Power Ranking Every SEC Program at Quarterback, Post-Spring Practice
Spring practice is in the past for most programs now, meaning no more official practice time until camp opens in August.
Now seems as good a time as any to evaluate where SEC teams stand at the most important position in the sport—quarterback.
To do so, we will examine 2013 performance and combine that with reports from around spring camps. This list will examine the entirety of the position for each program but with heavy emphasis on the starter.
This is an especially fluid season for quarterbacks in the league.
Nearly half of the league is looking for a new starter, and only two returning quarterbacks—Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace—started 10 games a year ago. (Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott did not start the opener against Oklahoma State, nor did he start the final three regular-season games.)
Senior starters are tough to come by as well. The only apparent locks are Marshall, Wallace, Florida’s Jeff Driskel and Georgia’s Hutson Mason.
Here’s an early sneak peak at the best quarterback situations across the SEC.
14. Kentucky Wildcats
Projected Starter: N/A
Contenders: Patrick Towles, Maxwell Smith, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker
Lexington, Ky., might as well have been labeled Quarterback Wasteland, USA, over the past four seasons.
Fortunately for Kentucky, coach Mark Stoops has the right offensive coordinator in place to turn around a passing game that strives for lackluster.
That coordinator, Neal Brown, has led top-25 offenses in five of his six seasons. The only time he didn’t was last year at Kentucky when the team struggled behind the two-headed train wreck of a quarterback system of Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow.
Smith missed the spring, recovering from a shoulder injury, and Whitlow decided to transfer away from Kentucky.
All that means is Brown got back to square one this spring.
That meant giving reps to three players—Towles, Phillips and Barker. None of the three locked up the position, meaning Smith will still contend for the starting role when he gets healthy.
ESPN.com’s Edward Aschoff reported that Towles, who split first-team reps with Phillips, “was the most impressive” of the group.
Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee makes a compelling case as to why Kentucky should seriously consider going with Barker, who 247Sports rated as a 4-star true freshman who enrolled early for the chance to start immediately.
Whoever mans the helm for the Wildcats will face an uphill climb.
With Brown calling the shots, though, Kentucky’s triggerman—or triggermen—has the chance to exceed modest expectations.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores
Projected Starter: N/A
Contenders: Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers?
Not only does Vanderbilt transition to a new quarterback in 2014, it breaks in an entirely new offensive system after coach James Franklin left for Penn State.
ESPN.com reported that new coach Derek Mason gave the edge following the spring game to redshirt freshman McCrary following his 10-of-18, 94-yard performance.
Robinette started three games and saw substantial action in four appearances last year as a freshman. He hardly lit the conference on fire, completing just 52 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four). However, he also rushed for seven scores.
Heading into the spring game, Mason hardly gave a glowing recommendation of his only quarterback with starting experience.
“I think Johnny right now looks to be poised in terms of the pass game, and I think Robinette functions a little better just in terms of his ability to manage the offense,” Mason told The Tennessean. “So you have a big-play guy and you have a guy who understands how to manage the offense. So it will be interesting in the spring game to see how that goes. I want to see some points.”
Big-play guy vs. game manager?
Hmm. Hard to tell which way the coach is leaning on that one.
Then again, McCrary, by his own admission to The Tennessean, has a long way to go in terms of learning the playbook.
Now, NOLA.com reports, LSU transfer Rivers could be in the mix this fall.
Vanderbilt realized new highs under Franklin. Mason and his quarterback of choice will have to perform well immediately to maintain the success the program enjoyed over the past three seasons.
12. Arkansas Razorbacks
Projected Starter: Brandon Allen
Backups: Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey
Poor Arkansas fans.
They spent the bulk of the offseason to date hoping the passing game would turn around dramatically.
They read all spring about how Allen was healthy and ready to show off the skills the Razorbacks will need this fall.
Instead, when Arkansas fans got a sneak peak at their team this spring, they saw more of the same from the sport’s most important position.
ArkansasNews.com reported that coach Bret Bielema called the passing game “disappointing.”
Allen, who led the first-team offense against the second-team defense, completed just 12 of 21 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. He also saw his first attempt get intercepted—one of two interceptions thrown on the day.
Following the first-possession interception, ArkansasNews.com’s report said the offense went three-and-out on three of its next four possessions.
Despite his poor spring outing, Allen has the tools and experience to take a step forward this season. Now he must show the confidence to lead an offense that needs a spark early this fall.
Allen knows he will at least have the benefit of an outstanding running game. Tailbacks Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins provide one of the strongest 1-2 punches in a conference loaded with dynamic run games.
Allen seems likely to stave off younger brother Austin Allen and true freshman Rafe Peavey. The younger Allen also threw two interceptions—one of which the defense returned for a touchdown. He also fumbled and took five sacks.
Peavey, a talented pro-style quarterback rated by 247Sports as a 4-star prospect, has plenty of growing up to do within the system.
Don’t be surprised if Peavey beats out Austin Allen for the backup job.
Still, Bielema and the coaching staff could find themselves in trouble with a poor start against a tough slate. If that happens, anything could happen at the quarterback position.
For now, though, Brandon Allen will be the first man up for the Razorbacks.
11. LSU Tigers
Projected Starter: N/A
Contenders: Anthony Jennings, Brandon Harris
That Jennings isn’t listed here as the projected starter should tell you everything you need to know.
Coach Les Miles called upon Jennings in 2013 when senior Zach Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Jennings responded positively at first, leading a game-winning touchdown drive in the closing seconds against Arkansas. In the bowl game against Iowa, however, Jennings didn’t look nearly as comfortable.
The Hawkeyes held Jennings to 7-of-19 passing for 82 yards and an interception. Jennings did rush for a touchdown, but finished with -31 yards on the ground.
So the biggest question coming into spring was which Jennings would show up—the one who helped the Tigers avoid an embarrassing loss to its rival or the one who struggled in the bowl game?
Unfortunately for Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Jennings appeared more like the latter.
So erratic was Jennings that true freshman Brandon Harris, who enrolled early for spring practice, appears to have the upper hand heading into summer.
ESPN.com’s David Ching went so far as to opine that Harris could take over “sooner rather than later.”
Harris, rated by 247Sports as a 4-star, top-100 prospect out of Parkway High School in Bossier City, La., still needs some refining before joining the SEC’s elite.
Jennings’ struggles might leave Cameron and Miles willing to deal with the growing pains that come with starting Harris.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
Projected Starter: N/A
Contenders: Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson, Josh Dobbs, Nathan Peterman
Tennessee coach Butch Jones doesn’t seem likely—or at least prepared—to release a depth chart on the quarterback position after the spring.
If he did, though, Patrick Brown of The Chattanooga Times Free Press opines that Worley and Ferguson would top the list.
Ferguson, Brown writes, “may have the best arm of the group.” He might have made his collegiate debut last season if not for a knee injury suffered during the fall.
Will the arm be good enough to justify starting him above the trio of Tennessee quarterbacks who actually started games in 2013?
Worley seems the most likely to challenge Ferguson at the top. He opened last year as the starter before suffering a hand injury against Florida.
Though Worley won’t remind anyone in Knoxville of Peyton Manning, he seems the safest choice in terms of avoiding crippling turnovers.
Dobbs is the most athletic of the group. He brings a dynamic running threat and showed flashes as a passer.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Projected Starter: N/A
Contenders: Kyle Allen, Kenny Hill
Incoming freshman Kyle Allen set foot on the Texas A&M campus early hoping to win the competition to replace 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
By the end of the spring, he found himself as the last man standing.
That doesn’t mean Allen is the front-runner for the position, though, with Hill likely to reenter the race as though nothing happened in the fall.
Last year’s backup, Matt Joeckel, decided to transfer after spring practice in hopes of landing the starting job at TCU.
Coach Kevin Sumlin suspended Hill, who also saw time as a reserve in 2013, from the team in late March for an alcohol-related incident.
Fortunately for Hill, spring practice wasn’t as important for him as it was for Allen.
Had Allen missed as much time as Hill, the race would likely have been over because the newcomer needed as much practice time as possible to learn the playbook and adjust to collegiate speed.
Allen, rated by 247Sports as the nation’s top quarterback prospect, flourished during the spring.
Hill played sparingly as a true freshman last season, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown.
Sumlin has only had to choose a starting quarterback once. He did so late in summer camp—a freshman who had been suspended for a legal run-in during the summer.
Manziel did just fine—as can whichever quarterback ultimately replaces him.
8. Florida Gators
Projected Starter: Jeff Driskel
Backups: Will Grier, Skyler Mornhinweg, Treon Harris
We’ve heard this story before: Driskel is ready to break out on the scene and live up to the considerable hype that made him 247Sports’ top-ranked quarterback prospect in 2011.
Last year wasn’t Driskel’s fault. He suffered a season-ending leg injury early in the season during the Tennessee game.
However, Driskel showed during the Gators’ anemic offensive showing against Miami that he wasn’t exactly on course to evoke memories of Tim Tebow or Danny Wuerffel.
Now Driskel is working with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper—his third coordinator in four seasons.
Roper intends to install an up-tempo offense to spice up an offense as dull and lifeless as it was dynamic under Urban Meyer.
Driskel has the tools to make it all work. He completed 68 percent of his passes and accounted for three total touchdowns in the two-plus games he played in 2013.
If Driskel falters, a coaching staff in hot water would seemingly need a change of pace to show there is a bright future. Said bright future could include Grier, 247Sports’ No. 4 quarterback prospect, or Harris, a 4-star prospect.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
Projected Starter: Hutson Mason
Backups: Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta, Jacob Park
Mason, a fifth-year senior, isn’t the quarterback of the future at Georgia. What he can do is lead the Bulldogs back to the SEC Championship Game in his lone season as the starter.
“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason said to ESPN.com. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”
A run game, fueled by Todd Gurley, will make the Bulldogs difficult to stop if Mason can competently manage the passing game.
What Mason does is provide a one-year buffer to determine Georgia’s next long-term solution to the quarterback position.
Redshirt freshman Ramsey and incoming freshman Park—the latter of whom struggled in his first spring practice—seem the logical choices for the next Bulldogs starter.
Ramsey impressed with his arm during spring practice.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
Projected Starter: Dylan Thompson
Backups: Connor Mitch, Brendan Nosovitch, Perry Orth
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has made it no secret that he intends to go with Thompson as his guy to open the 2014 season.
His decision has led to Mitch and Nosovitch battling it out for the backup role.
Thompson has bid his time waiting for consummate winner Connor Shaw to graduate. Shaw finished his career as the all-time winningest quarterback in program history, and—more impressively—he never lost a home game in which he started.
In other words, Thompson has big shoes to fill.
It won’t be the first time Thompson’s been thrust into the spotlight, though.
Shaw’s reckless, whatever-it-takes-to-win style of play resulted in numerous injuries, meaning Spurrier always needed to have a backup ready on a snap’s notice.
Thompson served in that role, subbing for Shaw in games against UCF and Missouri—a pair of teams that combined for 24 wins last year. The Gamecocks won both contests, though Shaw had to come off the bench to help them knock off Missouri.
Two years ago, Thompson played even better in his relief role.
The rising senior started in wins over East Carolina and at Clemson, throwing for 610 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. Leading the victory over in-state rival Clemson especially opened the eyes of South Carolina faithful.
Then, seemingly as a curtain call, Thompson replaced Shaw in the closing seconds of the Capital One Bowl and threw a game-winning touchdown to beat Michigan.
Mitch’s presence in the race for QB2 should be particularly of interest to South Carolina fans. 247Sports rated Mitch a 4-star prospect when he signed as part of the class of 2013.
Chris Dearing at The State wrote that, among backup quarterback contenders, Mitch had the best day during South Carolina’s spring game.
5. Ole Miss Rebels
Projected Starter: Bo Wallace
Backups: Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade
Is this finally the year Wallace puts it all together and makes choices becoming of an experienced multiple-year SEC starting quarterback?
Coach Hugh Freeze certainly hopes so.
Wallace infuriates Ole Miss fans with play sometimes bordering on brilliant and—far too often—leaves the faithful wondering what he was thinking.
At least Wallace seemed headed in the right direction last season, when he threw for more yards (3,346) and—more importantly—fewer interceptions (10, down from 17 the previous year).
Still, Wallace went entire games seemingly unable to move the ball—most notably against Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi State.
Such woeful performances largely wash away the strong play he exhibits for most of the season.
Wallace is now a year removed from shoulder surgery. That should help—especially if he continues to make wiser decisions.
Wallace is a capable runner—he rushed for a pair of touchdowns in the bowl win over Georgia Tech—but is more dangerous buying time and finding receivers downfield.
With Wallace leaving no debate on the starting quarterback, attention shifts to the backup race, where redshirt freshmen Buchanan and Kincade will continue duking it out into summer camp.
“I look forward to watching film between Ryan and DeVante,” Freeze told The Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “They both do different things. Ryan has some natural pocket presence that’s hard to teach. He’ll hang in there and knows where it’s supposed to be. You saw Kincade do a lot of things with his feet. He’s got a strong arm.”
4. Missouri Tigers
Projected Starter: Maty Mauk
Backups: Corbin Berkstresser, Eddie Printz
Maty Mauk eliminated any question about who would become the new starting quarterback at Missouri with strong play while filling in for injured starter James Franklin last season.
In fact, Mauk played so well that by season’s end some wondered if it should be Mauk—and not Franklin—on the field guiding the Tigers attack.
Mauk came in to complete Missouri’s win over Georgia, which served as the springboard to allow the Tigers to claim their first SEC East title.
He also went 3-1 as a starter, with his lone loss coming in double overtime to a South Carolina team that won 11 games.
Though Mauk battled through a low completion percentage, he threw for 1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also showed skills of being a sneaky good runner, rushing for 114 yards against Tennessee and going for 73 yards—on three attempts—against Oklahoma State.
The Columbia Tribune’s David Morrison reported that Missouri’s backup race appears to be down to Berkstresser and Printz, who seem to be “pretty even.”
Berkstresser saw time as a reserve in 2012 when Franklin suffered injuries, but Mauk beat him out to be the backup last season.
Printz, a 247Sports 3-star prospect from Marietta, Ga., at least pulled ahead of fellow redshirt freshman Trent Hosick, who has since transferred.
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
Projected Starter: Jacob Coker
Backup(s): Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris
Coming out of the spring game, all the buzz surrounding Alabama came from an unsettled quarterback situation and performances that did little to add clarity.
So what is the Crimson Tide doing so high on this list?
The answer is simple: The 2014 starter didn’t take a single snap during the spring game—nor did he participate in one spring practice.
Make no mistake: Coker did not transfer away from Florida State to watch someone else start at quarterback from Alabama.
He will arrive on campus with every intention to start—and with every opportunity to win the right.
“We’re really looking forward to Jacob coming in,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told al.com. “He’s certainly a guy we coveted in high school and thought he was a very, very good player. We’re anxious to get him there so that he can learn and develop and compete for the job.”
Coker pushed 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston into summer camp before Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher declared Winston the starter.
At Florida State, Coker gained collegiate experience, though only in games with the outcome no longer hanging in the balance. He completed 18 of 36 passes for 250 yards and an interception as a reserve last year.
Sims brings similar experience to the table, having served as AJ McCarron’s primary understudy for the past couple years. Sims is athletic but needs polish in the passing game. In limited action, Sims completed 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
Bateman, a redshirt freshman, came to Alabama as a highly-touted recruit. 247Sports ranked him a 4-star prospect and the No. 5 quarterback in the nation.
2. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Projected Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup: Damian Williams
Dak Prescott seems to be cut from the same cloth as Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Tim Tebow—both of who played under Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen at Florida.
What Prescott lacks in terms of passing accuracy—and that is a concern—he makes up for as a powerful runner capable of turning nothing into 3- and 4-yard gains. He can also break big plays both with his powerful legs and cannon arm.
Any hope of State taking the next step in 2014 lies squarely on Prescott.
Then again, the rising junior appeared up to the task last year. When an injury forced starter Tyler Russell to the sideline, Prescott came in and wrestled the job away from Russell by playing very well in his absence.
Prescott finished the season with 1,940 passing yards but with seven interceptions against 10 touchdowns.
As a runner, Prescott finished with 829 yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with his 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
Perhaps more importantly, Prescott captured the confidence of his team when he came off the bench late in the fourth quarter—with an injured shoulder—and led a comeback against Ole Miss.
Behind Prescott, the Bulldogs tied the Rebels late and won in overtime.
There’s no reason to be as confident in Damian Williams, who started in place of Prescott against Ole Miss as a true freshman in 2013.
Williams, rated by 247Sports as a 3-star recruit, could still evolve into a very good quarterback and ultimately replace Prescott as the Bulldogs starter.
However, he appeared to be in over his head in limited snaps a year ago. The Rebels limited Williams to 8-of-18 passing for 82 yards and an interception in his lone start.
If the spring game is any indication, Williams is headed in the right direction. He passed for 347 yards and four scores in the contest.
1. Auburn Tigers
Projected Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson
Though Marshall progressed as a passer in 2013, the senior will enter the season with questions looming about his arm.
It’s not the strength that critics want to see, but rather the accuracy and—more importantly—the consistency.
Marshall threw erratically on his way to a 1,976-yard passing season, missing numerous open receivers. Coach Gus Malzahn’s dedication to the deep passing game means Auburn can forget about 70 percent completion percentages, but the Tigers can hope for a significant improvement over last year when Marshall connected on just 59 percent of his attempts.
Auburn doesn’t top the SEC quarterback list because of a devastating passing game. Instead, the Tigers find themselves on top because of the dynamic running ability Marshall showed in guiding the team to the SEC championship.
Marshall rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. He also ran for at least 80 yards in six of his 12 games.
The scariest thing is Malzahn didn’t truly identify how to best utilize Marshall in the run game until the fifth game of the season when Marshall went for 140 yards and two scores against Ole Miss.
With all the running Malzahn requires of Marshall—and likely will require again in 2014—it’s important for the Tigers to field at least a competent backup.
Johnson, Auburn’s quarterback of the future, provides more than short-term help.
As a true freshman, Johnson saw significant action in two games—Western Carolina as a starter and Florida Atlantic when Marshall suffered a late first-quarter injury.
Johnson finished the year 29-of-41 passing for 422 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.
Granted, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic are hardly Alabama and LSU, but Johnson might be a more polished passer than Marshall. He is athletic, too, but would have a different, more straight-ahead running style than Marshall.