The SEC has a number of the country’s top quarterbacks heading into 2013. Johnny Manziel is the returning Heisman winner, and AJ McCarron is a consecutive national title winning quarterback.
Some teams don’t have such clear answers, and there is a lot of change needed at a number of those programs. This is a look at every projected starter in the SEC and what needs to change about his game.
No matter how good or bad last season was, these players have the talent to make minor adjustments and be major factors in their offenses this fall.
Note: Projected starters marked by an asterisk
Adjust to the Speed
Jonathan Wallace finished last season as the starter for Auburn, but he is in a battle for the position currently with Kiehl Frazier.
The biggest challenge for Wallace this season is to adjust to the speed of the Malzahn offense.
There are numerous elements of the Malzahn offense that will challenge the rising sophomore in his search for a rebirth for the Tigers offense. Taking over a new offense will be difficult, but there is some familiarity.
The toughest move will be pushing the offense as fast as Gus Malzahn wants it without making mistakes. If he can do that, he will be able to guide this offense back to the top of the national stage.
Grasp the Offense
Max Smith was 68.7 percent of his passes for 975 yards and eight touchdowns, but he fell to an season-ending ankle injury against South Carolina. He knew the offense he was playing in, but that is changing this spring.
There is a competition brewing at Kentucky with new coach Mark Stoops taking over, but the best fit for the new Air Raid style offense is Max Smith.
He still has a lot to prove, and Smith told the media after practice that they “work a lot faster in this offense” and that last season he was a bit more comfortable than he is in the new system (h/t Kentucky.com).
That makes sense, but to secure the job this fall he has to adjust as quick as possible to the new scheme.
New Offense in Town
There is a heated battle brewing in the Volunteers camp and right now Nathan Peterman is in the thick of it. He is currently battling veteran Justin Worley, but Peterman appears to be the best fit for the new Butch Jones offense.
There are a number of things that need to happen for this offense to boom in Jones’ first year, but it all starts with Peterman. He has to prove that he can be a more accurate passer and a better leader that Worley has been in the past.
Don’t forget that little thing of learning an entirely new offensive scheme.
Tennessee has a lot that needs to happen in the next few months, but getting Peterman to pick up the offense and pass accurately will be the key to surviving the SEC this season.
Moving to the SEC
Austyn Carta-Samuels is the assumed starter for the Commodores heading into the new year after transferring to the program from Wyoming two years ago.
Carta-Samuels put up solid numbers for the Cowboys in his time there, but that was facing a much easier schedule than the one that will be laid before him this season at Vanderbilt.
Adjusting to the SEC will not be easy and there will be a learning curve that will be completed once the games kickoff for the Commodores. Having Carta-Samuels at the helm will be a major positive for this program once he settles and understands the competition.
Become a Leader
Last year James Franklin was sidelined often by injuries, but he was inconsistent and lacked leadership when he was on the field for the Tigers in SEC play.
Missouri needs Franklin to step in and have his best season this year, or the Tigers transition to the SEC will be the worst that could have been expected for this program.
He has been in the offense for a number of years, so there is nothing new for him to learn or adapt to. Franklin has to step up his game and prepare better than ever before if he wants to lead this team to wins in the SEC.
Trust New Leadership
When a team faces the struggles that Arkansas did over the past few years, it is tough for a new coach to come in a rebuild a shattered team in one season.
For Bret Bielema it will not be an easy task, but if his quarterback can learn to trust the new, proven leadership then this team will be at the top of its game this fall.
Brandon Allen stepped in last fall and looked lost in a shell of an offense that was put together by Bobby Petrino’s brother in his absence. Say what you will about Bobby, but his offensive schemes work because of his play calls.
Allen is now in a solid and proven offense with Bielema, and he will have all the tools to make Arkansas a competitor in the SEC again. He has to trust that the new leadership will get him there.
Zach Mettenberger has had two seasons at LSU to impress, and so far the talented signal-caller appears to be overhyped.
Until he can put together a season that is worthy of Heisman discussion, he hasn’t reached his mark. This year Mettenberger has to regain the focus in the LSU offense and make better decisions in the pocket.
Last year he would lose focus in games and throw the ball to the opposing teams at really bad times. Not that any picks are good, but throwing one as you attempt a touchdown is one of the worst plays in football.
There is a lot riding on Mettenberger taking his game to the next level this fall. If he doesn’t, the Tigers will have another year that falls short of titles.
Play Big in Big Games
Bo Wallace stepped in as the starter last fall for the Ole Miss Rebels and played extremely well in first-year head coach Hugh Freeze’s offense.
Despite the success that the junior had at quarterback, he failed to show up big in big games.
In the major losses last fall against Texas, Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU, he completed 58 percent or less of his passes. Against LSU he had a season-low 42.9 completion percentage.
For Ole Miss to take the next step and be a challenger for the West Division, Wallace has to take the leap and win the big games.
Slide Before Contact
Maybe it’s just me, but has anyone else noticed that Connor Shaw ducks his head and lowers his shoulder before contact? Why is a starting quarterback in the SEC lowering his shoulder against linebackers?
Who knows, but he has to learn how to slide before this fall hits.
If he doesn’t it will be a long season full of sore shoulders and big hits. The Gamecocks have a rising star in Dylan Thompson that is challenging for starting snaps, but as long as long as Shaw is on the roster and healthy, he will get the starting nod.
Rely More on Schedule Plays
One thing that Johnny Manziel always seemed to be able to do was find a way to get away with big plays after they were busted.
There was the fumble that turned into a touchdown pass at Alabama and a host of other situations that provided Texas A&M with an unexpected spark. The lucky streak may end this fall, and Manziel has to begin to rely on the called play more often.
Sandlot-style football can be fun to watch, but it can be the difference in winning or losing big games.
The Aggies need consistency, and it has to come with a greater reliance on the called play by Manziel this fall.
Improve Passing Attack
Last year Jeff Driskel became the starter for Florida for his ability to find plays in the offense. He was a dangerous threat to run, but he also packed a powerful arm that could make enough throws to challenge some defenses.
For Florida to become elite, Driskel has to become a better passer.
There were a number of games last year that Driskel flopped in the passing game because he couldn’t get his feet moving. He had six games with less than 10 yards rushing, and in each he had less than 200 yards passing.
He also finished two of those games with less than 100 yards passing.
Driskel has to find consistency, but that comes with improvements to his passing attack.
Improve on Second and Third Down
Aaron Murray has been criticized over the years for his inconsistent play in big games, but the biggest issue with Murray is his inconsistency after first down.
Last season he was completing 72.5 percent of his first-down passes for 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
On second and third down he accumulated seven of his 10 interceptions and threw for less than half of his season passing yardage totals.
For the Bulldogs to become elite, Murray has to become a late-down quarterback.
Play More Consistently
Tyler Russell is a talented quarterback, but he has been terribly inconsistent in the past few years.
He has led a talented team to moderate success, but he has yet to take the Bulldogs over the top in the SEC West.
This year he is a rising senior and has high expectations heading into his final season with the program. Dan Mullen needs to prove that he is the offensive guru that he was once thought to be, and Russell is the key.
Making Russell a more consistent player and solid winner would make Mississippi State jump back into the SEC conversation and return Mullen to the lauded offensive guru status.
Get Better in the Red Zone
One of the positives that AJ McCarron brings to the game is his ability to stretch the field with the football. He is an accurate passer and makes solid decisions on the field.
An area that he needs to improve this fall is passing in the red zone.
When Alabama is inside the 20, McCarron was less than 60 percent accurate last fall. He also threw two of his three interceptions inside the red zone.
Alabama has won titles with McCarron playing solid for the past few seasons, but making this adjustment will take his game to the Heisman level.