SEC football has seen a major quarterback recruiting resurgence in recent years. In 2017, 11 of 14 teams expect to start players who were 4- or 5-star prospects out of high school. Ultimately, that’s necessary for the long-term health of the league.
Being able to recruit blue-chip quarterback talent is significant. In fact, it’s one of the most important tasks for any coach.
But while the influx of elite quarterback talent is a coup for the SEC, it also brings new complications that may not exist with under-recruited prospects. Last week, Auburn QB Woody Barrett announced his transfer from Auburn, continue a wave dating back to September.
With so many young blue-chip stars emerging across the conference, it has spurred a mass exodus of elite quarterbacks.
Notable quarterback transfers
|Blake Barnett||Alabama||5||Arizona State|
|Woody Barrett||Auburn||4||Copiah-Lincoln C.C.|
|Brandon Harris||LSU||4||North Carolina|
|Brandon McIlwain||South Carolina||4||TBD|
|Damian Williams||Mississippi State||3||Texas State|
Nowhere were these consequences clearer than at the SEC’s best program. Heading into the 2016 season, Alabama had a wealth of riches on its hands. Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman combined for 13 recruiting stars and eight years of experience on campus.
The quarterback competition appeared to be a battle between those three players. But after an electric true freshman got on campus, things changed quickly.
Jalen Hurts, of course, won the job after a dynamic performance in relief during the first game. He was the first true freshman to start a game at quarterback since 1984. No other true freshman quarterback had even played in a season opener since 2007.
While Hurts’ emergence was a significant win for the program, it threw the quarterback pecking order into chaos. After getting pulled during the opener, it took less than a month for Barnett to decide to transfer. He joined Arizona State in December.
Bateman and Cornwell waited through the season to make their decisions to transfer. Bateman is headed to Utah, while Cornwell joined Nevada.
The move left the Crimson Tide with only one returning quarterback on the roster: Hurts. The Crimson Tide will need true freshmen Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones to contribute right away. Alabama’s quarterback depth disappeared. Playing Hurts was the right move, but the consequences were just as severe.
Alabama was not the only team to see these consequences. Mississippi State lost Elijah Staley (now at Morgan State) in August and Damian Williams (Texas State) after the season. South Carolina QB Brandon McIlwain also left after Jake Bentley won the starting job.
While it can seem reactionary to transfer so quickly, those players had a difficult decision.
Fans want players to stick around, especially for depth. However, quarterbacks have a limited shelf life. Take McIlwain for example.
He eventually took the job from Perry Orth as a true freshman. However, after inconsistent performance, McIlwain was benched and Bentley took over. While that’s best for the program for the most talented kid to start, it throws the team’s longer-term plans out of whack.
McIlwain expected to wait behind Orth for a year and then start two or three seasons. Bentley then could take over for a year or two, since he knew he would be waiting his turn.
But when Bentley won the job, McIlwain knew his shot at winning the job again might be gone. It was a choice between having an opportunity to show his skill set or perhaps never start an FBS game again.
Quarterbacks have less patience than ever. With the pressure and urgency to show off their talents for NFL scouts, it’s hard to blame them.
Quarterbacks come to school more prepared than ever to play early snaps because of camps like Elite 11 and private quarterback coaches. However, that means more players than ever have early insight on their career trajectories.
Ultimately, the quarterback transfer market is a trend that isn’t going away. With only five years to play four seasons in college, timelines are brief. While it’s attractive to think that kids picked a school for more than their opportunity to play, that’s a significant part.
There isn’t truly a position like quarterback in sports, where only one gets to play. That exclusivity and lack of opportunity means movement will only continue to grow.