SEC’s New Quarterbacks Ready to Prove Themselves

By Don Wade

They are the SEC quarterbacks left behind. The quarterbacking gods, with names like Manziel, McCarron, Mettenberger and Murray – what is it about M’s? – have ascended to a higher place: playing on Sundays in the NFL.

The quarterbacks left behind are flawed, yes, because no quarterback is perfect and all break the coaching commandments: making the wrong read, taking a sack that could have been avoided, and trying to force throws into those so-called tight windows that slam shut on the pass, the drive, the game, sometimes even a season.

The best of those left behind? Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Bo Wallace from Ole Miss finished 1-2-3 on the SEC preseason team at QB. But others may emerge, provided they can first win the quarterback competition in their own camp and/or take advantage of an opportunity that has been a long time coming.

Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall salutes fans after scoring against Alabama on a 45-yard touchdown run during the first half of last year’s game. Marshall is one of the top returning quarterbacks in the SEC.

(AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

“Some of the guys haven’t put up the numbers or won the championships like some of those guys in the past have,” said Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, whose 2013 season was cut short by injury. “There’s always going to be talent in the SEC. It’s just a matter of who makes plays this year. You’ll end up getting guys being household names, but they weren’t at the beginning of the year.”

So it was for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and A.J. McCarron at Alabama. Manziel was not universally known as Johnny Football on day one. McCarron was not immediately regarded as championship quarterback, but the Crimson Tide won two with him under center.

“Those guys were unknown at some point,” Prescott said. “It just leaves the door open for guys to step up and get their name out there.”

Said Wallace: “Every quarterback is going to take that as a challenge.”

Perhaps the two most intriguing quarterbacking situations are at Alabama and A&M. Nick Saban has been ornery when asked about the competition between fifth-year senior Blake Sims and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, at least once telling media that if they kept pushing with questions he would withhold their scrimmage stats.

So, yeah, coaches get uptight. In this case, the prevailing outside opinion is that Sims is more comfortable with the Alabama system, having been in it a long time, and more ready to step in as a – wait for it – game manager. But Coker is deemed the bigger talent.

“The quarterback issue will not be the determining factor of our season,” said Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones.

Yes, it will. Which is why the longer this quarterback “controversy” lingers, the more Saban looks like the poster boy for Botox.

At A&M, coach Kevin Sumlin has named sophomore Kenny Hill the starter. The key thing to know: he’s not Johnny Football and there is no easing into the season, which begins on Aug. 28 at South Carolina.

“A night game, on the road. Probably whoever the quarterback is, I’ll be his only friend at that point,” Sumlin said.

Inexperienced quarterbacks all have labor pains whether or not they ever progress to the point they can deliver victories. Driskel remembers his early moments. First pass vs. mighty Florida Atlantic: interception. Getting some time against vaunted Alabama: “They kind of lit me up a little bit. I was a wide-eyed freshman. It kind of welcomed me to the SEC.”

The A&M-South Carolina game actually will feature two new quarterbacks. Another acclaimed veteran, Connor Shaw, is gone and fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson finally gets his chance.

“He’s got to pack his college career into one season,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Dylan has been very patient.”

It’s a similar story at Georgia, where another fifth-year senior, Hutson Mason, succeeds Aaron Murray. Coach Mark Richt chooses the most optimistic view possible.

“Even Jameis Winston (Florida State), Johnny Football, their first year starting, all of a sudden they win the Heisman. So anything can happen with a guy who gets his opportunity,” Richt said.

So maybe LSU shouldn’t worry about life after Zach Mettenberger, Missouri shouldn’t be concerned about relying on sophomore Maty Mauk, and Tennessee should embrace the continuation of the Justin Worley Era.

Or, after listening to Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney, maybe they should.

“A lot of new quarterbacks are coming in,” he said. “Me, personally, I like to get in a quarterback’s head. New quarterback, they’ll be kind of nervous.”

And probably in need of a friend.