SEC Football: Updating Every Team's Quarterback Situation
It's, to quote a cliche, out with the old and in with the new for Southeastern Conference quarterbacks in 2014. Much of the league's most proven talent at the position is now awaiting the NFL draft or has their diploma, leaving a relative hole at quarterback.
The cupboard isn't completely empty, though. A couple of all-stars in Mississippi return, as well as an injured signal-caller for one of the conference's most elite programs, and a massive amount of talent will step onto SEC campuses for the first time this fall.
With spring practice underway and guys now jockeying for starting roles, let's take a look at each squad's quarterback situation and project who will be taking the first snaps of the teams' first games.
For the nation's 17th-ranked scoring offense, replacing record-breaking quarterback AJ McCarron won't be an easy task. McCarron, a multi-year All-SEC nominee, graduates as the Crimson Tide's all-time leading passer in both a career and a season. He finished second in Heisman voting in 2013, won the Maxwell Award the same year and took his team to three national titles.
Not easy to replace, indeed.
There is a great deal of competition for the 2014 starting spot, and head coach Nick Saban is in no rush to clarify things. Breaking in a new offensive coordinator in former Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin, Saban is taking his time and letting Kiffin explore all options.
Senior Blake Sims leads the group in experience, though it's always been in a limited role. Sims has scored four touchdowns in the previous two seasons and features a more potent ground game than air attack. It's likely Saban will need the arm more than the legs and will be looking to mature a quarterback for the long term, making the underclassmen a more likely option.
True freshman David Cornwell, standing 6'5" and 241 pounds, has massive (pun intended) upside, but will likely redshirt as most Saban quarterbacks do and take time to heal from a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Parker McLeod and redshirt sophomore Alec Morris both have potential, but the race seems to be coming down to redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman and incoming Florida State transfer Jacob Coker.
In the mold of McCarron, Bateman is a former 4-star recruit who has a powerful arm and great football intelligence. His style is a proven one, but Kiffin may eschew it in favor of something more dynamic. What Bateman will have in his favor, though, is experience through practices. Coker, a former 3-star recruit from Mobile, Ala., likely wouldn't be transferring in if Saban didn't feel he could challenge for the starting spot right away.
Though this is a tight race, the odds are best for Bateman. He fits the mold and has proven in practices he can run the offense. Regardless of his decision, Saban sure has a fun problem on his hands.
Unless you're among the most elite athletes in the nation, trying to fill the shoes of former Arkansas quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson is a daunting task. After a nine-loss season under new head coach Bret Bielema, that's precisely what returning starting quarterback Brandon Allen has to face.
Frankly, Allen was among the worst starting quarterbacks in any major conference a year ago. The former 4-star recruit was heralded out of high school but completed under 50 percent of his passes as a sophomore and threw 10 interceptions to just 13 touchdowns. Coupled with his pocket-passing focus, Allen will have competition this fall. Whether injuries to his shoulder and leg held him back, Allen will have to step it up this spring.
Enrolling early and also a 4-star recruit, true freshman Rafe Peavey will be the biggest source of his competition. Hailing from Bolivar, Mo., Peavey is a game manager with an accurate arm and is more flexible in the pocket than Allen. If he can evolve into the leader the Razorbacks need him to be, look for Peavey to take the starting role.
Leading a 3-9 team to the BCS National Championship Game the year after is quite a feat, and quarterback Nick Marshall pulled it off in 2013.
Though all three quarterbacks return for the Tigers, much has changed this offseason. Expectations are suddenly sky-high, and Heisman finalist Tre Mason has moved on to greater heights. Though the talent Auburn has at the running back spot is undeniable and head coach Gus Malzahn's offense will always be potent, there will be some pressure on Marshall to round out his abilities in the passing attack.
The former 3-star recruit rushed for 1,068 yards a year ago for 12 touchdowns and completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Marshall's calm demeanor and speed on the edges makes him arguably the best overall returning SEC quarterback.
Rising sophomore Jeremy Johnson remains as Marshall's backup and, as a pocket passer, may not see much playing time. Former starter Jonathan Wallace has plummeted down the depth chart, but provides Malzahn with a potent option on two-point conversions. Incoming freshman Sean White also has talent mainly in his passing game and likely won't see playing time without some major injury situations.
All eyes are now on Marshall and the Tigers to see if 2014 can be a replay of the surprising 2013 campaign.
The Florida Gators tied for 112th in the nation in scoring offense a year ago. There aren't a whole lot more FBS teams than that in the nation.
Much of the struggle can be associated with injury. After starter Jeff Driskel suffered a broken leg against Tennessee, the lack of talent and depth at the position became readily apparent. Eight losses and a new offensive coordinator later, head coach Will Muschamp is undoubtedly hoping Driskel comes back from injury stronger than ever and ready for a new offense.
Incoming freshman Will Grier is the second-ranked quarterback out of high school and is supposed to give Driskel a challenge for the top spot. Despite his powerful arm, Grier's lack of experience will likely hand the starting position to Driskel. This fall will be an audition of sorts for Driskel, though, as Gator fans are undoubtedly waiting impatiently for Grier's much-anticipated debut.
Historic Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has graduated, and the UGA quarterback battle has begun. The most likely player to step into the role is Hutson Mason, who saw a good deal of playing time last season after Murray tore his ACL against Kentucky.
Mason, a rising senior, completed over 60 percent of his passes a year ago for 968 yards and five touchdowns. He looked overwhelmed at times but has the throwing ability to be competent. With Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley returning from injury, competent may be all Mason needs to be.
Former 4-star quarterback Brice Ramsey certainly has the build to lead an SEC offense, standing 6'3" and weighing in at 205 pounds, but the redshirt freshman will likely have to learn one more year through practices as a backup before he's ready for the reins. So too will early enrollee and South Carolina's 2013 Mr. Football, Jacob Park.
Barring any shocking performances in spring and fall practices, Mason will be handing the ball off to Gurley in 2014.
Following yet another atrocious year in Lexington, all bets are off for head coach Mark Stoops.
Battling injuries, rising juniors Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith traded time at the helm in 2013. Whitlow proved to be superior by far, completing over 60 percent of his passes and ranking as the team's third-leading rusher. Whitlow's weakness, though, is his on-field decision-making, and Stoops will have to find a way to improve that through the spring.
With the sheer amount and severity of injuries Smith has suffered, including an offseason shoulder surgery, he's not expected to play a major role in the offense any longer. Though rising sophomore Patrick Towles and redshirt freshman Reece Phillips might make a play, the only suspected threat to Whitlow's position is incoming freshman Drew Barker.
A 4-star recruit out of Burlington, Ky., Barker was the highest-ranked recruit out of Kentucky and one of the most hyped quarterback recruits to ever sign with UK. Standing 6'3" and weighing 214 pounds, Barker is already in SEC shape and joined the team early enough to participate in spring practices. Reports, such as this from Jennifer Smith on Kentucky.com, say that he's earning respect and already becoming a leader.
Expect to see Whitlow take the fall's first snaps for Kentucky, but don't be surprised if Barker takes over should Whitlow falter.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron took what was a defensive-minded team and a mediocre quarterback and turned LSU into a potent offensive machine driven by a rejuvenated Zach Mettenberger.
With Mettenberger graduating, the void at the position for LSU is similar to the one in Tuscaloosa. Wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham both opted for the NFL, so whoever wins the position will have a tough road ahead of him.
The starter will clearly be either last year's backup Anthony Jennings or incoming freshman Brandon Harris.
Jennings was near total irrelevance last year behind Mettenberger, completing just 44.8 percent of his attempts and recording one touchdown and interception apiece. A rising sophomore, Jennings will have a lot to prove to hold off heralded 4-star recruit Harris. Harris has more arm strength, which fits better in Cameron's system, and is capable as a scrambler.
Likely the third-string option, redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig isn't as mobile as the other two and doesn't have the ceiling that Harris has.
Though this one is a pure tossup, let's call it for Harris to pull out enough in practice to overthrow Jennings for the starting spot.
As one of the conference's most underhyped players headed into 2014, rising junior Dak Prescott overtook senior Tyler Russell during 2013 and put up some massive numbers.
Prescott, a protege for head coach Dan Mullen, is a dual-threat quarterback who, despite playing behind Russell for most of the season as an underclassman, ranked third in the SEC in total offense and scored 23 touchdowns. It needn't be said that the starting quarterback position is easily Prescott's in 2014.
Depth at the SEC's up-and-coming programs isn't typically a selling point, and this rings true for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have little experience behind Prescott, though true freshman Damian Williams wasn't completely inept when he was needed last season.
The competition in Starkville, of course, is for that second-string position. Incoming freshmen Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley, both out of Georgia, will be pushing Williams. As a 2-star recruit, Fitzgerald enrolled early, and he has been picking up the offense nicely and has the athletic body needed to compete. Staley, a 3-star, is lanky and might need to gain some weight before he's able to see real playing time.
If Prescott stays healthy, and it's important for State that he does, the Bulldogs could be in for a huge 2014 season.
Comfortably in the driver's seat for Missouri's top quarterback position is rising sophomore Maty Mauk. Having lost one-time Heisman candidate James Franklin to graduation, the offense will be on the shoulders of the athletic, quick-minded Mauk.
During Mizzou's magical run to the SEC East title, Mauk stepped in for an injured Franklin and tallied 1,071 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions on top of 229 yards rushing. A dual-threat that fits neatly into Missouri's powerful offense, Mauk won't have a lot to work with at first but has huge potential in Columbia.
While incoming freshman Marvin Zanders is likely headed for a redshirt season, rising redshirt junior Corbin Berkstresser and redshirt freshman Eddie Printz will be vying for the backup role.
Last year's starting quarterback, Bo Wallace, shouldn't have much trouble retaining his role after a 3,346-yard performance last season that saw the rising senior connect on almost 65 percent of his passes. Though his decision-making has been shaky, no one can deny his skill or his accuracy.
Redshirt freshman and former 3-star quarterback DeVante Kincade seems to be pulling away from the pack as Wallace's backup, as his patience and accuracy have shown through in spring practices. Of concern is his size, though, as a 6'0" and (reportedly) 200-pound frame is a little small to be elusive in game situations.
On the other end of the spectrum is sophomore Jeremy Liggins. At 6'3" and 296 pounds, Liggins is huge with a huge arm, but his size is likely holding him back from truly competing for a major role. Redshirt freshman Ryan Buchanan is beside Liggins competing for third, as his skills have shown to be just too raw with too many mistakes in practices.
Wallace is an all-star and returns having an argument for the best quarterback in the SEC. With a huge majority of the team returning, Ole Miss could make a run for the SEC West in 2014.
Another team, another star quarterback gone. This time it's Connor Shaw's shoes that need to be filled, and it won't be easy. Though most are unfamiliar with his name, he leaves South Carolina as one of the most storied Gamecocks in history and was known for his gritty clutch performances.
Last year's backup, Dylan Thompson, is the bettor's pick for this year's starting role. Thompson, in his fifth year with Carolina, fell just short of 60 percent passing completion last season and connected for four touchdowns. A passing-focused dual threat of sorts, Thompson is light on his feet but not a bombastic rusher. That all-around solidness defines Thompson.
Though Thompson is the logical pick, redshirt freshmen Brendan Nosovitch and Connor Mitch have a chance to push for the spot. Hailing from Allentown, Pa., Nosovitch came in a season ago as an underrecruited 3-star recruit and put up huge numbers in high school. With a bigger frame and even better high school stats, 4-star Mitch registered over 12,000 yards and has the arm to challenge Thompson. Folks with his first name tend to do well in Columbia, after all.
The Vols had one of those weird seasons in 2013 where there was no clear starting quarterback. No one took the role and excelled, and here we are, at spring practice, with even fewer answers.
Among last year's rotation were junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Joshua Dobbs. While Peterman struggled from the outset, both Worley and Dobbs competed well. Each hit on over 55 percent of his passes and equally floundered with ball control.
Many of Peterman's issues seem to have risen from a thumb injury, and both Worley and Dobbs rode a roller coaster of breakout games and embarrassments. There's no doubt, though, that the fan favorite will be redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson.
A pro-style quarterback out of Matthews, N.C., Ferguson is the guy no one has seen take a snap and as such, he embodies perfection. Likely the third-stringer before a stress fracture forced a redshirt, Ferguson's athletic and has the feet to mobilize effectively in the pocket.
This four-way race is just too close to call, and head coach Butch Jones needs to find a clear answer before the fall in order to create some consistency on offense.
A two-time Heisman finalist and first-ever freshman winner Johnny Manziel leaves a legacy of epic proportions behind him in College Station. The Aggies offense will be torn apart in 2014, as both he and his star wide receiver and roommate Mike Evans depart early for the NFL.
One of the competitors for the position, rising sophomore Kenny Hill, was recently arrested for public intoxication and suspended indefinitely. Assuming that knocks Hill out of the race, there remains an experienced underdog and a newcomer favorite.
A hulking rising senior, Matt Joeckel has years of practice behind him and a deep understanding of the offense. Though his physicality, at 6'4" and 240 pounds, is impressive, he simply can't match the raw talent of incoming freshman phenom Kyle Allen.
A 5-star recruit out of Scottsdale, Ariz., Allen enters A&M as the seventh-best recruit out of high school and the top-rated quarterback. A pro-style player with speed and accuracy, Allen is perhaps the biggest recruit to hit the SEC gridiron in 2014 and likely has the advantage.
Freshmen have a bit of a history at Texas A&M, and Kyle Allen will continue the trend.
Austyn Carta-Samuels, a deadly accurate beast of a signal-caller who led Vandy to yet another nine-win season a year ago, has departed, and Nashville will hold yet another battle for the starting quarterback spot.
The role of the favorite belongs to last year's backup and rising sophomore Patton Robinette. Starting three games a year ago and playing in 10, Robinette connected on a respectable 52.3 percent of his passes but struggled with interceptions, recording five. His challenger is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, a former 4-star recruit out of Ellenwood, Ga.
Both stand 6'4" and weigh around 220 pounds, and both have skills on the move. Robinette, with his experience, will likely get the nod in 2014. Junior Josh Grady, battling a left knee injury, will likely remain at his third-string spot.
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Star ratings courtesy of Rivals.com.