SEC Country invokes an early power-rankings look at the SEC East quarterbacks for 2016, a countdown which admittedly doesn’t have a lot of separation — after the reverence for Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs.
(To view the SEC West QB rankings from last month, click here.)
It’s worth noting: Given the lack of experience among the starting candidates at Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, along with the addition of 5-star true freshmen (Jacob Eason at UGA, Feleipe Franks with Florida), we’ll limit this countdown to the presumed starters for the month of September.
1. JOSHUA DOBBS, TENNESSEE
Dobbs’ tightrope-walking touchdown run in the Outback Bowl (above), on the heels of a busted play out of the shotgun (momentary fumble), represents an ideal launching point for the upcoming season.
Viewing the play, it appears Dobbs seemingly morphed into some orange-clad doppelganger to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, whose dream season at Auburn featured many athletic rushing touchdowns down the right sideline.
Dobbs’ touchdown run (his second against the Wildcats) also indicated how much experience and patience the kid has accrued through the years.
In his collegiate debut as a freshman (October 2013), Dobbs might have been the lone bright spot in Tennessee’s 45-10 blowout loss to Alabama, guiding the Volunteers to their only touchdown (mop-up duty). On that day, Dobbs looked every bit of a raw, perhaps overwhelmed newbie … but it was also a subtle showcase of the future, assuming he could develop into UT’s full-time quarterback.
That progression took place in the middle of his sophomore season (2014), with Dobbs marking his seasonal debut against Alabama (accounting for nearly 300 total yards and two TDs in relief) … before leading the Vols to a 4-1 finish, including a rock-solid bowl victory Iowa.
Fast forward to his recently completed junior campaign: Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 26 total TDs) evolved into a 60-percent passer. He starred in all nine wins. He also accounted for multiple touchdowns eight times — highlighted by his Newton-esque performance against UGA, amassing 430 total yards (312 passing) and five TDs in Tennessee’s frenetic comeback victory.
The only question left to ponder: Can the senior Dobbs lead Tennessee to an SEC East title?
2. GREYSON LAMBERT, UGA
Lambert (1,959 yards passing, 13 total TDs last year) has seemingly done enough to clinch second place for this countdown. But it likely doesn’t guarantee him any 2016 starts — beyond the Bulldogs’ opener against North Carolina (Sept. 3 at the Georgia Dome).
That has nothing to do with Lambert’s playing acumen … and everything to do with the emergence of 5-star recruit Eason, the No. 2 pro-style quarterback among true freshmen (source: 247Sports.com).
Obviously, no one expects new UGA coach Kirby Smart to reveal his seasonal plans for the quarterbacking slot — relative to the UNC opener and SEC campaign, at large — during the spring and summer months. However, it stands to reason Eason will garner live reps (in relief) in the first few games, similar to Matthew Stafford’s college indoctrination from a decade ago.
Of Stafford’s inaugural seven games in 2006 (four relief appearances, three starts), the future No. 1 overall pick (Detroit Lions, 2009) completed 47 of 93 passes for 582 yards, while accounting for two touchdowns (one rushing) and four interceptions. So-so numbers, for sure, but also enough for Stafford to become UGA’s indisputable full-time starter for the final six games — with per-outing averages of 195 yards passing, 1.3 touchdowns and 1.5 interceptions.
Then in 2007, the rocket-armed sophomore took a sizable leap forward, accounting for 2,523 yards passing and 21 touchdowns, while guiding UGA (11-2 overall) to a No. 2 ranking by season’s end.
Back to Lambert: If he should complete 24 or 25 passes for 330 yards and three TDs against North Carolina (replicating his otherworldly numbers against South Carolina last year — below) … the senior would be a good bet to start Game No. 2 against Nicholls State.
3. KYLE SHURMUR, VANDERBILT
The reasons for Shurmur being at the 3-spot are thrice in number:
a) His performance in last year’s finale (209 yards passing, three TDs against Tennessee) was good enough to prompt this post-game response from head coach Derek Mason: “I believe Vanderbilt has found a quarterback in Kyle Shurmur.”
To be fair, Mason has slightly walked back that statement in recent months, acknowledging the “quarterback competition” in spring practices. But at this point in the football calendar, it’s the coach’s jobs to promote competition at all positions — as a means of keeping players on their toes.
b) After Tennessee’s Dobbs and UGA’s Lambert, Shurmur has the best combination of playing experience (five games as a freshman), pedigree (football family of offensive visionaries at the NFL level), track record (4-star recruit out of high school) and upside among the other QB candidates in the SEC East.
c) Shurmur has a tremendous safety blanket in receiver Trent Sherfield (16 catches, 240 yards, one TD vs. Austin Peay last year), a junior-to-be playmaker who’s primed for 1,000 yards receiving yards, and maybe eight touchdowns.
4. LUKE DEL RIO, FLORIDA
I recently asked a college football-embedded friend to name the last Florida quarterback to pass for 2,000 yards in a single season … and he couldn’t do it (allotted two guesses).
The initial response would be Jeff Driskel, the former Florida quarterback who had a statistical breakthrough with Louisiana Tech last season (4,026 yards passing, 27 TDs). However, Driskel never crossed the 1,700-yard passing threshold with the Gators.
The same holds true for Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg, Treon Harris, Jacoby Brissett (before transferring to North Carolina State) and Will Grier (suspended midway through last year).
Which brings us to this: Forget about the easily attainable 2,000-yard mark in today’s passing-friendly age. (To be fair, in 2015, Grier would have flirted with 2,000 yards, if no suspension.) For the last three seasons, no Gators quarterback has singularly passed for 1,300 yards in a campaign.
Consequently, is it really fair (or even proper) to assign a top-four ranking to Florida’s starting quarterback for this countdown — without knowing who’ll win this spring/summer/fall competition?
For this year of uncertainty in the division … maybe.
Sure, coach Jim McElwain is “excited” about Luke Del Rio’s progress/potential in spring practices … but does such nebulous, obligatory praise imply separation from the other candidates — namely Austin Appleby (grad transfer from Purdue) or touted true freshman Feleipe Franks?
Bottom line: If McElwain, a noted offensive visionary in stops at Colorado State (head coach), Alabama (assistant) and Michigan State (assistant), can commit to a passer, that lucky prospect should be successful in the long run. (Recruiting blue-chip playmakers, en masse, would also help.)
Perhaps that starting quarterback will join John Brantley as Florida’s only 2,000-yard passer of the decade.
5. PERRY ORTH, SOUTH CAROLINA
Orth had a respectable finishing kick to last season while serving two head coaches (Steve Spurrier, Shawn Elliott).
Of his final seven outings, Elliott accounted for 200-plus yards passing and/or multiple touchdowns five times — including a three-touchdown effort against No. 1 Clemson.
But it’s anyone’s guess as to how that small-sample proficiency translates to the 2016 season, now that Will Muschamp oversees the Gamecocks program and Kurt Roper directs the offense. (Unlike the Spurrier years, South Carolina’s spring practices are largely closed to the media.)
6. DREW BARKER, KENTUCKY
Consider this ranking to be a placeholder — at least until Kentucky’s spring game. (Of course, every starting quarterback should throw for 300 yards/four TDs when wearing a black jersey.)
As noted in our way-too-early bowl projections from a few weeks ago, I believe Kentucky (seasonal projection: 8-4 overall, 5-3 SEC) will take a major step forward this season — the byproduct of solid recruiting classes throughout Mark Stoops’ tenure, including the heralded 2014 group (six 4-star talents), led by Barker (presumed starter at QB), defensive tackle Matt Elam and tailback Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams (candidate for 1,000 yards rushing/double-digit TDs).
Simply put, it’s time for the 2014 class to vault Kentucky to new heights on the football side; the initial three steps to that process entail: 1) committing to Barker’s long-term development (through thick and thin), 2) posting a winning record during SEC action, and 3) pulling off one substantial upset in conference play.
From an ambitious standpoint, perhaps the home clash with UGA on Nov. 5?
7. DREW LOCK, MISSOURI
Lock’s freshman-year stats (1,332 yards passing, 5 total TDs, 8 INTs) should be immaterial to this countdown. The Missouri program had to overcome many hardships last season (on and off the field), and Lock performed admirably in the face of great change — and chaos.
For starters, the 2015 Tigers essentially developed their receiving corps from scratch, riding a slew of freshmen and sophomores for long stretches. And that plan, at least in the short term, failed miserably, with no receiver tallying 400 yards or five touchdowns.
But that adversity could serve the Tigers well in 2016 (or more likely 2017), with Lock (4-star recruit from the Class of 2015) having an entire offseason to prepare as Mizzou’s starter.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.