True freshmen quarterbacks have been all the rage in the SEC this season. Two will now have to play their toughest battles yet.
Georgia’s Jacob Eason and South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain will have to capitalize on strong early season performance against a pair of top 11 opponents. Several other guys who didn’t start the season will also have their work cut out against productive opponents.
Here are five quarterbacks with the toughest tasks in Week 5.
Danny Etling, LSU
Season stats: 40-71 for 433 yards, 3 TDs, INT
Etling was definitively not the reason why Les Miles was fired, but the pressure on him will continue to rise anyway. The Purdue transfer was fairly average in his two starts, but Etling was a clear improvement on former QB Brandon Harris.
However, Etling suddenly has to deal with the loss of Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in the same week. Interim coach Ed Orgeron will have to keep many of the same concepts since there isn’t enough time to build and install a new offense in a week. However, Orgeron was clear that he wants there to be changes.
While LSU is the more talented football team, playing against Missouri won’t be a joke. Mizzou has quietly posted one of the most productive offenses in the league through four games. Etling will have to manage his team’s emotions and find a way to get everyone on the same page for an emotional game in Baton Rouge.
Stephen Johnson, Kentucky
Season stats: 29-44 for 490 yards, 3 TDs, INT; 30 carries for 66 yards
Johnson did not win the quarterback job in the offseason, but he was thrust into action after Drew Baker went out with an injury against New Mexico State. He has played reasonably well and brought a new dimension to the offense with his running ability. However, nothing has prepared him to take on the best team in college football.
The Alabama secondary might be the best in the nation. It features star safety Eddie Jackson and standout corners Mikah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. The front seven might be even more disruptive with defensive end Johnathan Allen leading the team with 1.5 sacks and a 75-yard defensive touchdown.
Even more importantly, Johnson is being asked to hold a struggling program together this weekend. The Wildcats experienced early season losses to Southern Miss and Florida, and needed an offensive explosion to beat New Mexico State. It will be important for Johnson to lead in order to avoid losing confidence for the rest of the season.
Jacob Eason, Georgia
Season stats: 64-123 for 780 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs
The true freshman had his first real test last week against Ole Miss. It’s unfair to say the loss was on him, but the Bulldogs were blasted in all three phases in a 45-14 loss to the Rebels. Saturday won’t get any easier.
While Tennessee has been inconsistent on offense, the defense has generally been outstanding. Defensive end Derek Barnett proved he has All-America potential, while the secondary withstood the loss of cornerback Cam Sutton.
Eason will need a better complementary effort from the running game to stand a chance in this one. The offensive line has been inconsistent protecting him and the wide receiver corps has dropped numerous passes in key spots. That can’t happen on Saturday or the game could get out of hand.
Drew Lock, Missouri
Season stats: 96 for 162 yards for 1,508 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs
Lock has quietly grown into one of the premiere quarterbacks in the SEC after four games. The sophomore started eight games as a first-year player after Maty Mauk was suspended, and he has already eclipsed his total from 2015 through four games.
LSU fired beloved head coach Les Miles on Sunday, so a stacked defense could be out for blood against Missouri on Saturday. Safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre’Davious White might be the best defensive back pairing in the nation, while defensive end Arden Key is playing with an unparalleled edge and leads the SEC in sacks.
Few players in the nation will be facing the kind of pressure Lock will encounter on Saturday. Not having a consistent run game means the entire offense will be on the sophomore’s shoulders in a hostile environment.
Brandon McIlwain, South Carolina
Season stats: 47-91 for 533 yards, 2 TDs; 40 carries for 91 yards, 2 TDs
The true freshman has been part of a standout rookie class of quarterbacks in the SEC, but his performance has been inconsistent to this point. He threw for a pair of touchdown passes against Mississippi State and rushed for a pair in a win over East Carolina. He faces another test with Texas A&M this weekend.
It will be the first true dual-threat quarterback the Aggies face this season, but Texas A&M is equipped to stop McIlwain. Defensive end Myles Garrett is a physical freak, while linebacker Shaan Washington has quickly turned into one of the most surprising performers in the SEC.
In addition to a strong defense, McIlwain could be without some of his favorite targets. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel is expected to be out another game, while leading receiver and fellow freshman Bryan Edwards could be out too. But as long as McIlwain’s confidence and self-esteem stays high, everything is a learning experience.