attributes don’t improve in 2017, he’ll likely be out of the starting job.
Stephen Johnson, Kentucky, Option-Elements
Drew Barker — the Kentucky starter prior to an injury in 2016 — is returning this season. And while Barker has a case for regaining his job, Johnson opens up more for the Wildcats offense.
Now, I’m slightly biased. I’ve long proclaimed that those at a recruiting disadvantage should embrace the option-football lifestyle in a bid to tip the scale in their favor; wishbone formations; classic triple-option looks; and split backfields.
Options create matchup chaos for defenses. And they convert the game from 11–on-10 football — where the quarterback isn’t involved in the run game — to an 11-on-11 matchup, or usually a 1-on-1 matchup in space.
Johnson is a power runner at quarterback. He is as likely to run through a defender’s face as he will dance around them. His presence allows the Kentucky offense to generate 1-on-1 matchups for its talented two-back backfield.
The 2016 tape vs. Missouri is all you need to watch. The Wildcats felt like a danger to score on every play. They bullied Missouri’s defensive front. They were guessing and hedging and ultimately run over. Johnson carried the ball only twice, but the Wildcats optioned nearly everything. They ran up 377 rushing yards.
Johnson is a solid passer, particularly when throwing off play action. But it’s his ability to take off as a runner, and his decision making at the mesh point, that make him valuable.
Danny Etling, LSU, Rhythm
Etling, like Shurmur, isn’t blessed with overwhelming physical gifts, and he will be battling to keep hold of his starting job — cries for an unknown freshman will undoubtedly fill the year.
But Etling does one thing admirably: He keeps the offense on schedule.
There’s an epidemic of rhythmless quarterbacks across college football. Many are see-it-and-throw-it players who aren’t asked to get the ball out at specific time. Rather, they’re told to read one half of the field (or one player) and throw it to an open man.
LSU’s offense demanded rhythm in 2016, and it will demand it in 2017 under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Etling can deliver. He gets the ball out quickly, where it needs to be, on time. He’s not always accurate, and his arm is lacking. But he executes the play design as asked. A talented coordinator can rack up a fair amount of points with that kind of quarterback.
Jalen Hurts, Composure
Hurts has been dealt a rough card this offseason.
His game has been micro analyzed — such is the life of the Alabama starting quarterback. Sure, there are holes: his accuracy down the field, and his lack of feel within the pocket. And yes, they create some structural issues for the Tide: It limits the concepts they can run and the variety of ways they can attack opposing defenses.
There is, however, something lost among the scrutiny: He was a true freshman. It’s as if people forget. As though he’s incapable of growing. Incapable of getting better. As though it’s not astonishing how far along he was in his progress the moment he stepped on the field.
Hurts’ athleticism transformed the Tide’s offense in 2016 into one that created a series of 1-on-1 matchups. And they blitzed everyone in the league.
What struck me in real time – and what was confirmed when re-watching this offseason – was the young quarterback’s composure.
Yes, there were wobbles during the College Football Playoff, both in the Peach Bowl and National Championship games. But throughout the SEC schedule, he was an assassin. No venue too big. No juiced-up SEC front too intimidating.
Boiling Alabama’s run-scheme down to “1-on-1 football” is accurate, but it does a disservice to how it got to “athlete vs. athlete” in space. They used an expansive amount of option elements, including a decent number of run-pass options (RPOs). That all put pressure on Hurts’ decision making. Maybe not in the traditional sense, where the quarterback drops back, surveys the coverage and opts who to throw the ball to. But they were critical decisions based on defensive patterns nonetheless — reading a defender and choosing whether to hand the ball off or not.
He helped turn Alabama’s run game into an unstoppable monster.
Excellent quarterback play isn’t always spectacular. It resides in the absence of mistakes. He was helped by Lane Kiffin’s scheme and game plans, but Hurts navigated the season masterfully (although there was that first play of the season against USC, remember?).
You can’t teach that kind of composure at that age. It’s innate. To go into Knoxville and tear out the Vols’ hearts, running the same concept over and over on certain drives, as a true freshman, is astounding.