A year ago this time, with the SEC coming off its fifth straight national championship, my colleague Andy Staples compiled some interesting data that confirmed one of the primary reasons behind the league's recent dominance: The wealth of elite defensive prospects in its backyard. Andy noted that a staggering 43 percent of NFL defensive linemen hailed from a cluster of 10 Southeastern states representing just 22 percent of the general population.
But when Alabama won the conference's sixth straight title on Jan. 9, praise for the Tide's historically dominant defense came tempered with skepticism from the rest of the country. How could we truly know the strength of Nick Saban's unit when it never faced an elite quarterback from another conference? Even before Alabama faced LSU's chronically erratic Jordan Jefferson in New Orleans, it went through an SEC slate that included just one passer -- Arkansas' Tyler Wilson -- rated among the top 25 nationally (at 22nd).
They had a point.
While the Southeast continues to produce a disproportionate number of elite football players (including 39 of Rivals' Top 100 players in the Class of 2012), the one position it notably lags behind in is quarterback.
Replicating Andy's methodology from last year, I charted the high school locales of the 100 NFL quarterbacks that were either active or on injured reserve at the end of the 2011 regular season. Of those, just 18 hailed from one of the current SEC states.
If you believe recruiting rankings to be an accurate projector of future success, that trend doesn't appear to be changing. Of the 16 quarterbacks in the current class to garner a four- or five-star rating from Rivals, five are from the South (including the highest-rated, Florida State commit Jameis Winston of Hueytown, Ala.). Just two, Tennessee commit Nathan Peterman (Fruit Cove, Fla.) and Kentucky commit Patrick Towles (Ft. Thomas, Ky.), are heading to SEC schools.
The geographic dispersal of elite high school quarterbacks runs almost diametrically opposite from that of defensive linemen. Specifically, it's heavily tilted to the West. The same 10 Western states that accounted for just 13.6 percent of the sample in Andy's piece produced nearly one-third (32) of all NFL quarterbacks. California, the former stomping ground of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, leads all other states with 22. The generally talent-rich state of Florida had just three.
For all the elite athletes gracing high school fields in the South, strangely, few seem to wind up at the game's most visible position.
"The Southeast is known for speed, for great athletes, and a lot of times the quarterbacks are allowed to improvise," said Rivals.com National Analyst Mike Farrell. "You see a lot of great athletes that don't necessarily project as quarterbacks."
As an example, Farrell points to several current and recent LSU playmakers -- cornerback Morris Claiborne and receivers Russell Shepard, Rueben Randle and Early Doucet -- who played quarterback at their high schools.
Even Florida's most prominent quarterback import, Denver Broncos starter Tim Tebow, is an unconventional passer who many believed to be ill-suited to play the position.
"He's the best example of the type of quarterback teaching in the Southeast," said Farrell. "Nobody really worked on his mechanics with him because he was so athletic."
They take quite the opposite approach in California, where many aspiring college and NFL quarterbacks hire personal coaches to train them year round, sometimes beginning as young as 10 or 11.
"California was quicker to adjust to the passing game," said SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace, who's based in Laguna Beach, Calif., citing passing game innovators like Don Coryell and Bill Walsh. "It kind of goes along with how Californians are, they're known for innovation."
Southern football, on the other hand, prides itself on old-fashioned, run-first football, like the type Alabama and LSU relied on during their title game runs this season. And its best athletes are known first and foremost for their speed. While the NFL is increasingly embracing quarterbacks that can run as well as they throw -- including likely Rookie of the Year Cam Newton of College Park, Ga. -- it still generally lionizes the prototype 6-foot-4 drop-back passer, like expected No. 1 pick Andrew Luck of Stanford.
For whatever reasons, those tend to be more prevalent on the West Coast.
"The one variable that's never changed is the weather," said Bob Johnson, head coach of Mission Viejo High in Southern California and private quarterback instructor who's worked with current pros such as Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert. "In 10 to 12 years, working out four days a week for three months, we've been in the gym three days. It helps you train year-round."
But if weather was truly the biggest factor, why doesn't Florida pump out future quarterbacks at the same pace as California or Texas (which boasts 17 current pros)? Until recently, Johnson helped run the annual Elite 11 camp in Malibu, which invites the top quarterback recruits in the country the summer prior to their senior year. In general, he found the Southern-bred quarterbacks "were less skilled" at that stage of their careers. "I'm sure their coaches work just as hard as we do," he said. "But maybe [the quarterbacks] weren't working year-round."
The underlying issue behind the geographic disparity is much more complex than weather. It's socioeconomic. Quarterbacks require far more individualized training than other positions, and gurus like Johnson (based in suburban Orange County) and rival Steve Clarkson (Pasadena) aren't cheap. Their clients tend to come from affluent parents that can afford to shell out thousands of dollars for a private trainer.
While poverty is hardly limited to the South, nor are those states devoid of their own affluent neighborhoods, it's no secret than many of the region's best high school football programs reside in some of its poorest areas.
"When I see a quarterback in the Southeast," said Farrell, "they never refer me to a personal QB coach."
Given that context, SEC schools are relatively well represented in the NFL quarterback ranks with 12 alumni, trailing only the Pac-12's 14. They include royalty (Peyton and Eli Manning) and risers (Newton and Matthew Stafford). Many, however, did not grow up in the Southeast. Former Georgia star Stafford, recent Arkansas product Ryan Mallett and Alabama champion Greg McElroy came from Texas; Florida's Rex Grossman and Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler from Indiana.
Their ranks don't figure to grow this year. None of the six quarterbacks on this week's Senior Bowl rosters (Boise State's Kellen Moore, Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, San Diego State's Ryan Lindley, Arizona's Nick Foles and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden) or the top two juniors (Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III) played in the SEC or grew up in the Southeast. Among returning SEC quarterbacks, Arkansas' Wilson and Georgia's Aaron Murray figure to have the best shot of reaching the next level.
But that doesn't mean it will always be this way. For decades, Texas high school football was dominated by the wishbone and workhorse running backs. "I traveled the country for years, and Texas was the worst [for quarterbacks]," said Johnson. "The coaches wouldn't throw it." However, those coaches gave way to early adapters of the spread offense in the '90s and early 2000s, which in turn led to the proliferation of pass-driven 7-on-7 tournaments. By 2009, Texans held down the starting quarterback job at 22 FBS schools, and the NFL is now littered with Lone Star-bred QBs (Drew Brees, Stafford, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy, Vince Young).
The 7-on-7 craze has certainly spread to the Southeast, and the recent success of dual-threat QBs like Newton and Tebow may well drive a new generation of Southern speedsters to stick with the position.
"In the past, their role models were running backs and DBs, but now quarterbacks have broken through," said Johnson. "I think that's great."
Some of his West Coast or Midwest brethren might not share his enthusiasm. They need at least one area they can still claim football superiority over the South.