If the SEC has a bright future, football optimists will quickly point to the conference’s crop of young, talented quarterbacks.
Four true freshman finished 2016 as their team’s starter under center: Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Georgia’s Jacob Eason, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson. They combined to throw for 6,768 yards, 48 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, while their teams collectively won 25 of the 34 games in which they played. Hurts even heard his name floated as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
This quick-rising quartet of blue-chip arms should return to the field stronger, smarter and more experienced in 2017; most are expecting as much. But there’s a more interesting question involving this group of underclassmen:
By the time they’ve all thrown their last college passes, who will have had the most successful career? SEC Country’s Alec Shirkey, Alex Smith, Andrew Astleford and Shehan Jeryarajah each made the case for one of the SEC’s up-and-coming quarterbacks.
Alex Martin Smith: Jacob Eason, Georgia
When Georgia’s 5-star freshman tossed a game-winning touchdown pass at Missouri in late September, it seemed as if he might be ready to lead the Bulldogs to Atlanta. Expectations shot up, and momentarily peaked when Eason tossed another apparent game-winner in the final moments vs. Tennessee.
But with Josh Dobbs’ ensuing “Heave Between the Hedges” came the sobering decline of Eason. Georgia’s youngster completed just 5 of 17 attempts vs. South Carolina the following week, and had only one multi-touchdown game in his final seven contests. Now, Eason has lost a lot of the shine he had a couple months ago — so much so that you could make a decent argument he’s the least promising quarterback of the four being discussed.
Don’t believe it. This is still the can’t-miss prospect with all the physical tools to succeed, and he’ll progress as Georgia grows. Smart will recruit plenty of 4-star and 5-star athletes to ease the burden on his quarterback, who will one day be elite if he continues to improve in the same areas all great quarterbacks improve in over time: decision-making, accuracy and leadership.
The troops will be there for a title run. His own physical gifts will be there. And Eason has plenty of time to put it all together.
Andrew Astleford: Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
Chad Kelly worked out well at Ole Miss, so Patterson is bound to enjoy similar success, right? Ole Miss’ offensive situation is in flux with a new coordinator reportedly on the way. But assuming Hugh Freeze gets this hire right, Patterson should thrive under new direction. We saw flashes of what he can do when he threw for 338 yards with 2 touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory at Texas A&M on Nov. 12. Urgency should be in ample supply after the Rebels limped through a year in which they went 5-7 with a 2-6 mark in the SEC, a huge failure given the high hopes for Ole Miss entering the season.
It was wise of Freeze to push Patterson into action late in the fall; the move should set up the young signal caller for big success next year and beyond. Yes, he made mistakes after that rousing win in College Station. Yes, he has room to improve, as shown in his struggles against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. But Freeze understands what he has in Patterson, and here’s guessing the coach will be aggressive in trying to maximize his young quarterback’s potential before he moves on to likely NFL riches.
There’s too much at stake for Freeze not to do so. Ole Miss can’t waste its years with Patterson like it missed out with Kelly this fall. The future has arrived, and with Patterson, the Rebels’ tomorrow looks bright.
Shehan Jeyarajah: Jalen Hurts, Alabama
This was an exceptional freshman quarterback class, but one player clearly stood above. Not only was Hurts named SEC Offensive Player of the Year and All-SEC First Team at the position, but he led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season and SEC championship in his true freshman year.
The scariest part? This offensive explosion might be the new normal in Tuscaloosa.
Hurts was an inconsistent passer, but still threw for 2,592 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also brings a dual-threat playmaking ability that none of the other contenders come close to matching. Just look at his game against Tennessee. Even though he had an off day throwing the ball, Hurts still ran for 132 yards and three touchdowns. His ability to make plays under pressure already might be better than any other quarterback in the conference.
The one significant concern comes on the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin left to take the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic. Nick Saban will need to find another coordinator who can take advantage of Hurts’ unique skill set.
However, trusting Saban to figure out a coaching staff is one of the safest bets in college football. As long as things don’t change too drastically, Hurts will have a chance to lead Alabama to a national championship every year of his college career.
Alec Shirkey: Jake Bentley, South Carolina
Pitted against the likes of Hurts, Eason and Patterson, Bentley might be at a disadvantage in terms of raw talent. But what this coach’s son might lack in athleticism or throwing power, he makes up for in game smarts and sound decision-making.
This wasn’t the case 100 percent of the time — he notably struggled against a pair of elite defenses in Clemson and Florida — but to be fair, the entire offense struggled in those games. We also saw Bentley’s enormous potential in other performances, like South Carolina’s upset win over Tennessee. Bentley went a crisp 15 of 20 passing for 167 yards, 2 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He faced the Vols’ fearsome Derek Barnett-led pass rush with poise and grace. And he completed four of his six attempts of 11 yards or longer, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Edwards.
Speaking of the Gamecocks’ receivers, few SEC quarterbacks will possess the types of weapons South Carolina is accumulating on offense (although Hurts will). Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurts and Edwards all topped 500 yards receiving in their first year as starters; Samuel and Hurst were sophomores, while Edwards was a freshman. Rico Dowdle also burst onto the scene at running back, averaging 5.9 yards per carry in his first season on campus.
So long as Will Muschamp can recruit offensive linemen, Bentley will have a strong cast of talent surrounding him and a Coach Boom defense on his sideline to boot.
Remember: The question is who will have the best college career, not who has the highest NFL ceiling. Hurts hasn’t exactly improved as a downfield passer since his stellar debut, and Eason’s progress was marginal — he threw three interceptions in his last two games.
The Gamecocks went 6-6 with a talent-depleted roster and underclassmen playing everywhere. Imagine what they can do after they get a full recruiting cycle under their belt?