Rising stars: Hurts tops emerging group of SEC QBs

Matt Lowe

April 04, 2017 at 8:55 pm.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the SEC was average at best at quarterback.

Youth and inexperience had something to do with that, as did injuries. And so did guys not living up to their preseason hype.

But when a true freshman signal-caller (Alabama’s Jalen Hurts) can enter the best conference in the country (historically, although that title went to the ACC in 2016) and earn the distinguished honor of being the league’s best offensive player, it’s a telling sign that there wasn’t a lot of star power at the most important position on the football field.

And look, that’s not a knock on Hurts at all. He played his tail off. But historically speaking, it’s really not that common to see a 17, 18-year-old QB come into the SEC, exude all kinds of poise and systematically smash a number of long-standing single-season QB records at Alabama, which is exactly what Hurts did.

But injuries to Kentucky’s Drew Barker, Florida’s Luke Del Rio, Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight and Auburn’s Sean White, at different times throughout the season, were instrumental to inconsistent play behind center for all those teams. And despite turning in a great year for Tennessee, Josh Dobbs’ accomplishments weren’t that highly regarded due to the Vols failure to live up to preseason expectations, even though they suffered injury after injury, especially on defense.

Following a major transition year at quarterback for the SEC as a whole, the future suddenly looks bright league-wide at basically every school. The tricky part is where you rank ‘em prior to the start of the season.

Hurts gets the early nod for the league’s best quarterback due to his remarkable 2016 campaign and his upside — again, POY as a true frosh in the SEC! — as a player in a talent-laden offense. But there are a number of SEC signal-callers that could emerge as premier players this fall due to the talent surrounding them and the teams they play on.

And yes, I know, “potential” is a dangerous word, especially in coaching circles. But this year’s crop of SEC gunslingers could be the best collection of talent the league has seen at the position in a number of years.

Twitter: @MattLowe777

SEC’s best QBs could go something like this…

  1. Jalen Hurts, Alabama: Hurts took the SEC by storm last year after he settled in as Alabama’s starting QB following an impressive performance against USC in the season opener. Not only did he become the first true freshman quarterback to start for Nick Saban during his illustrious coaching career, but he completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns and established a new school-record rushing record for QBs by running for 954 yards and a team-high 13 scores on the ground en route to being named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year. Hurts will no longer have left tackle Cam Robinson watching his six this season, nor will he have talented tight end O.J. Howard and stud wideout ArDarius Stewart in the passing game, but the return of go-to wideout Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster give him two excellent receiving threats to go along with a powerful ground game, led by Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in the College Football Playoff title game, and Josh Jacobs. Alabama’s offensive attack may be more play-action-based (with run-pass options) under co-offensive coordinators Brian Dabol and Mike Locksley, which should only benefit the sophomore. But the new Tide play-callers need to be wary of harnessing Hurts’ magnificent running skills.

Did You Know?  In the 51-3 win over Mississippi State last year, Hurts passed for 347 yards and rushed for 100 yards to become the first quarterback in Alabama history to throw for 300 and rush for 100 yards in the same game. His five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) tied the single-game school record.

  1. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State: Fitzgerald, who had only two collegiate offers (MSU and Middle Tennessee State) coming out of high school, is one of the best dual-threats in America, and he enters the 2017 season as one of the SEC’s top returning quarterbacks. In his first full season as a starter, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior led the conference in total offense (3,798 yards) and rushing touchdowns (16). He also completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns despite throwing 10 interceptions. Fitzgerald will have to cope with the loss of stud wideout Fred Ross, the school’s all-time career receptions leader, but he will benefit from the return of wideouts Donald Gray, Malik Dear and Keith Mixon, who doubles as a dynamic kick returner, along with tight end Farrod Green. But despite the remarkable abilities Fitzgerald possesses, his offensive line has to improve if the Bulldogs, as a team, want to re-emerge as a competitor for the SEC West title.

Did You Know? Fitzgerald started all 13 games and broke nine school records — four single-season and five single-game. Fitzgerald’s single-season school records were yards per rush (7.1), rushing yards by a quarterback (1,375), 100-yard rushing games (eight) and 100-yard rushing games by a QB.

  1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn: It’s been a roller coaster ride at quarterback for Auburn the last two years, but Gus Malzahn pulled the recruiting coup of the offseason by landing Stidham via transfer from Baylor. Stidham comes in with a lot of hype, and rightfully so. He was a three-time All-State performer (at quarterback and receiver) at Stephenville High School (Texas) and was ranked as the top dual-threat quarterback in America prior to passing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns in three starts as a true freshman at Baylor during the 2015 season. Stidham sat out all of last year due to the NCAA’s transfer rule, but he’s earning reps with Auburn’s first team offense this spring with incumbent Sean White limited while recovering from a broken forearm he suffered in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Stidham has already impressed the Auburn coaching staff with his work ethic and performance, and it will be a surprise (although he and White will compete for the starting job in the fall) if he doesn’t see extended time in the season opener against Georgia Southern, especially if he can pick up new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’ system quickly. Auburn’s offense has a high ceiling, but it could have a higher ceiling with the strong-armed Stidham at the helm. The Tigers return three starting offensive linemen, a stable of running backs that helped the Tigers lead the league in rushing, led by battering ram Kamryn Pettway and multi-dimensional threat Kerryon Johnson, and a talented, young receiving corps (Ryan Davis, Eli Stove, Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers etc.) that made plays when White was heathy. Lindsey has also vowed to bring back the tight end as a passing threat. But Auburn hasn’t had a lot of options at that position recently due to a series of unfortunate off-field events.

Did You Know? In his first collegiate start, a 31-24 win at Kansas State, Stidham completed 23 of 33 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a rushing score. It was the 17th time in school history that a Baylor QB passed for 400 yards in a game.

  1. Jacob Eason, Georgia: When you watch Eason, at times, it’s almost like you’re watching a young Matthew Stafford all over again. But Eason has a lot to accomplish before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Stafford. Entering his sophomore season, the 6-5, 235-pound Washington native will have the luxury of operating behind a veteran offensive line and handing the rock off to arguably the top running back combo in the league in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. He should also benefit from having five of his top six pass-catchers back, which includes undersized but lightning quick wideout Terry Godwin, tight end Isaac Nauta, a Freshman All-SEC selection, and big-play threat Riley Ridley, who has the skill set to emerge as one the best young wideouts in the league. In 12 starts a year ago, Eason completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 2,430 and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He should only improve on those numbers in year two in coordinator Jim Cheney’s system; and if Michel and Chubb can remain healthy all season long, you have to think there were will be plenty of opportunities to connect with Ridley downfield and Godwin and Nauta underneath when the Bulldogs take to the air.

Did You Know? In the 31-23 Liberty Bowl win over TCU, Eason completed 12 of 21 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns. His 77-yard completion to McKenzie was the longest play that did not result in a TD in Liberty Bowl history.

  1. Jake Bentley, South Carolina: After a few rounds of musical chairs at quarterback during his first year in Columbia, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp finally turned the QB reigns over to Bentley prior to a home date with Massachusetts — and with the true freshman, who should have been playing his senior year at Opelika High School (Opelika, Ala.) leading the charge, the results were instant. In seven starts, Bentley completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns and with only four interceptions. He finished with a 4-3 record as a starter and was a key component to an upset win over Tennessee in late October. He also established a new South Carolina bowl-game record for a QB by passing for 393 yards and three touchdowns in the Gamecocks thrilling 46-39 overtime loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl. With Bentley behind center, along with talented skill players such as tailback Rico Dowdle, wideout Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst, South Carolina should be a capable team offensively. But finding a left tackle who can protect Bentley’s blind side will be vital to the offense’s success this fall.

Did You Know? Bentley became the first South Carolina true freshman quarterback to win his first three collegiate starts since Steve Taneyhill notched four-straight wins in 1992. In his first collegiate start, Bentley completed 17 of 26 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-28 win over UMass.

  1. Austin Allen, Arkansas: Despite being sacked 34 times, Allen started every game for Arkansas last year, led the SEC in passing yards (3,430) and 200-yard passing games (11) and finished second in passing touchdowns (25). But in 2017, he will be without the services of three (wideouts Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle) of his top four pass-catchers from a year ago, and his blindside protector, left tackle Dan Skipper. Allen is a heck of a player, and he’s one tough SOB, but it’s tough to put him at the top of the QB heap regardless of his experience due to Arkansas’ lack of proven threats in the passing game. The return of stud tailbacks Rawleigh Williams (1,326 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns) and Devwah Whaley (601 yards and three scores) should ease the pressure off Allen however while new targets emerge at receiver and tight end.

Did You Know? Allen became the first QB in school history to total 17 TD passes across the first seven games of a season and first since Ryan Mallett (2010) to toss three TD passes in three straight games (Weeks Five through Seven) of a season.

  1. Drew Lock, Missouri: Although he battled inconsistency against some of the SEC’s better defenses (was 17 of 37 passing for 167 yards and an interception against LSU and 4 of 18 for 39 yards and two interceptions against Florida), Lock was one of the few bright spots a year ago in an otherwise dismal season (4-8) for the Tigers. Operating in offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense for the first time, the 6-4, 225-pound Lock completed 54.6 percent of his passes for an SEC-best 3,399 yards (in the regular season) and 23 touchdowns compared to only 10 interceptions. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark five times and the 400-yard mark twice, and guided Missouri to big wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas, two bowl teams, in two of the Tigers final three games. But despite the gaudy numbers, Missouri’s offensive line play will need to improve if Lock and his fellow teammates expect to get back into the running for an SEC East title. Missouri returns its top three pass-catchers — including the SEC’s only 1,000-yard receiver returning from a year ago in J’Mon Moore — and dynamic tailback Damarea Crockett, who eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing last year despite receiving only 153 carries, so Lock will have go-to options. But the play up front, along with more consistency from Lock, will go a long way in determining how good Mizzou can be in 2017.

Did You Know? Lock’s 3,399 yards through the air are the fifth-most in program history in a single season and the most ever in a 12-game season at Missouri. He played one of his best games in a convincing 26-17 win over Vanderbilt last year by completing 22 of 37 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns.

  1. Shea Patterson, Ole Miss: The Ole Miss coaching staff pulled the redshirt off Patterson — the top quarterback in the 2016 recruiting cycle — late in the regular season last year in a last-ditch effort to get to six wins, but after a brilliant performance (25 of 42 for 338 yards and two touchdowns) in his first career start, a thrilling 29-28 win over Texas A&M, Patterson was unable to lead the Rebels to wins at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to close the season despite passing for a 222 yards and two TDs against the Commodores and 320 yards and two scores against the Bulldogs. But look, this kid can play. He can throw it and run it and he could be in line for a breakout season in 2017 playing for an Ole Miss offense that features a new coordinator (Phil Longo), an array of talented receivers and four starters back along the front wall. But the Rebels will need to develop a consistent running game to maintain balance offensively.

Did You Know? Patterson became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Ole Miss since David Morris in 1998 when he lined up behind center in a 29-28 win over Texas A&M last season. Patterson also set single-game freshman records for passing yards (338) and total yards (402) in the same game.

  1. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt: Shurmur struggled early in the year but he settled in and really played well in leading the Commodores to four of six regular season wins down the stretch, which included a brilliant performance in a win over rival Tennessee. Just one year after he broke Jay Cutler’s sophomore single-season passing record by throwing for 2,409 yards and nine touchdowns, look for Shurmur — and Vanderbilt — to only get better. And here’s why: The team’s second-leading rusher from a year ago, Khari Blasingame, a former linebacker, will team with Ralph Webb, the school’s all-time leading rusher, to form a formidable running back tandem. Blasingame is a powerfully built player who, along with Webb, combine to give the Commodores a nice thunder and lightning combo. Shurmur will also benefit from the return of his top five receivers from a year ago, including seniors C.J. Duncan —  who really came on at the tail-end of last year and led the squad in catches (44) and yards (494) — and Trent Sherfield (34 catches for 472 yards) and talented tight end Jared Pinkney, who is one of best young players at his position in the league.

Did You Know? Shurmur completed 21 of 34 passes for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in leading 45-34 upset of 24th-ranked Tennessee in the regular season finale.

  1. Danny Etling, LSU: With Etling as the starter, the Tigers went 7-3 last season, which included road wins at Arkansas and Texas A&M and a big victory over Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. Etling, an All-SEC Academic member, isn’t the most talented passer in the league, but he makes good decisions and really elevated his play after the dismissal of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron last season. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada likes to run the ball and create opportunities in the passing game off play-action, so it’s not inconceivable that Etling could quietly become one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks. Remember, Canada turned around the career of former Tennessee castoff Nate Peterman at Pitt so don’t be surprised if he does so with Etling, who has a similar skill set as Peterman, in Baton Rouge. LSU has athletes. The Tigers always do. And it will be interesting to see how Canada uses his new arsenal of weapons, especially dynamic tailback Derrius Guice.

Did You Know? Etling completed 20 of 28 for a season-high 324 yards and two touchdowns in LSU’s 54-39 road win over Texas A&M last season. His 324 passing yards were the second-highest yardage total of his career. He passed for 485 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-36 loss to Indiana while a true freshman at Purdue in 2013.

  1. Stephen Johnson, Kentucky: Although it took an unfortunate injury to Drew Barker last year in Week Three for Johnson to see extended time as Kentucky’s starting quarterback, it’s pretty apparent that Wildcats’ head coach Mark Stoops found a playmaker in the 6-2, 183-pound rising senior. Johnson started nine games (if you include the New Mexico State game, which was the game he relieved Barker) for the Wildcats last season and led the team to a 6-3 record, which included a stellar performance in a 41-38 win at No. 11 Louisville in the regular season finale — a victory that snapped a five-game losing streak for the ‘Cats in the series. In addition to being a viable running threat (327 yards and three scores), Johnson completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions. He needs to improve on his consistency, but Johnson has the talent — UK returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Benny Snell, five of its top six pass-catchers and four of five starters on the offensive line — around him to develop into one of the league’s better QBs.

Did You Know? In the win over rival Louisville, Johnson completed 16 of 27 passes for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns. He also led Kentucky in rushing with eight carries for 83 yards. Johnson’s 75-yard scoring strike to dynamic wideout Garrett Johnson on the Wildcats’ first offensive play was the longest pass play of his UK career.

  1. Jake Hubenak, Texas A&M: Hubenak is the early favorite to replace Trevor Knight at quarterback for the Aggies, but keep an eye out for talented true freshman dual-threat Kellen Mond (6-2, 200), who enrolled early and is going through spring drills. Hubenak, a senior, will likely get the nod due to his experience (two starts in 2016; completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 884 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions), but offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s system is better off when it has a running threat operating behind center. Hubenak is not that type of player, but he’s proven he can manage a game and perform admirably against good competition over the last two seasons when given the opportunity — and that has to account for something due to the skill Texas A&M still has at receiver and running back.

Did You Know? Hubenak made his first career start vs Lamar Jackson and Louisville in the Music City Bowl two seasons ago and played well despite being sacked five times in Texas A&M’s 26-21 defeat. Although a late-game drive to potentially win the game fell short in the waning moments, Hubenak still managed to complete 28 of 48 passes for a career-high 307 yards and two touchdowns.

  1. Quinten Dormady, Tennessee: It’s tough to gage how healthy Tennessee’s program is due to all the key departures from last year’s squad, but one thing is for sure: the Vols have to find a player at quarterback. Tennessee still has weapons (wideout Jauan Jennings and tight end Ethan Wolf are reliable options in the passing game) and should have a respectable offensive line, but it will be imperative for the 6-4, 216-pound Dormady, or any of UT’s other options, to step up and play well as the team’s leader behind center. Dormady, a veteran who has been in the Vols program for three years, is the likely leader in the clubhouse at the moment to step up and fill the void for the departed Josh Dobbs due to his experience. But redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, a highly recruited dual-threat who is blessed with good size (6-4, 205), is a player to keep an eye on, as are redshirt freshman Sheriron Jones and true freshman Will McBride.

Did You Know? Dormady picked Tennessee over Alabama during the 2015 recruiting process and appeared in six games as a true freshman shortly after he inked his Letter of Intent. He fired his first touchdown pass to Preston Williams, a 24-yarder, in a 55-10 win over Western Carolina on September 19, 2015.

  1. Luke Del Rio, QB Feleipe Franks , Kyle Trask, Florida: Del Rio is recovering from surgery on both shoulders this offseason so redshirt freshmen Franks and Trask are getting the bulk of the work at quarterback during spring practice. If he were healthy, Del Rio would be the starter and UF’s ranking would not be this low. But that’s not the case, so the Florida coaching staff has to prepare Franks and Trask as if one or the other will be the team’s starting QB. Franks’ four-star rating (according to 247 Sports) was much higher than Trask’s three-star rating, but both are big (6-6) and possess strong arms. Franks is known more as a vocal leader, while Trask is more of a quiet, lead-by-example type. But regardless of who wins the Florida starting QB job, it’s still up in the air how productive the position will be. However, Florida has the offensive line and talent at running back (leading rusher Jordan Scarlett is back), receiver (big-play threats Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell and Tyrie Cleveland offer a variety of reliable pass-catchers) and tight end (the team’s top two options, DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis, return) to be a contender in the SEC East. But all eyes are on the quarterback race — and there’s a lot of question marks about how that will play out … at the moment.

Did You Know? As a senior at Wakulla High School (Crawfordville, Fla.), Feleipe Franks passed for 2,766 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushed for 245 and four scores. He led his team to a 13-2 record and a state title as a senior.