The 2015 season was supposed to be the down year for SEC quarterback play, but it might end up looking like the good ol’ days this fall with as many as 10 of the conference’s teams breaking in new starters.
Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M all will have a brand new signal-caller for sure, but the more interesting cases are at places like South Carolina and Florida and Georgia, where an incumbent starter returns but by no means has a lock on the job. By the time it all shakes out, the SEC East alone could have four true freshmen starting at the position.
Senior Perry Orth started eight games last year and is the team’s leading returning passer (1,929 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs in 2015), but there’s plenty of experience at the position. Connor Mitch (165 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) and Lorenzo Nunez (376 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs) each started two games. Add to the mix four-star early enrollee Brandon McIlwain and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has plenty to think about between now and the fall. A position change for the athletic Nunez could help ease the logjam, not to mention give South Carolina a much-needed perimeter playmaker, this spring.
Like the Gamecocks, the Gators have a returning starter. And, like the Gamecocks, they’re probably going to look around some this spring. Will Grier won the starting job last preseason and played well before an NCAA suspension threw Treon Harris (1,676 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) back into the starting job. Harris left Florida fans eagerly awaiting Grier’s return, but Grier announced he was transferring. The Gators have two DI transfers who will compete with Harris for the job as well as early enrollee Feleipe Franks, one of the nation’s top QB recruits.
The Bulldogs have two quarterbacks with plenty of experience, but Georgia fans are hoping that Greyson Lambert (1,959 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs) and Brice Ramsey (249 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) don’t get any more experience this year. The Bulldogs hung onto the commitment of five-start quarterback prospect Jacob Eason despite firing Mark Richt, so now Kirby Smart’s new staff will get to look at Lambert, Ramsey and Eason this spring.
It could finally be Drew Barker time. The one-time South Carolina recruiting target saw his path open up with the transfer of starter Patrick Towles to Boston College. Barker (364 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), a native Kentuckian, was a four-star prospect in 2014. The Wildcats also have a highly recruited freshman coming in for 2016 in 6-foot-4 Ohio native Gunnar Hoak, but Hoak is not an early enrollee.
Veteran Maty Mauk (654 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs) is back from two suspensions in 2015 and will try to win his starting job back from rising sophomore Drew Lock (1,332 yards, 4 TDs, 8 INTs). New offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will have to choose which player can best help an offense that finished No. 125 in the country last year with 281 yards per game.
Knoxville is the only island of quarterback certainty in the division. Senior Josh Dobbs (2,291 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs) is a big reason why the Volunteers probably will be the preseason pick to win the division. Dobbs is a three-year starter who is nearing 6,000 total yards in his career.
Veteran Johnny McCrary transferred after losing his job last year to freshman Kyle Shurmur, who gives the Commodores at least some sense of stability at the position. Shurmur (503 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs) is expected to hold off a couple of veterans during spring practice and hold onto the job.
It hasn’t seemed to matter much who the quarterback is in Tuscaloosa, which is comforting to Crimson Tide fans since there will be a new one this year. Jake Coker won a national title in his only season as the full-time starter, and now Alabama is back to the three players who Coker beat out for the job last preseason – Cooper Bateman (291 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) and Blake Barnett, a 6-foot-5, five-star prospect, who redshirted last year.
The Razorbacks lose Brandon Allen, statistically one of the best quarterbacks in the country last year, but could replace him with his brother Austin Allen (35 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT). Arkansas also has Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey, but the most intriguing prospect could by Ricky Town, who signed with Southern Cal last year as one of the top quarterback prospects in the country, but then transferred and sat out last season in Fayetteville.
The Tigers would fit well in the SEC East given their quarterback situation – multiple guys to choose from, nobody to love. Jeremy Johnson (1,042 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs) and Sean White (1,064 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) will renew their competition for the starting job this spring after bouncing back and forth at the position last year.
Brandon Harris (2,165 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs) finally beat out Anthony Jennings for the job last year and looks to have a hold on the starting job headed into his junior season, but Danny Etling, a transfer from Purdue who sat out last year, could push Harris in the spring.
Chad Kelly, the one-time Clemson player, is now the leading returning passer in the SEC. Kelly (4,042 yards, 31 TDs, 13 INTs) will have to get by without Laquan Treadwell in 2015 but is poised for another big year in Oxford, Miss. Shea Patterson, a five-star prospect who will join the team this summer, could get some playing time despite Kelly’s hold on the job.
Dak Prescott is finally gone, which makes every coach in the SEC other than Dan Mullen happy. Mullen now must prove he can keep the momentum going in Starkville, Miss., without one of the school’s best all-time players. The Bulldogs have plenty of bodies at the position – Nick Fitzgerald (235 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs), Elijah Staley (51 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT), Damian Williams and Nick Tiano.
It’s hard to do what Kevin Sumlin did in recruiting two five-star quarterbacks to your campus in close proximity, but it may be even harder to do what Sumlin did this offseason, which is lose both of them to transfer. Kyle Allen (2,210 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs) and Kyler Murray (686 yards, 5 TDs, 7 INTs) have bolted, leaving Jake Hubenak (399 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) as the heir apparent for the job, however Trevor Knight (305 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs at Oklahoma last year) will be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer.