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VOL. 131 | NO. 171 | Friday, August 26, 2016

Once QB Country, SEC Now Has Only A Few Proven Players at the Position

By Don Wade

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At SEC Media Days this summer in Hoover, Ala., the 14 head coaches brought along more starting offensive linemen (5) than starting quarterbacks (3). Such is the state of the most high profile position in the Southeastern Conference at the beginning of the 2016 college football season.

Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly led the SEC in total offense (4,542 yards) in 2015 and is the most accomplished returning player in the league at the position. “It’s a huge advantage,” said Rebels tight end Evan Engram. 

(Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly and Tennessee starter Joshua Dobbs were there, of course, and they even get mentioned at the fringe of preseason Heisman talk as the two most established returning QBs. Trevor Knight, who transferred from Oklahoma to Texas A&M, also was on hand and he and Kelly are the only two active college quarterbacks who can say they have beaten Nick Saban and Alabama.

Everywhere else in the SEC, coaches were either going to start a guy who had been less than consistent last season – everyone from Brandon Harris at LSU to Kyle Schurmur at Vanderbilt – or they were, and in some cases still are, trying to find the starter for opening day.

For the third time in three years, Alabama will have a new starting quarterback when the defending national champions open up against USC on Sept. 3 at Jerry’s World. And odds are good that whether Saban tabs junior Cooper Bateman as the starter or talented freshman Jalen Hurts, they both see action and others could too, depending on the flow of the game.

“We’re used to it by now,” Bama tight end O.J. Howard said of the ever-changing quarterbacks.

So is first-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who came from Alabama as defensive coordinator and watched Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin go through the process of picking a new QB. Two years ago, Jacob Coker wasn’t ready and Blake Sims won the job. Last year, Coker got his chance and took his team back to the top.

Smart, with his first opening day bearing down on him – Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Atlanta – has a choice similar to Saban’s: Does he ride with an experienced player, such as Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey, or does he immediately trust the job to his most highly touted recruit, Jacob Eason?

All across the SEC, there are more questions than answers at the quarterback position, but Smart said, “I don’t think it inhibits the league at all. People arose. At the time, no one knew who Cam Newton was (at Auburn). Nobody knew what Nick Marshall (also at Auburn) would do. Nobody thought Blake Sims was going to do it. Nobody gave Jacob Coker a lot of credit, either.”

All of which puts Ole Miss and UT in enviable positions.

“It’s a huge advantage,” said Rebels tight end Evan Engram. “You have an experienced quarterback coming back off that strong year.”

Kelly led the SEC in passing yards with 4,042 and TD passes with 31.

“And him being more confident is huge for us,” Engram said. “I mean, you can use a lot of talent, but if you have a strong quarterback and proven quarterback coming back you’re in good shape.”

Just listen to Dobbs, who led all SEC QBs in rushing with 671 yards, talk about his responsibility.

“End of the day, the quarterback has to be your backbone,” he said. “Has to be calm, cool and collected when the game is on the line. Never too high, never too low.”

This is why Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin is thrilled to have Knight, who while able to claim a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl a few years ago also ultimately lost his job to Baker Mayfield. That’s not all bad in Sumlin’s view.

“The greatest teacher is experience,” Sumlin said. “What has helped Trevor, is some of that gunslinger has won games and some of that gunslinger cost him his job and has put him in the situation that he’s in. The growth during your career can happen quicker if you understand where your shortcomings are.”

At Arkansas, Austin Allen is taking over for older brother Brandon Allen. The job has stayed in the family, but the players are not carbon copies.

“He’s got a little different demeanor,” said Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema. “He’s a very aggressive person, my nature. I think we’ll have to calm him down rather than juice him up.”

At Mississippi State, Dan Mullen is trying to replace Dak Prescott. The field of contenders is crowded and it wouldn’t be surprising to see at least three players take snaps against South Alabama in the opener.

And yes, Mullen can look at Ole Miss and UT and even Texas A&M and know they have an edge.

“Just because those guys have been on that stage before,” Mullen said. “They’ve been in the moment. It’s one less thing you have to worry about as a coach.”

So perhaps the Rebels’ Hugh Freeze and the Vols’ Butch Jones are sleeping a little better than most of their SEC counterparts. Jones went so far as to call playing QB at UT a “global position.” World leader might be a bit of a lofty description, but Dobbs does put Jones at peace.

“To have him leading our offense, being a captain, is very comforting as a head coach,” Jones said.

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