While it is a great year for running backs in the SoCon heading into the 2012 season, it’s not a season in which there are big names returning under center.
There is not a B.J. Coleman (UTC), Armanti Edwards (Appalachian State) or Scott Riddle (Elon) returning to headline the 2012 scroll.
Gone are five starting signal-callers from a year ago, including First-Team All-SoCon signal-caller Chris Forcier (Furman), as well as top-class signal-callers, such as Jaybo Shaw (Georgia Southern) and the aforementioned Coleman.
While it’s not a season in which I expect there to be a serious contender for the prestigious Walter Payton Award out of the league’s returning starters under center this fall, there certainly could be a darkhorse or two that could emerge.
1. Jamal Jackson (Appalachian State)--
Jamal Jackson returns for his second season as the starter under center for the Mountaineers, and he’s a player that will most certainly benefit from having Scott Satterfield, a former ASU quarterback himself, back leading the Mountaineer offense this fall.
Jackson took over as the starter for the Mountaineers in the fifth game of the 2011 campaign against The Citadel for an injured DeAndre Presley.
All Jackson did was complete his first 15 passes and lead the Mountaineers to a 49-42 for over the Bulldogs. In his first start, Jackson completed 21-of-27 passes for 234 yards and three TDs, without an INT. He helped lead an ASU offense that amassed 552 yards of total offense. The 552 yards against the Bulldogs would turn out to be a season standard for the ASU offense.
Jackson passed for 200 or more yards in all seven games he started for the Apps under center last season. There’s not much questioning of ASU’s offensive efficiency upon Jackson’s insertion into the role as the Black and Gold starter.
With 284 passing yards in the regular-season finale at Elon, Jackson set a school record with six-consecutive 200-yard passing games. Armanti Edwards (2009) and Richie Williams (2004) shared the previous ASU record with five-straight 200-yard passing games.
In starting the final seven games for ASU in 2011, Jackson finished the campaign completing 161-of-262 passes for 2,001 yards with 15 TDs and eight INTs. Jackson also rushed for 296 yards and seven TDs, accounting for a total off 2,297 yards of total offense and 22 TDs.
2. Terrell Robinson (Chattanooga)--
Like ASU’s Jackson, Chattanooga’s Terrell Robinson was forced into action midseason as a result of an injury to starter B.J. Coleman after Coleman suffered a shoulder injury early in the second quarter in the 28-27 loss to No. 1 Georgia Southern.
Robinson came in and nearly led the Mocs to the unthinkable road win at the top-ranked team in the country, showing an uncanny poise from a freshman signal-caller.
In coming off the bench in the narrow loss to the Eagles, he came into a contest in which the Mocs trailed 14-0. He nearly became an instant hero in the Scenic City, finishing the contest by rushing for 114 yards and three TDs, while completing 5-of-9 passes for 69 yards with an INT.
That performance would catapult Robinson to be the SoCon Freshman of the Year, as well as becoming the first freshman player to garner three SoCon Freshman Player of the Week citations since Armanti Edwards in 2006.
Robinson is much like the legendary Edwards, in that he is a dual-threat, and is jet-quick in the open field, however, he is not yet the passer that Edwards was. Robinson enjoyed his best passing day against Elon, as he completed 11-of-13 passes for 140 yards in the 42-18 road win.
In total, Robinson finished the 2011 completing 27-of-43 passes for 336 yards and six TDs and three INTs, while rushing for 417 yards and five TDs. He totaled 753 yards of total offense and 11 TD responsibilities in eight games, with three starts last fall.
3. Ben Dupree (The Citadel)--
One of the biggest reasons I have Ben Dupree from The Citadel at No. 3 on the list is for the simple fact of experience and the way he was able to lead the Bulldogs offense last fall.
Dupree will likely find himself splitting the duties under center with Aaron Miller once again this fall.
The Citadel’s option offense, which will be in its third year of operation this fall, should experience its best season yet in 2012. Dupree still must improve as a passer this fall, but he led the Bulldogs offense from being one of the worst in school history last season, to being one of FCS’ top rushing attacks in 2011. In fact, the Bulldogs finished the 2011 season averaging 286.6 YPG on the ground last season, which was good enough to rank both third in the SoCon and third nationally.
In total, Dupree completed the 2011 campaign ranking second on the team in rushing yards, as he finished the campaign with 645 yards and eight TDs on 177 rush attempts. As a passer, Dupree connected on 22-of-46 passes for 192 yards, with three INTs. In Miller’s time under center for the Bulldogs last fall, he rushed for 314 yards and five TDs, while connecting on 10-of-24 passes for 118 yards, with three INTs last fall.
4. Jerick McKinnon (GSU)--
Like The Citadel, Georgia Southern will likely utilize two QBs in its flexbone offense for the 2012 campaign. McKinnon will likely split time under center with backup Ezayi Youyoute this fall.
While the Eagles will most obviously miss the leadership of quarterback Jaybo Shaw, the Eagles will likely have a more explosive offense and more "big-play" potential with McKinnon and Youyoute under center in 2012. In fact, this Georgia Southern offense will likely resemble some of those GSU offenses of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, which featured both J.R. Revere and Greg Hill at the helm of the the Eagles’ potent flexbone outfit.
McKinnon might be the best athlete in the SoCon, playing four positions (QB, SB, WR and DB) last season for the Eagles and is likely the fastest of the returning QBs under center for the 2012 season. He sports a 40-yard dash time in the sub-4.4s. McKinnon has yet to show his skills as a passer much in his career, which is a bit of a concern.
McKinnon threw only six passes last season, completing three of them and did have a 37-yard TD pass. He was the Eagles’ third leading rusher, gaining a majority of his yards as a slot back in the GSU flexbone attack last fall. He finished the campaign with 537 yards and seven TDs on 80 attempts last fall.
Youyoute was the SoCon Freshman of the Week for his performance in GSU’s Sept. 26 win over Western Carolina (52-20). In that victory, Youyoute rushed for 119 yards and a score on just four carries.
With the explosiveness of McKinnon and Youyoute, the GSU offense might be "scary good" in 2012.
5. Thomas Wilson (Elon)--
Elon will once again be led by Thomas Wilson, who was asked to fill some huge shoes last season, as he replaced the SoCon’s all-time leading passer, Scott Riddle.
Wilson would be in his first season as the full-time starter under center for the Phoenix, and was in his first season as a starting signal-caller for the Phoenix.
The best way to describe Wilson’s performance last season is inconsistent. Still, Wilson managed to marshal the top passing attack, as the Phoenix averaged 281.5 YPG through the air last season.
Wilson is the typical drop-back passer and led the Phoenix to a 5-6 mark in 2011. Wilson certainly benefited from having the league’s top wide receiver, Aaron Mellette.
Wilson enjoyed his top passing game of his career in a narrow victory over North Carolina Central, as he completed 34-of-48 passes for 416 yards, with three TDs and three INTs.
He also looked good in the regular-season finale against Appalachian State--a game in which the Phoenix blew a three-score lead to lose 28-24. He completed 30-of-43 passes for 344 yards, with two TDs and two INTs.
In total, Wilson finished the 2011 campaign connecting on 279-of-411 passes for 3,057 yards, with 23 TDs and 21 INTs. Wilson led the Phoenix in passing yards, TDs, attempts, completions and INTs.
Elon should once again have one of the league’s top passing attacks, but without a proven running back returning, the pressure will once again be squarely on the shoulders of Wilson and Mellette to lead the offense this fall. That will again likely cost Elon the opportunity to compete for a conference title this fall. They could, however, once again play a significant spoiler with Wilson at the helm.
6. Brian Kass (Wofford)--
Brian Kass will assume the starting responsibilities under center this fall for the Terriers, and as always seems to be the case when Wofford has a new signal-caller slated to start under center, Kass will have some pretty big shoes to fill in the fall.
All Kass must do now is replace the school’s third all-time leader in career offensive yards, in quarterback Mitch Allen, who amassed 4,948 yards during his illustrious career.
Kass saw limited action last fall, as he connected on 8-of-14 passes for 157 yards, with three TDs and no INTs. As a running threat last fall, Kass rushed for 43 yards on 15 attempts. He saw action in eight games for the Terriers, enjoying his best performance in a win over UVa Wise, completing 5-of-8 passes for 101 yards and three TDs.
Kass is more of a passing threat than his predecessor. The rising junior from Raleigh, N.C., had an even better freshman campaign, which saw him pass for 297 yards and four TDs without an INT, while rushing for 156 yards and three scores.
For his Wofford career, Kass has completed 26-of-48 passes for 454 yards and seven TDs, without an INT. He has also rushed for 199 yards and three scores in two seasons backing up Allen.
Allen certainly experienced some difficulties taking over Ayers’ diverse offensive scheme in his first season as the full-time starter back in 2009. I look for Kass to have some of those same problems this season.
It is important to note that Kass is coming off a strong spring and already seems to have a better grasp of the offense than his predecessor when he took over the reins.
But, Wofford is not a passing attack and running is not Kass’ strength. He still could turn out to be a better quarterback than Allen in the long run and he reminds me of former Wofford quarterback Ben Widmyer.
7. Dakota Derrick (Furman)--
In keeping with the theme of major shoes to fill, Furman’s Dakota Derrick will step into a similar role as Kass will, 40 minutes up the road. Derrick must replace Chris Forcier, who became the Paladin’s first First-Team All-SoCon selection since Braniff Bonaventure in 1996.
Forcier may have put together one of the best single seasons in program history, but it was Derrick that went neck-and-neck with him for the starting job until the final week of preseason camp.
Derrick is a totally different quarterback than his predecessor. While he came out of the spring as the clear-cut starter, expect redshirt freshman Travis Eman to give him a battle for the starting responsibilities in preseason camp.
Derrick is a drop-back passer, but has deceptive speed in the open field. I question Derrick's ability to show a good, consistent pocket presence against a pass rush, and his ability to not try and force throws. He sometimes seems hesitant as to whether to run or pass when the pocket breaks down.
Derrick reminds me of a former quarterback for Furman named Brent Rickman. Rickman had a big-time arm, but he was not a good decision maker when teams began to pressure him with various zone blitz schemes.
Rickman ultimately ended up being unseated as Furman’s starter by local Greer, S.C. product Justin Hill by the end of the ‘97 season, and I could certainly see that happening with Eman this fall once he gets a grasp of the Furman offense.
Derrick has a pair of starts in his career, and is 1-1 as a starting quarterback, defeating Western Carolina during his sophomore season. In that 31-17 win over the Catamounts, Derrick debuted by completing 12-of-23 passes for 122 yards and a pair of TDs, while rushing 12 times for 71 yards in the win. For his entire career, Derrick has completed 28-of-58 passes for 300 yards, with two TDs and an INT.
He has a big arm and has developed his accuracy as his career has progressed. Derrick saw limited action last season, completing 8-of-17 passes for 104 yards and a TD.
Eman comes with impressive credentials and he is the quarterback of the future for the Paladins. He will remind many Paladin fans of a former signal-caller by the name of Frankie DeBusk. DeBusk, of course, led the Paladins to their only national title as a sophomore signal-caller in 1988.
Eman has a strong arm and good speed and could be ready to shine by season’s end if things don’t work with Derrick. In his senior season at Cansius High School, Eman passed for 1,575 yards and 26 TDs, while rushing for 971 yards and 20 scores to lead Canisius to a 7-3 season.
Eman was impressive during the spring for the Paladins, completing 10-of-15 passes for 134 yards and an interception.
Derrick probably has a better chance of leading the Paladins to success early in the season, due to his experience and knowledge of the playbook. But, I expect Furman to be playing two quarterbacks this fall, and while the future is bright at the position, it would be a lot to ask of either to try and do what Forcier did out of nowhere for Furman last season.
8. Ben Neill (Samford)--
Ben Neill will step into the quarterback role this fall, but he will need to hold off Memphis transfer Andy Summerlin in preseason camp.
Neill is yet another quarterback in the SoCon that steps into a difficult role this fall, as he must replace the school’s second all-time leading passer.
Neill has a strong arm and is a drop-back passer much like his predecessor Dustin Taliaferro was.
He saw limited action last season under center and he was involved in all 11 games as the team’s holder on field goals and extra points.
In limited time under center last season, Neill connected on 9-of-14 passes for 89 yards and a TD. Neill saw his most extensive action in a win over Stillman, completing 6-of-9 passes for 43 yards.
Neill came out of spring practice going neck-and-neck for the starting job with Memphis transfer quarterback Andy Summerlin. Summerlin, in the long run, might end up being the starter, but Neill played with both seeing time as the No. 1 under center in the fall.
Summerlin did not pan out at Memphis, but was a 3-star recruit coming out of college, and he is a pro-style quarterback with a strong arm.
9. Eddie Sullivan (Western Carolina)-
The quarterback picked to lead the Catamount offense in the first season of the Mark Speir spread offense is Eddie Sullivan.
Sullivan was an original committment to Marshall out of high school, and completed 6-of-24 passes for 124 yards and a score, while rushing for 51 yards on 12 attempts as Marshall’s No. 2 signal-caller last season.
Sullivan looked good for the Catamounts in the spring, completing 17-of-27 passes for 207 yards with an INT and a TD in the spring game.