Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Assessing QB situation for each SEC team
KJ Jefferson entered and emerged from spring practice as Arkansas’ top quarterback. “Coming out of spring I feel like I grew and matured a whole lot from where I was when we first started spring,” he said. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Spring practices are complete around the SEC, so it’s back to speculation season for the country’s top college football league.
The country is slowly emerging from the coronavirus pandemic and college football officials are harboring cautious hope that attendance allowances will push toward 100% by the time season openers roll around.
In the SEC, another wave of fantastic quarterbacks — led by Alabama’s Mac Jones, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Arkansas’ Feleipe Franks and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond — have moved to the professional level. Now it’s time for new leaders to emerge.
We’re here to rank the quarterback situations at all 14 SEC schools, put in a perspective for Razorback football fans.
What does that mean? Well, for example, Arkansas fans might have a certain perception of Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral as a stare-down-your-man interception magnet based on his play against the Razorbacks. But to balance out the picture, remember Corral completed 21 of 28 passes for 365 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions against Alabama the week before.
Corral will be among the cream of the crop of SEC quarterbacks this fall.
Here are our rankings of the best SEC quarterback situations:
Corral led the nation in total offense with 384.9 yards per game, was fifth with 333.7 passing yards per game, seventh with 29 touchdown passes, ninth in passing efficiency (177.6) and 11th with 14.5 yards per completion.
He lost two key targets in Elijah Moore and Dontario Drummond, but the talent is on campus to plug into Coach Lane Kiffin’s system. Corral, a redshirt junior, threw 14 interceptions, but 11 of those came in losses to Arkansas and LSU.
Corral had a solid spring working to establish his new top targets.
Kinkead Dent, a 6-5 sophomore, was the No. 2 quarterback in the spring while junior John Rhys Plumlee played baseball for the Rebels. Plumlee got limited backup duty in 2020 but could not re-create the magic that allowed him to lead the SEC with 113.7 rushing yards per game and 12 touchdowns in the Rich Rodriguez offense the year before. Whether Plumlee comes back to football — and possibly move to receiver, where he finished 2020 — is up for discussion after the baseball season.
Projected depth: Corral (10 starts in 2020), Dent, Plumlee (8 starts in 2019)
After a bizarre season at the quarterback spot, redshirt junior JT Daniels could be a source of stability for a program entering the fall with national championship aspirations.
Daniels passed for 401 yards and four touchdowns in his Georgia debut against Mississippi State after he was cleared from knee surgery. Georgia went 4-0 with Daniels at the helm. He passed for 1,243 yards with 10 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while completing 67.2% of his passes.
Georgia averaged 8.3 more points per game (37.3) and 103.2 more yards per game (486) behind Daniels than it did under Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis.
Georgia will have to get through injuries to top receivers George Pickens (ACL), Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (broken leg), Jermaine Burton (hyperextended knee) and Justin Robinson (sprained Achilles), but should be starting in a strong place under second-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
Daniels is not the most mobile guy, so his protection behind a reconstructed offensive front will bear watching. Bennett had a solid run after Mathis’ lackluster start, but he struggled in a loss to Alabama. Mathis transferred to Temple.
Projected depth: Daniels (4 starts in 2020), Bennett (5), Carson Beck
This is a loaded quarterback room, and most of them have starting experience after the chaos of last season. There are also strong bloodlines, with sophomore Max Johnson the son of Super Bowl winning quarterback Brad Johnson, and freshman Garrett Nussmeier the son of Dallas Cowboys quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier.
Myles Brennan, a redshirt senior, won the job last season and put up solid numbers through three games. But the defending College Football Playoff champion Tigers got off to a rugged start with losses to Mississippi State and Missouri before Brennan went out with a torn abdomen muscle injury in the loss at Missouri.
Enter freshman TJ Finley, who was up and down in his five starts, and the lefty freshman Johnson, who directed comeback wins over Florida and Ole Miss.
Brennan still led the team with 1,112 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, and he exited spring drills as the likely starter in the Spread system under new coordinator Jake Peetz.
Projected depth: Brennan (3 starts in 2020), Johnson, Finley
There are built-in pluses and minuses for sophomore Connor Bazelak, who shared SEC freshman of the year honors in 2020 after taking the reins midway through a Week 2 loss to Tennessee.
Bazelak ranked sixth in the SEC with 238.6 total yards per game and fourth with 236.6 passing yards per game. Curiously, he had only 7 touchdown passes vs. 6 interceptions in 10 games as first-year Coach Eli Drinkwitz didn’t get risky in the red zone, where Bazelak had just 24 pass attempts.
In his second career start, Bazelak ripped LSU for 406 passing yards and 4 touchdowns in the Tigers’ home upset of the defending CFP champions. Bazelak’s first start was ill fated, as he suffered a torn knee ligament in Little Rock in the 2019 regular-season finale vs. the Razorbacks.
Missouri expects to have more field-stretching talent this fall to help Bazelak’s deep-passing numbers. He was sixth in the league with a 132.05 efficiency rating last year.
Four-star early enrollee Tyler Macon is a dual-threat guy who set an Illinois state record with 56 touchdowns as a junior in 2019.
Projected depth: Bazelak (8 starts in 2020), Brady Cook, Macon
This is the highest projection among teams without an established returning starter, but as is often the case with the modern-day Crimson Tide, the guy expected to win the job is a five-star talent.
That guy is sophomore Bryce Young, the No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2020.
Some predicted Young would challenge Mac Jones for the starting job last season, but no spring drills and Jones’ phenomenal start nixed that notion.
As Alabama was involved in several routs last year, Young saw action in nine games and went 13 of 22 for 156 yards, with 1 TD and no interceptions. He rushed for negative yardage on nine attempts.
Young is likely to bring back memories of recent Tide dual-threat quarterbacks such as Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa under new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s read-option attack, which should showcase the 6-foot, 194-pounder’s speed and arm.
The Tide have precious little experience behind him in redshirt sophomore Paul Tyson and true freshman Jalen Milroe.
Projected depth: Young, Milroe, Tyson
The Gators had drop-back specialists Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask the past three seasons, and Coach Dan Mullen adapted his schemes to fit their skills. Now, with redshirt junior Emory Jones in line to take the reins, look to see Mullen return to his Spread attack with read-option action and designed quarterback runs in a system like Dak Prescott, Tim Tebow and others have operated in the past.
The 6-2, 210-pound Jones has instincts like a running back coupled with a strong arm, but he’s lacking in experience. Jones did a lot of watching in 2020 while Trask was setting school records in touchdown passes (43) and passing yards (4,283) in a shortened season to become a Heisman Trophy finalist.
The top backup should be 6-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson, a native of Gainesville, Fla. True freshman Jalen Kitna, the son of NFL veteran Jon Kitna, is in understudy mode along with Carlos Del-Rio Wilson.
Projected depth: Jones, Richardson, Del-Rio Wilson
Many wondered last year whether Bo Nix, son of former Auburn star Patrick Nix, would ever take the steps to reach an elite level. It didn’t happen under Gus Malzahn, so now Nix enters his junior year with a new head coach in Bryan Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who has a reputation for tapping into the talents of his pupils.
Nix has a reputation for his daring and strong running, and he’s also delivered some clutch passes. On the flip side, he has been inconsistent.
Harsin thought Nix made strides in the spring.
“He made good decisions,” Harsin said after Auburn’s spring scrimmage. “You see Bo and you know he has escapability and you know he can throw it.”
Nix was ninth in the SEC with 212.3 passing yards per game, but his efficiency rating of 123.94 did not make the top 10.
Freshman Demetrius Davis is a premier runner but is probably not in position to unseat Nix.
Projected depth: Nix (11 starts in 2020), Grant Loy, Davis
Coach Mike Leach’s debut season was filled with ups and downs at the all-important QB spot in the Air Raid.
Graduate transfer K.J. Costello went bonkers in the opener at LSU with an SEC-record 623 passing yards and five touchdowns. Against Arkansas’ drop-eight zone the next week, he put up 313 yards with 3 interceptions and 1 touchdown.
Costello had two more tough outings along the way before freshman Will Rogers took over the spot and made six starts in an offense that passed on almost 80% of its plays. Rogers did well on short and intermediate throws, but he must improve his downfield passing prowess for the Bulldogs to excel.
Mississippi State went 3-3 in Rogers’ starts as he passed for 1,976 yards with 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 9 games.
Leach’s system attracts quarterbacks, and the Bulldogs landed graduate transfer Jack Abraham — who passed for 7,067 yards and 41 touchdowns at Southern Miss — and highly regarded freshman Sawyer Robertson.
Projected depth: Rogers (6 starts in 2020), Abraham, Robertson
The age of the dual-threat quarterback is finally in play at Arkansas in full force, giving second-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles more freedom to use the quarterback as a run-game weapon and pressure defenses with run-pass option calls.
The track record for redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson is sparse, but in his most significant playing time Jefferson worked over the Missouri defense for 274 passing yards, 32 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in his lone start of 2020. Jefferson showed his cool under pressure by leading a last-minute touchdown drive and a lucky-bounce two-point conversion to give the Razorbacks a 48-47 lead with 43 seconds left. It didn’t hold up.
Jefferson and redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby were holding the ball too long during the first couple of spring scrimmages. According to the coaches, Jefferson’s completion percentage trended well in the final week or so of spring drills.
Unleashing the running component for the Arkansas quarterbacks has been tough to project.
Projected depth: Jefferson (1 start in 2020), Hornsby, John Stephen Jones
The structure is in place for the Aggies’ starter to rocket up the ranks of SEC quarterbacks as Coach Jimbo Fisher’s track record for developing high-production quarterbacks speaks for itself.
Sophomore Haynes King, a 6-3, 200-pounder, and 6-4, 200-pound redshirt freshman Zach Calzada played very sparingly behind fourth-year starter Kellen Mond last season.
King is a better athlete with strong running ability, while Calzada has the more impressive arm strength. Calzada (12 of 24) and King (2 of 4) both completed 50% of their passes last season, and neither took a clear lead after the spring game as both completed about half their attempts for 200-plus yards, both had a touchdown pass and an interception, and both were involved in a fumble.
This competition could stretch into fall camp.
Projected depth: King/Calzada, Eli Stowers
After losing both Collin Hill and Ryan Hilinski, who transferred to Northwestern, this job belongs to sophomore Luke Doty, a top 100 prospect in the Class of 2020 per the 247Sports composite, and the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the country.
The 6-1, 204-pounder from Myrtle Beach, S.C., completed 43 of 71 passes for 405 yards with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in limited duty last year. He also ran for 91 yards on 41 carries.
He does not have a huge arm, but his athleticism is a gift and his dual-threat capabilities should be a plus for first-year Coach Shane Beamer.
Freshman Colten Gauthier, a 6-3, 210-pounder, has a live arm and served as the top backup in spring. A name to keep an eye on is grad transfer Jason Brown, who passed for 3,000-plus yards and 28 touchdowns at FCS-level St. Francis (Pa.).
Projected depth: Doty (2 starts in 2020), Gauthier, Connor Jordan
Ken Seals, a 6-3, 218-pounder, played well, considering he was the third SEC true freshman to start a season opener since 1972 and was given the reins of a team that would finish 0-9.
Seals passed for a Vanderbilt freshman record 1,928 yards on 64.6% completions, which isn’t bad against an all-SEC schedule. The record had been held by Kyle Shurmur, who is Vandy’s all-time passing leader with 8,865 yards.
Seals, a native Texan, started all nine games and finished with 12 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Sophomore Mike Wright is in line to be the top backup again for new Coach Clark Lea.
Projected depth: Seals (9 starts in 2020), Wilson
The Wildcats closed down spring practices completely to the media, so there’s a bit of speculation involved here.
However, the time does seem to be ripe for redshirt junior Joey Gatewood, the Auburn signee who mostly sat behind Bo Nix in 2019 and then got minimal time behind Terry Wilson at Kentucky last year. Wilson, the only player in Kentucky history with 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards, is using his bonus year of eligibility granted by the NCAA at New Mexico.
Gatewood has a sturdy 6-5, 221-pound frame and is the kind of dual-threat signal caller that looks ideal for newly installed offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who came over from a role as assistant quarterbacks coach with the Los Angeles Rams. Gatewood made one start last season, completing a check-down laden 15 of 25 passes for 91 yards while rushing for 23 yards against Georgia.
His ascension to a starting role isn’t etched in stone. Redshirt freshman Beau Allen is also in the mix, and Penn State transfer Will Levis, also a run-pass threat, will join the competition over the summer.
Projected depth: Gatewood (1 start in 2020), Levis, Allen
Somebody has to be last, and in this case it’s the team with the most unsettled quarterback situation. New Coach Josh Heupel came out of spring with three main contenders in 6-5 sophomore Harrison Bailey, 6-3 redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer and 6-4 Hendon Hooker, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech. All three have started college games.
A fourth, 6-1 freshman Kaidon Salter, served a suspension for an on-campus incident during the spring, but he’s expected back. Then there’s 6-5 Joe Milton, a transfer from Michigan who passed for 1,077 yards with 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 5 starts last year.
Heupel’s system should produce big numbers at quarterback, but he and his staff have a lot of sorting to do this summer and fall. On the plus side, the quarterbacks combined for five pass plays of 29-plus yards in the spring game, but it did come against the Volunteers’ defense.
“It’s wide open,” Heupel said of the quarterback race after the spring game. “I’ve been through enough quarterback battles as a player and a coach to know that there’s so much time as you leave spring ball.”
Projected depth: This competition is anyone’s guess.
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