What's wrong with SEC quarterbacks? Rankings all 14 starters at the conference's position of weakness
The SEC has a quarterback problem. If you've watched even a few games of football this season—or really, in the past five seasons—you know this. There have been bright spots, of course, but may I present this list of names: Maxwell Smith, Tyler Russell, Anthony Jennings, James Franklin.
Consider this: Of the 32 quarterbacks who started an NFL game on Sunday, only four played for SEC schools. (That's not counting Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Tannehill, who played for then-Big 12 programs that have since moved to the SEC.) To compare, the Pac-12 has six starting NFL quarterbacks, the ACC and Big Ten five, and the so-called lowly FCS, Conference USA, MAC and Ivy League combine for one more starter than the SEC.
While there's certainly something to be said about the lack of SEC players under center at the next level, what's even more interesting is how we got here, to the point that the last SEC quarterback not named Johnny Manziel to be taken in the first round was Cam Newton in 2011—nearly six years ago. Look at recent drafts: Dak Prescott, the first SEC quarterback off the board last spring, was a fourth-rounder and is only starting because Tony Romo is hurt. In 2015, not a single SEC quarterback was taken. In 2014, after Manziel went 22nd (sigh), the next guy off the board was Georgia's Aaron Murray (now the backup to the backup to a former FCS player in Philadelphia), with the 163rd pick. Are you sensing a pattern here? Not only are SEC quarterbacks not starting, they're also not being drafted. In 2014, there were as many passers from the American Athletic Conference drafted as there were from the SEC, and two of the AAC quarterbacks are viable, long-term starters for their current teams.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that among this year's crop of SEC starters—seven of whom are draft-eligible—only one is projected as an early-round pick. That's Ole Miss's Chad Kelly, who should, if the rest of the season proceeds as expected, go toward the end of the first round or in the second, depending on how quarterback-hungry teams are by season's end.
But beyond Kelly, the SEC is a morass of uncertainty. And with that in mind, I called the SEC Network to try to speak with one of their analysts about this predicament. They delivered with Jordan Rodgers, a former mediocre SEC quarterback at Vanderbilt, who had plenty to say about his former conference.
Rodgers wonders whether the league's quarterback problem stems from its dominant defenses or is causing them. "Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg type thing: Against the toughest defenses in the country, are you going to have a tougher time?" he asks. "Or do we not have the talent like other conferences like the Big Ten and the Pac-12 have, and that's making the defenses look better?"
He thinks the problem comes down to coaches' quick triggers with struggling starters and inadequate development. (Oh, by the way, he won The Bachelorette, an accomplishment I think I deserve a Pulitzer for not mentioning in our conversation.)
Here, along with some notes from Rodgers, is my ranking of this year's 14 SEC passers:
1. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, SR, 65.7% passing, 13 TDs, 5 INTs, 9.1 yards/attempt
Kelly, who's far and away the SEC's most interesting quarterback prospect, also is part of another interesting trend: transfers. In this year's SEC, he's one of five quarterbacks who transferred from another school (Kelly started at Clemson and then played at East Mississippi Community College).
2. Austin Allen, Arkansas, JR, 67.6% passing, 12 TDs, 2 INTs, 8.9 yards/attempt
Rodgers says he wonders if the SEC might have a recruiting problem when it comes to quarterbacks, and this list suggests there might be something there. Allen is one of five starting SEC passers this season who was either a two- or three-star recruit; you'd imagine SEC teams should be starting four- and five-star guys exclusively.
However, there's a caveat here: Allen, Florida's Luke Del Rio and Tennessee's Josh Dobbs were all three-star prospects, and they've been among the conference's better quarterbacks this season. It's the two-star guys—Kentucky's Stephen Johnson and Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald—who've been disappointing.
3. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M, SR, 54.1% passing, 7 TDs, 3 INTs, 7.0 Y/A
Knight, a transfer from Oklahoma, gets the nod here for what he can do when he's on—although when he's having an off day, it can be disastrous. His play Saturday against South Carolina was sloppy but not sloppy enough to doom the Aggies. "The key has been Trevor Knight," Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said in the week leading up to Saturday's game. "He's a dual-threat guy [who] can hurt you with his legs and throwing it. He's playing with a lot of confidence, and a lot of good people around him."
4. Jalen Hurts, Alabama, FR, 62.2% passing, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 7.3 yards/attempt
Hurts can still look very much the freshman—consider the first half of Saturday's game against Kentucky when, under pressure, he rushed his passes and threw inaccurately—but that stat line speaks for itself. The Crimson Tide have proven they won't ask him to do too much, a luxury afforded by their depth in every phase of the game.
5. Luke Del Rio, Florida, SOPH, 61.4% passing, 6 TDs, 2 INTs, 7.5 yards/attempt
Del Rio has missed the past two games with a knee injury, but he should get the starting job back as soon as he's healed. Rodgers mentions him as one of the SEC's few pleasant surprises at quarterback this season. "We see a lot of quarterbacks in the SEC who have the physical tools and don't necessarily put it together," he says, "and what you end up seeing happening, which is interesting, is seeing the quarterbacks who maybe aren't the most physically gifted having a lot of success."
6. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee, SR, 57.9% passing, 13 TDs, 6 INTs, 7.8 yards/attempt
Dobbs was one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in college football going into 2016, and though he's been good, he hasn't lived up to the billing—especially considering his potential. "I was really looking forward to seeing him progress and develop," Rodgers says. "I wanted to see, first and foremost, Butch Jones and that offense give him a little more rope, a little more leash. I think they held him tight to the cuff last year and really didn't allow him to excel or to flourish in the passing game. They're very careful with what they do with him." I will note, though, that I talked to Rodgers before Dobbs's last-second heroics against Georgia on Saturday. That Hail Mary was highlight-reel stuff, and Dobbs accounted for 655 total yards in the past two weeks against Florida and Georgia.
7. Sean White, Auburn, SOPH, 68.4% passing, 5 TDs, 1 INT, 8.6 yards/attempt
On Monday, when asked about White in advance of Mississippi State's game against Auburn this weekend, Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen compared him to Prescott, calling him a "productive, willing runner." (Bet you didn't see that one coming!) White has exactly 57 rushing yards this year.
8. Drew Lock, Missouri, SOPH, 56.8% passing, 14 TDs, 4 INTs, 8.4 yards/attempt
Lock was a big recruiting victory for Missouri, and he was thrown in last year as a freshman earlier than he should've been thanks to the extracurricular debauchery of one Maty Mauk. After a four-touchdown, eight-interception line last season, Lock has shown flashes of the player the Tigers hope he can be this year, but those passing numbers are wildly inflated by Missouri's 79–0 victory over mighty Delaware State on Sept. 24.
9. Jacob Eason, Georgia, FR, 53.6% passing, 7 TDs, 4 INTs, 6.6 yards/attempt
Eason's had a rough go of it at times this year, but if these rankings were of quarterbacks' potential (they're not), he'd be at the top of the list. A freshman quarterback in a new coach's offense is a double dose of bound to struggle, and though Eason has looked rough against bad teams (that near-loss to Missouri, anyone?), he played better against Tennessee last week. "Jacob Eason is someone that we're going to continue to talk about for a long time in the SEC." Rodgers says.
10. Danny Etling, LSU, JR, 58.4% passing, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 6.4 yards/attempt
Yes, the fate of Les Miles did rest in the hands of a transfer from Purdue, and that went about as well as you'd expect. Etling has been… just fine. The real story under center at LSU is Brandon Harris, who started the season as QB1 and was demoted despite being one of the conference's most physically gifted quarterbacks. A career 53.9% completion rate didn't help.
11. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky, JR, 63.6% passing, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 8.8 yards/attempt
Johnson shouldn't be starting for the Wildcats—he took over for the injured Drew Barker—and against Alabama, he fumbled three times, including one the Crimson Tide returned for a 55-yard scoop-and-score.
12. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State, SOPH, 59.6% passing, 5 TDs, 1 INT, 6.4 yards/attempt
The Bulldogs had a bye last weekend, so our most recent memories of Fitzgerald come from a banner day (299 passing yards, 3 TDs in a 47–35 win)... against a UMass team that
Tulane beat, 31–24, on Saturday. Those stats may be a tad inflated.
13. Brandon McIlwain, South Carolina, FR, 52.8% passing, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 5.3 yards/attempt
Another freshman who… looks like a freshman. Do a Google News search, and the top hits are about how "upbeat" he is.
14. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt, SOPH, 51.5% passing, 3 TDs, 3 INTs, 5.4 yards/attempt
That stat line and Vanderbilt's 2–3 record tell you everything you need to know. Rodgers thinks his alma mater has been too quick to pull young quarterbacks when they struggle, and he believes that's affected Shurmur's confidence.
And because we're talking about Vanderbilt, I'll leave you with this tidbit from Rodgers: He says he has the worst arm of any starting quarterback in the SEC in the past decade. He made up for it with smarts, he qualifies.