SEC West has plenty of questions at QB

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey throws a pass during the Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey throws a pass during the Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.

— Whether an honest perspective from the head coaches or a motivational ploy, ‘unsettled’ describes the quarterback competition at Arkansas and three other teams in the SEC West.

Maybe the men in charge have a gut feeling about the September starter, maybe not. Maybe they simply want to make certain all the candidates continue to work and learn, and are primed for fall practice.

Whatever they’re thinking, Chad Morris, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Alabama’s Nick Saban say they will not name a No. 1 QB until August, although Saban’s conundrum is far different because one of his quarterbacks started two national championship games and the other came off the bench to win the second title game.

Elsewhere in the SEC West, there are wrinkles in the quarterback competition:

— At Mississippi State, a healthy Nick Fitzgerald might be the best quarterback in the SEC, but there are questions concerning his recovery from a gruesome injury suffered in the Egg Bowl in late November.

— At Ole Miss, Jordan Ta’amu is a senior who started the last five games of 2017, but fans in Oxford are enamored with a four-star candidate from California. Matt Corral committed to Florida and coach Jim McElwain in July, but flipped to the Rebels after McElwain was canned and Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson transferred to Michigan.

By process of elimination, that leaves Auburn with Jarrett Stidham as the only team in the SEC West without any controversy or competition at quarterback. As a sophomore, he was 37-of-51 for 451 yards without an interception in victories over No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in a three-week span.

In Fayetteville, junior Ty Storey is competing with sophomore Cole Kelley and Morris is playing it cool, even tossing out the possibility of an incoming freshman winning the job.

Prior to the Red-White game, he called the Kelley-Storey competition a “wash.”

Post-game, Morris said “some good, some bad” quarterback play was a snapshot of the performances of both quarterbacks during the spring. He added that both might be trying to do too much at times and that they will find the answers if they defer to the system.

Morris has a reputation as an offensive genius, but even he could not have orchestrated the contest so that both quarterbacks threw for precisely 126 yards. Neither was particularly impressive — Storey completed half of his 14 passes and Kelley was only a tick better on his 19 attempts.

Before spring practice began, their 2017 stats and starts were heavily weighted in favor of Kelley. In four starts, Kelley completed 87 of 151 and ran for 107 yards; Storey did not start, did not throw a pass and lost five yards on his only carry.

Still, Storey is a legitimate threat to win out, an indication he has a thorough knowledge of the offense. “You ask Ty any question we have and he spits out the answer immediately,” said offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Joe Craddock.

Meanwhile, Orgeron and Saban have taken a stance that flies in the face of the old football idiom, that “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” Both say they might play two, opening the door to second-guessing of the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the athletes involved. However, considering Alabama’s talent, the team will be in jeopardy no more than three or four times all season.

Orgeron was on a Birmingham radio station talking about the battle between Myles Brennan, Justin McMillan and Lowell Narcisse when he said: “I have no problem playing two quarterbacks. If one quarterback can do something very well, the other quarterback can come in and do some runs for us … we may do that.”

Brennan played in six games as a freshman and attempted 24 passes, McMillan is a redshirt junior who has thrown one pass in his college career and Narcisse is a four-star prospect who redshirted as a freshman.

Compare those resumes with those compiled by the candidates available to Saban. Jalen Hurts is 26-2 as a starter and Tua Tagovailoa, subbing for Hurts, was responsible for the Crimson Tide beating Georgia in overtime in the title game in January.

“The most important thing is to play the best guy, and if both guys can play winning football, it’s not out of the question that we’ll find a role for both guys in fairness to both guys,” Saban told ESPN.

The situation is a bit more old-fashioned at A&M where new coach Jimbo Fisher has a reputation for getting quarterbacks to the NFL.

The Aggies went old school in their spring game, with players/captains drafting teams for the three-hour contest in front of a record crowd of more than 48,000.

Impressive early, Nick Starkel locked in on a receiver on his 16th pass of the game and never saw the defender who returned an interception inside the 10. On the play, Fisher was in the end zone, about 15 yards behind the quarterback, and the head coach was still talking to the quarterback when Kellen Mond followed the pick with a TD pass.

Mond, who started eight games last year, completed 19 of 26 for 180 yards and three touchdowns while Starkel, who made five starts, was good on 26-of-42 for 373 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s too early to name a No. 1, Fisher said, “because we’re just really now getting into the offense, as far as the fine-tuning and the nuances of it that really makes it go …”

In Starkville, new coach Joe Moorhead says the presence of sophomore Keytaon Thompson will allow Fitzgerald to ease back into the action at his own pace. At this point, Fitzgerald is limited and his penchant for running — 357 carries for 2,359 yards the past two years — makes him particularly vulnerable.

Thompson might be the future, but the Bulldogs will not be a major threat unless Fitzgerald is full speed.

During Mississippi’s spring game, which was opposite the Arkansas telecast, Ta’amu completed 12 of 20 for 190 yards and two touchdowns despite missing three of his top receivers and two starting offensive linemen. Naturally, coach Matt Luke praised Ta’amu at the conclusion of spring practice, but the buzz will be about Corral if the Rebels start 2-3 against Texas Tech, Alabama and LSU.

For now, the plethora of quarterbacks in the SEC West will provide talking points that last until August.

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