No conference has come under as much fire for its quarterback play, or lack thereof, as the SEC. But the conference is on the cusp of a boom, with a batch of talented young signal-callers and recent imports.
Here’s a power ranking of how each SEC team stacks up at the game’s most important position heading into 2017.
Another year, another season in which LSU has as much talent as any teamin the country — except at quarterback. 2017 sets up to be doubly difficult. Brandon Harris, the Tigers’ most senior QB, is transferring. And new OC Matt Canada runs as expansive and demanding an offense as any coach in college football.
There’s no doubt that Canada is smart enough to strip his system back and build it around who he has, but it’s not like the Tigers are falling over talented players around which to build a scheme. Danny Etling — who ended the 2016 season as the starter after taking the job from Harris — will likely start 2017 under center, unless one of the Tigers’ recent recruits takes way the job.
13. Texas A&M
This is likely going to be a holdover year for A&M’s traditional plug-and-play offense.
While the Aggies should be preparing to mount a charge at the West with 1 of their 5-star quarterback recruits bedded into their system, they’ll likely have to turn to someone who has never seen an SEC game.
Following the multiple transfers a year ago, and graduate transfer Trevor Knight leaving the program, the Aggies will go into the season with unknowns — Kellen Mond, a top dual-threat recruit in the 2017 class; and Nick Starkel, a redshirt freshman.
At what point will we get to see Jim McElwain with a competent quarterback? (Save your “when he recruits one” jokes).
McElwain’s deception-based offense doesn’t demand an awful lot from its quarterback. Instead, it relies on getting the ball where it needs to be, on time, while attacking defenses through design and trying to reveal as much information before the snap as possible with motions and shifts.
Thus far, McElwain had no luck with a trail of QBs who either struggle to throw, are inaccurate when they do, give the ball to the other team too often, or have been beaten up.
This year sets up to be much of the same.
Luke Del Rio is back, though he’s really limited physically and leaves a ton of plays on the field. Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks — who both redshirted last year — will factor into the discussion all season long. Trask isn’t as physically impressive as Franks, but he’s said to have a better understanding of the offense at this point and is more used to getting the ball out in rhythm rather than playing “see it, throw it.”
For Florida to get back to Atlanta, it needs a redshirt freshman to develop into a quality starter.
Butch Jones is in the enviable position of having depth, veterans and talent in his quarterback room. Unfortunately, we just haven’t seen them play on Saturdays yet.
One thing the Commodores do have is depth. They could have upwards of 6 quarterbacks by the time the season rolls around. Derek Mason will be hoping that Kyle Shurmur can take a leap in his junior year, but I wouldn’t hold out hope. Shurmur is physically limited and struggles within tan offense that requires him to get the ball out on time rather than wait for players to come open.
If Shurmur doesn’t progress, Mason will have plenty of options.
It’s hard to know what to expect from Mark Stoops’ quarterback room before spring football. A lot of what the Wildcats do will depend on injuries. Drew Barker — last year’s opening-game starter — continues to rehab. Replacement Stephen Johnson should be ready for the spring. Johnson helps with option elements within the Wildcats offense but is limited as a passer.
For me, there’s a clear demarcation between the top-7 sides and everyone else.
The drop-off starts with Mizzou. Its first season in Josh Heupel’s Air Raid offense didn’t necessarily inspire confidence in Drew Lock as anything more than an average college thrower. The system is designed to simplify things, giving predetermined looks and 1-read RPOs. And while that’s a bonus when embedding a young quarterback, it also makes plays easier to defend and tougher on the offense when those initial looks are removed.
Then there’s Lock. It’s unfair to criticize him for locking on throws that have designed “sleeper routes” — where receivers on a side of the field are not running a route (more explanation here) . But it’s valid to point out that Lock just hasn’t progressed from the neck up, limiting his immense physical gifts.
Here’s a good example: Lock predetermines the throw, stares down the defender, never moves off the receiver — and then misses the throw high.
If the defense takes away that initial read, then the offense becomes stuck in mud and Lock begins to make poor decisions — or no decision at all — as the script breaks down.
Heupel might look to expand things in 2017, but he can only work with what he has.
7. Mississippi State
MSU completes the list of teams that should feel really good about their QB situation heading into spring football. Dan Mullen’s impressive track record of developing signal-callers helps with that. So does Nick Fitzgerald’s first season as a starter.
Obviously, Fitzgerald is limited as a passer and that limits the offense. But he is a dynamic athlete. As the 2016 season progressed Mullen began to include more intricate option-designs and split-zones to help Fitzgerald and better attack defenses.
Were Fitzgerald to go down the Bulldogs would be in trouble. Behind their starter they are awfully thin.
6. South Carolina
Folks have slept on Jake Bentley within this crop of talented young quarterbacks. Bentley might not be the biggest name, but he could wind up being the best.
Of all the young quarterbacks, he’s the most advanced from the neck up. He can move and manipulate the defense with his eyes to distort coverage and create the matchups he wants. And he has the figure-it-out gene, quickly coming off deep shots to hit his checkdown or playing off-script and finding a way to complete throw.
Bentley’s physical tools don’t necessarily leap off the screen — though he can move and the Gamecocks use option-elements — but he more than makes up for it with his intellect.
If you had told me to project this list a year ago I’d have a hard time not thinking the Bulldogs would be the sure-fire No. 1 team.
Jacob Eason is really, really good. He had a fine year as a true freshman. But his lack of mobility, inconsistency with his feet and errant ball location are worrisome. Eason remains the best overall talent from within the pocket, but he must take strides in 2017.
4. Ole Miss
If we go just by entertainment value for a minute, then there’s none better than Shea Patterson. The comparisons to Johnny Manziel are valid: They look — on the field — eerily similar, and Patterson is a flat-out gamer.
Patterson’s mobility will be a crucial element of the Rebels offense in 2017. Once again, Ole Miss failed to get a running game going in 2016, and its offense line relied on its quarterbacks being able to move and avoid defenders. Yet Patterson isn’t just a playmaker who can escape the pocket and make dazzling plays — he’s a quarterback. He throws well enough from inside the pocket to force defenses to bite on fakes and shows enough accuracy to each level of the field to intimidate cornerbacks.
There’s no denying he also has Manziel’s reckless streak, and he’s tough to build a structure around. If Patterson becomes a more consistent rhythm thrower and curtails some of his recklessness, he’ll be a star.
When a team has the reigning SEC offensive player of the year returning at quarterback it is in good shape.
Jalen Hurts had a great 2016 season, albeit in a simplified offense that saw him throw balls behind the line of scrimmage at a 46 percent clip. With another year of offseason development there’s no telling how much Hurts will improve. His downfield accuracy last season was nothing short of abysmal, but if he can get that more towards the middle of the pack then he’ll be difficult to handle.
Furthermore, like at every other position, the Crimson Tide have a solid backups. They might not have a slew of veterans ready to step in, but the Tide have the best thing: talent.
Freshman Tua Tagovaiola is a rare talent, one who throws off-platform as well as you’ll see from a high school player. He also can move and has a cannon attached to his left shoulder. As much as Hurts lit up the field a year ago, if he struggles to progress or the offense is unable to evolve, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Tagovaiola at some point.
Austin Allen had one of the most under-appreciated seasons of any player in 2016. Allen doesn’t put up dazzling numbers or do the sexy things like taking off and creating big plays with his legs. What he does, is control the game, command the offense and play as well within the offensive structure as any quarterback in the nation.
Allen was the conference’s best rhythm thrower a year ago, and he is as deadly as they come when throwing off play-action.
He does need help, most notably from a running game, but also up front where Allen is unable to evade pressure like some of the true dual-threat guys. But he isn’t a statue in the pocket, with some escape ability to stick, slide and avoid pressure, doing so with great poise.
As good as the top situation is, Allen is the most “sure thing.”
As soon as he signed with Auburn, Jarrett Stidham was instantly the most talented quarterback in the conference. His blend of mobility, quick release, accuracy to all levels and fit within Gus Malzahn’s offense gives the Tigers a deadly playmaker.
I wrote in more detail about Stidham’s skill set and his fit in Auburn’s offense here.