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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Where Have All the Quarterbacks Gone?

"Come back, Tim.. I mean Shane, come back! Shane! I meant Shane! Come back!"

Half of the programs in the SEC will break in a new quarterback in 2010, including, yes, Florida. Yet more than just the Gators will face a rebuilding process under center, as Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennessee lost an experienced senior signal caller; Mississippi, due to poor draft advice, lost the services of Jevan Snead a year earlier than expected. What kind of talent does the conference return? Who will serve as the next generation of SEC quarterbacks? There may not be a seamless transition.

Returning starters

Greg McElroy, Alabama McElroy stepped into the void left by four-year starter John Parker Wilson, who set a handful of program career records, and while he was not the centerpiece of the Alabama offense — neither was his predecessor — McElroy’s relatively error-free play complimented the offense’s run-first mentality. In fact, it might be a slight to say that McElroy was merely a caretaker: he threw 17 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions, throwing for more than 200 yards six times and at least two scores an additional six times. His role will remain the same in 2010: control the offense, limit turnovers and, when asked, hurt opponents with his arm. He’s capable of carrying a bigger role.

Ryan Mallett, Arkansas The next big thing, though Mallett must show he has fully recovered from the broken foot suffered prior to the spring. After showing flashes of his potential as a true freshman starter at Michigan in 2007, Mallett did not miss a beat in his first full season in the starting lineup for Bobby Petrino’s Razorbacks a year ago. After throwing for 3,627 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2009, Mallett is poised to shatter Arkansas records in what seems to be his final season in Fayetteville. Not only is Mallett an easy choice to challenge for first-team all-SEC honors, he’s an early contender for the Heisman; much will depend on how much improvement Arkansas will show in Petrino’s third season.

Kentucky’s trio of contenders The Wildcats will usher in the Joker Phillips era with a quarterback competition: senior Mike Hartline, sophomore Ryan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski have each made their claims to the starting role, though the battle will likely come down to Hartline, often the starter over the last two seasons, and the athletic Newton. Hartline is perhaps the most frustrating quarterback in the SEC, due to his erratic play and, sometimes, behavior. Perhaps Hartline’s best move would be to follow the lead of receiver Randall Cobb, who started at quarterback as a freshman but embraced a position change that better played to his sizable skill set.

Jordan Jefferson, L.S.U. Decision time for the junior quarterback: sink or swim? It may not be Jefferson’s decision; L.S.U. will continue to face questions about the strength of its offensive line, about the ineffectiveness of its corp of running backs, and Jefferson’s future depends on the improvement the Tigers see from both spots. When allowed to serve as the centerpiece — both by his offensive teammates and the offensive coaching staff — Jefferson is not terrible: cautious to a fault, perhaps, but Jefferson won’t lose a game for the Tigers. In fact, with a talented stable of receivers to work with, 2010 might be Jefferson’s breakout campaign — again, depending on how much help he gets from his line and in the running game.

Stephen Garcia, South Carolina No, Garcia has not played up to the fanfare accompanying his arrival as a five-star recruit three years ago. He’s had his moments, however, and remains young enough to expect greater production over his final two season; he is far from the “worst quarterback in the history of the SEC,” as radio host Paul Finebaum described him a week ago. Significant strides were taken a season ago, when Garcia illustrated a far greater grasp of opposing defenses, showed signs of that rare mix of passing acumen and running ability, and greatly improved his decision making. There’s no reason, based on seeing the growth from the end of 2008 season — that ugly bowl performance against Iowa — through last fall, that Garcia won’t rank among the top three quarterbacks in the SEC in 2010, his junior season.

Larry Smith, Vanderbilt As I wrote in the team preview, Vanderbilt returns junior Larry Smith, who started nine games a season ago. The junior must make a significant improvement for the Commodores, who don’t lack for running backs but face a sizable rebuilding job on the offensive line. As he showed a year ago, Bobby Johnson won’t ask Smith to do much: protect the ball, young man, showing just enough with your arm to keep opposing defenses honest. It doesn’t help matters that Smith does not have a tremendous amount of talent to work with at wide receiver. Still, it should be noted that despite Smith’s struggles, Vanderbilt did not finish last in the SEC in total offense in 2009: that honor fell to L.S.U.

New starters

Cameron Newton, Auburn We all remember Newton: Tim Tebow’s No. 2 at Florida, removed from the university following an off-field incident, Newton resurrected his young career on the junior college level. His return to the SEC could not have come at a better time; Auburn, led offensively by Gus Malzahn, was looking to supplant 2009 starter Chris Todd, and found in Newton a ready replacement. Newton fits what Malzahn is hoping to accomplish with his quarterback: big, strong, agile with a monster arm, and able to present defenses with the option of making plays with either his legs or in the passing game. Much will be expected of the new Auburn quarterback, but it’s hard to imagine a new starter falling into a better situation.

John Brantley, Florida Newton’s dismissal allowed Brantley the opportunity to earn significant experience as Tebow’s backup. The similarities between the Tebow and his replacement have been well-discussed: well, there aren’t very many. The differences, however, have been covered at length: Tebow has the better legs, of course, but Brantley is the more prototypical pocket passer. That all sounds great. It would be wise to recall the old adage that you do not want to replace a legend, rather replace the unfortunate soul who replaced the legend. Not that Brantley won’t be given every opportunity to succeed, such is the depth and talent level of the Florida offense.

Aaron Murray, Georgia I suppose I could say the same of Murray, the Georgia redshirt freshman who beat out junior Logan Gray for the top spot at quarterback at the end of spring practice. The primary difference, of course, is that Murray will replace Joe Cox, while Brantley replaces a Heisman Trophy winner. Murray’s ascension to the starting lineup has been in the cards since last October, when many entertained the notion of stripping Murray of his redshirt in an effort to spice up the competition in the position. Looking back, it’s obviously a good thing Georgia did no such thing; barring a meltdown or injury, Murray will be Georgia’s starter for the upcoming future. Losing Zach Mettenberger hurts depth at the spot, as Gray is more of an athlete than a quarterback.

Nathan Stanley, Mississippi Snead’s earlier departure for the N.F.L. forced Mississippi’s hand at the quarterback position, opening the competition to Stanley, a sophomore, and redshirt freshman Raymond Cotton. Stanley won this quarterback competition — one that will certainly continue in 2011 — due partially to his stellar play in the spring, partially due to Cotton’s torn labrum. Cotton’s injury was good news for Stanley, bad news for Ole Miss: it leaves the Rebels with only one scholarship quarterback on the roster. As Snead’s backup in 2009, Stanley completed 11 of 23 attempts for 163 yards and a touchdown.

Chris Relf, Mississippi State Relf was tied up in a slight quarterback competition with highly-touted redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, though the consensus throughout the spring was that the junior would get the call in 2010. He’ll replace the departed Tyson Lee, who gave the Bulldogs grit, if little else. In terms of athleticism, Relf is a clear upgrade; how he develops as a passer will dictate the strides M.S.U. makes in Dan Mullen’s second season. If nothing else, Relf can keep the position warm for Russell, the unquestioned future at the position.

Two contenders at Tennessee Yes, Matt Simms claimed the top spot as Tennessee exited its debut spring under Derek Dooley. He’ll struggle maintaining his starting role, especially when SEC defenses begin to comprehend the fact that while Simms is a heady player with good running ability, he won’t burn them deep. In his defense, you can’t discount the fact that Simms seems more comfortable in the position than freshman Tyler Bray. You must also admit that Bray, while he has prototypical size and arm strength, can’t make plays outside of the pocket; Simms can. But Bray has that arm. He lacks awareness, which can only be learned in a game situation. The job should have gone to Nick Stephens, but the senior left U.T. in the spring. Ironically, Stephens was worried he would lose the starting role due to the competition. Had he seen who his competition was going to be?

Bottom line

Perhaps Tebow, on his broad shoulders, was able to lift the national perception of quarterback play in the SEC a season ago. Regardless, it’s safe to say that 2010 will not be the year of the quarterback in the SEC. There are a few bright spots, however, such as Mallett’s burgeoning Heisman campaign; Alabama’s McElroy, he of the perfect career record; the continued growth of Stephen Garcia; and the return of Cameron Newton to the SEC. Yet there are more question marks than answers at quarterback, and beyond Mallett, no one player who deserves to be mentioned among the top signal callers in the country. Not there’s anything wrong with that: the SEC doesn’t throw parades for 3,000-yard passers, only for national championships.

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  1. Dave says:

    “After showing flashes of his potential as a true freshman starter at Michigan in 2007…”

    What flash could you be talking about? Mallett had problems taking snaps, completing passes and had an ego so big he was the most hated player on the team.

    Paul: I was thinking the 3-0 record as a starter, the strong arm, the 250-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Wisconsin, even in a loss. Mallett’s ego may be his downfall, but the confidence might be what makes him the best passer in college football.

  2. [...] words of wisdom Jump to Comments … come from this SEC quarterbacks preview at Pre-Snap Read: … the SEC doesn’t throw parades for 3,000-yard passers, only for national [...]

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