2019 is the year of the quarterback in the SEC
For those who didn’t know, Mississippi State coach Joe Moorehead was a quarterback as a player.
He used to wear No. 13 in honor of another Pittsburgh product who attended the same high school, Dan Marino. However, Central Catholic retired the number just before his senior year, so Moorehead switched to No. 12 and continued to wear it at Fordham.
Through it all he’s remained a fan of Marino, who has an open invitation to attend a game in Starkville.
“As Pittsburgh people will know, I'll have a cold case of Iron City (beer) on ice waiting,” Moorehead said.
It would be fitting if Marino decided to show up this season because quarterbacks seem to be everywhere in the league. Not only do a number of teams have returning starters, including the Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama and Georgia’s Jake Fromm, the preseason first- and second-team All-SEC selections at media days, but many have benefitted from veteran players transferring in.
LSU, for example, has both. Senior Joe Burrow is poised to play his second season for the Tigers after initially suiting up for Ohio State. He obviously had a good 2018 in Baton Rogue and has since emerged as a team leader.
“I do believe that Joe, if we let him, would run into a brick wall no matter what it took,” said Ed Orgeron, who sometimes comes across as being a human version of the Kool-Aid Man. “He's that tough as a … he has a linebacker mentality. We are going to use him on quarterback runs, quarterback draws, but we're going to be careful how many times we run him again.”
Depending how things play out during training camps over the next month, the league could have five graduate transfer quarterbacks starting.
Among them are Kelly Bryant, who headed to Missouri after losing out to Trevor Lawrence at Clemson. Ball State transfer Riley Neal is expected to start at Vanderbilt. Arkansas has two, with Ben Hicks from SMU and Nick Starkel out of Texas A&M set to square off.
Meanwhile, Tommy Stevens, who is listed as 6-5, 235 pounds, has already played two years for his head coach. He followed Moorehead from Penn State a year later.
“Tommy is a kid with a lot of physical tools,” Moorehead said. “Strong arm. He can really run. He's accustomed to the system so he's going to understand it for the most part coming in.”
Although the physical tools are obviously important, the overriding theme with most of the additions is experience.
In some cases someone was added to help buy time for others to grow and develop, like former Troy quarterback Sawyer Smith being a late transfer to Kentucky, where he’ll challenge returning starter Terry Wilson, it’s a crucial trait that every football team wants at the position.
Neal started 32 games at Ball State. Granted, he didn’t face SEC competition, but he’s already passed for nearly 7,400 yards and 46 touchdowns.
“There's more talent in the quarterback room today than at any other time in my tenure as head coach,” Derek Mason said about his Commodores, and he’s not the only league coach who feels that way.
Consequently, go ahead and tab 2019 as the year of the quarterback in the SEC. From Florida’s Feleipe Franks to Kellen Mond at Texas A&M, South Carolina's Jake Bentley to Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano, it’s the deepest league at the position.
“I don't know that there's been a year where there's been so many quarterbacks that have the experience they have,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Some of them may not have the experience at that university, but they have experience.
“That's usually not a good sign for defensive coordinators in our conference because I've been through that as defensive coordinator where everybody has a good quarterback. It makes it really tough because that position determines a lot of the outcomes of games.”
While having a proven quarterback obviously works to the advantage of talented teams like Alabama and Georgia, where it’ll be even more noticeable is on the other end.
For example, quarterback isn’t just the big question at Auburn but may be the only question of training camp. Between Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix, the Tigers are poised to play a talented freshman with a big-time arm.
“Our quarterbacks will be a run threat, and when you have a run threat at quarterback it really does change things from a defensive standpoint,” Gus Malzahn said. “From a play caller standpoint, it gives you a lot more flexibility, too.”
Nevertheless, the Tigers only converted 36 percent of their third-down opportunities lasts season when they had a veteran transfer behind center, Jarrett Stidham. Improving on that that while playing a rookie quarterback, regardless of who it is, might be asking a little much.
The rest of Auburn’s roster is pretty impressive, especially on the defensive line. But if the Tigers falter this fall it’ll likely be because they don’t have a experienced quarterback while facing numerous teams that do.
“The first part of our schedule is a man schedule, so we need to grow up in a hurry,” Malzahn added.