Early in the first quarter against New Mexico State, Kentucky starting quarterback Drew Barker was helped to the training table after sustaining a leg injury. He was eventually carted to the locker room and did not return.
Although this surely isn’t how he hoped to get it, junior college transfer Stephen Johnson was ready for the opportunity.
“I definitely came here to start,” Johnson told SEC Country after the win. “This season and next season.”
Even though the opponent was New Mexico State, a team that hasn’t beaten a Power Five school since knocking off Minnesota in 2011, Johnson’s performance was impressive. He completed 17 of 22 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns and added 51 yards rushing in the 62-42 shootout. More importantly, Johnson led the Wildcats to their first win of the season.
The SEC got off to a 6-6 start in nonconference play in Week 1. Mississippi State and Kentucky lost to mid-major programs, while LSU and Auburn fell to Power Five competition.
This season was always going to have inconsistent quarterback play. Only four teams started the same player as opening day 2015, while seven of those teams lost their most productive passer from 2015 to graduation, transfer or the NFL.
In the weeks since, seven teams have seen a backup quarterback play significant minutes, while four have already benched a starter. Johnson will be the fifth. Florida’s Austin Appleby would make it six after the Gators lost Luke Del Rio to a knee injury.
These teams fall into three different categories:
1. Youth movement
It wasn’t a secret that the SEC had a nice quarterback recruitinghaul. Conference teams pulled in eight Class of 2016 recruits that ranked among the top 10 dual-threat or pro-style quarterbacks. However, few expected these players to see the field so quickly.
By Week 2, true freshmen Jalen Hurts and Jacob Eason had already taken over for Alabama and Georgia, respectively.
Eason was somewhat expected. He was the nation’s No. 5 overall prospect coming out of high school and a consensus five-star recruit. Incumbent star Greyson Lambert was not much more than a game manager in 2015 and only posted three games of 200 or more passing yards. Eason already has two such games in his two starts.
Hurts was a surprise, rated just the No. 11 quarterback in the nation. Reports came out of camp that the early enrollee was impressing teammates and coaches with his poise and performance in workouts, but few thought he had a real chance to push out fourth-year junior Cooper Bateman or 5-star redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who started the opener against USC. Hurts entered that game as a reserve and scored four touchdowns to win the job.
South Carolina quarterback Brandon McIlwain is the most recent to take over. He was the backup behind former walk-on Perry Orth for the first two games, but eventually impressed enough to get the start against East Carolina. While McIlwain has plenty of room to improve, he led the Gamecocks to their second win and should keep the job.
What’s more, the top prospect in the class hasn’t even gotten a chance to play. No. 4 overall prospect Shea Patterson went to Ole Miss, but is waiting behind Chad Kelly. The upcoming group of quarterbacks could compare to a few years ago, when A.J McCarron, Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel were the conference’s headliners.
LSU was just a quarterback short in its opening game against Wisconsin. Brandon Harris continued his streak of poor performance, throwing a key interception with the game on the line to seal the loss.
Harris got one more start, but was pulled almost immediately after the first two drives against Jacksonville State resulted in 3-and-outs. Backup Danny Etling came in and immediately spurred the offense to three touchdown drives in the first half of a 34-13 win. Etling isn’t an exceptional player, but he avoids enough mistakes to manage games effectively for the Tigers.
While one set of Tigers has leveraged a new starter into stronger performance, the Auburn Tigers still don’t seem to know what they are doing. Sean White remains the starter, but he threw for 126 yards and averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt against Texas A&M on Saturday.
Reserve John Franklin III went into the game for the final three drives and led the Tigers to a touchdown and another lengthy drive near the end. The offense averaged 5.9 yards per play during his drives, significantly better than the 3.9 yards per play in White’s drives. For perspective, only one team nationally is averaging under four yards per play this season: UMass.
Stephen Johnson only got an opportunity to play because Barker got injured, but he took full advantage of his first opportunity. Now, he gets to start against an SEC team with Barker out for at least the next week. Should he continue his strong performance against the Gamecocks, Mark Stoops will have to take notice.
Appleby will also step into the starting role against Tennessee in lieu of Del Rio.
While quarterback turmoil can destroy a locker room, it appears all of these changes will pay off in the long run.
Coaches tend to shy away from starting young quarterbacks, especially at places like Alabama. While there could be some short-term bumps, the results are already showing up.
Since the rocky Week 1, the SEC has gone 15-1 against non-conference opponents. Quarterback changes have played a major factor. Even incumbent quarterbacks like Missouri’s Drew Lock, Arkansas’ Austin Allen and Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight should continue to get better as they gain familiarity in their first season starting at their current school.
It seems like quarterback play in the SEC might finally be rounding into place.