HOOVER, Ala. — For three days reporters prodded coaches at the SEC Media Days to reveal their all-conference quarterback selection, the goal being to find who didn’t fall in lockstep and vote Florida’s Tim Tebow first and Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead second.
A better question might have been who should have been third?
Beyond Tebow, a two-time national champion and former Heisman Trophy winner, and Snead, a Texas transfer putting up gaudy stats in Oxford, quarterback remains a largely unsettled position in the SEC, a major concern in a conference that had 11 teams finish in the top-40 nationally in total defense last year.
“Without good quarterback play, it’s tough to win a championship,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
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How scarce is the quarterback quality? South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia and Kentucky’s Mike Hartline tied for third-team preseason All-SEC honors. Garcia started three games last year, throwing more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6). Hartline started nine times, with nine touchdowns to eight picks.
So where have all the top-notch quarterbacks gone? It’s tough to say exactly.
Had he not run into a series of disciplinary problems that led to his dismissal at LSU, Ryan Perrilloux, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback recruit of 2005, would be a senior with the Tigers this season. Instead, he’s entering his second year at Jacksonville State, a school in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The 2006 recruiting class that featured Tebow and Snead was headlined by Matthew Stafford, who opted to forgo his senior season at Georgia and enter last spring’s NFL draft, going No. 1 overall to the Detroit Lions.
That class also featured some notable misses. Five-star quarterback Mitch Mustain transferred from Arkansas to Southern Cal in the wake of offensive coordinator Gus Mazlahn’s departure, and two four-star quarterbacks — Neil Caudle and Chris Smelley — haven’t lived up to their billing. Caudle has yet to take any significant snaps at Auburn and Smelley, who played at South Carolina for three years, transferred to Alabama this winter to play baseball.
As a result, there are question marks abound this year at the sport’s most important position.
6 teams have QB decided
Quarterback battles will be the focal point of the preseason at Auburn (Caudle, Kodi Burns and Chris Todd) and Vanderbilt (Larry Smith and Mackenzi Adams). Tennessee’s Jonathan Crompton and Mississippi State’s Tyson Lee have tenuous grasps on starting jobs, although they will certainly face challengers.
The other six teams appear to have the quarterback position decided — Georgia with Joe Cox, LSU with Jordan Jefferson, Alabama with Greg McElroy, Arkansas with Ryan Mallett, Kentucky with Hartline and South Carolina with Garcia.
Still, the question is experience. Subtract Hartline and that group has a combined six SEC starts to its credit.
“I think it’s very critical just to experience the speed,” Petrino said of breaking in a new quarterback. “You go out there and you practice and you can throw the ball, but until you understand how fast those defensive rush men are going to be getting to you, how you can train yourself to keep your vision downfield when things are flashing in front of you and moving in front of you. You really don’t have any idea what it’s like.”
“Those young quarterbacks look at you and say, ‘Coach, it looks like they’ve got 18 guys playing defense. They’re all over the place,’” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, an offensive guru who mentored former Utah star Alex Smith and Tebow.
Cox has leadership skills
With experience lacking, coaches are forced to look for other qualities. Cox has made one start in his Georgia career, against Ole Miss in 2006, but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt says Cox possesses all the characteristics he wants in a quarterback.
“We have exit meetings in the spring,” Richt said. “We ask the players, ‘Who are the leaders on this football team, in your opinion?’ I think 106 out of 110 guys said Joe Cox. I think that’s significant. He was the No. 1 vote getter.”
Cox knows it will be tough to follow up the strong-armed Stafford, one of the most-skilled quarterbacks in Georgia history, but he’s trying not to do it all himself.
“Obviously, there is pressure,” Cox said. “But it’s not something I think about. The success of this team is not all on my shoulders. There are 10 other guys that get the job done as well.
“I won’t carry the team. We’ll work together. And that is where our success will come from: the team.”