This article is part of our Conference Preview series.
SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEW: SEC QUARTERBACKS
Spring practices are getting started all across the country, which means Rotowire will be kicking off a series of previews for some of the nation's top positional battles. For this article, we'll be looking at the quarterback picture for each SEC team heading into spring and forecasting a starter for the 2018 season. Most programs kicked off their spring practices this week, and while some teams are set in stone at quarterback, the influx of new coaches at several schools means that there will be some new faces leading SEC teams this fall. The defending national champions have their own quarterback conundrum to navigate with two highly-qualified candidates in Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts vying for the job. Other schools, like Tennessee and Texas A&M, are effectively starting from scratch with new coaches installing new systems and holding wide-open competitions that will drag into the summer. Without further adieu, let's take a look at the quarterback situations around the SEC.
The Skinny: This is arguably the most interesting quarterback battle in all of college football with Hurts and Tagovailoa both having proven that they can lead the Alabama offense at a high level. Unfortunately, things might not be settled this spring after Tagovailoa suffered a hand injury on the first day of spring practice. While he was back at practice Thursday, it remains to be seen when Tagovailoa he'll be a full go again. If Tagovailoa is limited or out for the rest of spring, Hurts would get the bulk of the first-team reps. Even if both Tagovailoa and Hurts were healthy this spring, this is a battle that wouldn't be decided until much closer to September.
One subplot from this spring is Gardner Minshew's decision to go to Washington State instead of staying at Alabama, where he would have added veteran depth. With Minshew gone and Tagovailoa hurt, sophomore Mac Jones could see more meaningful reps than would've been expected.
The Incumbent:Cole Kelley (R-So.)
The Skinny: This will be a close competition throughout the spring between Kelley and Storey as Arkansas installs a new system under new coach Chad Morris. The new system is a "drastic change" from the previous regime, according to Trent Shadid of SEC Country. For context, Morris had SMU running the 23rd-most plays in the nation last season while Arkansas plodded along with the 91st-most plays per game. With that, this spring will be defined by whichever quarterback can quickly grasp the offense. Kelley has more game experience than Storey – appearing in eight games last season and completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 1,038 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions – but is reportedly still getting used to the new tempo. Storey seemingly has a legitimate chance to win this job, but it'd be surprising for the new coaching staff to name a starter before fall camp.
The Incumbent:Jarrett Stidham (R-Jr.)
The Skinny: This is Stidham's team plain and simple, but Auburn is able to use this spring to get some additional reps for Willis and Gatewood while Stidham works his way back from offseason shoulder surgery. The latest reports from Josh Vitale of the Opelika-Auburn News is that Stidham is still questionable for Auburn's spring game. It wouldn't be surprising if the coaching staff took the cautious route and held Stidham out of any full-contact work if he's not at 100 percent this spring, which would mean Willis and Gatewood would be the primary quarterbacks in the spring game. The bottom line here is that Auburn can strengthen its quarterback depth behind Stidham throughout spring practice until Stidham is fully ready to take back over later in spring or during fall camp.
The Incumbent:Feleipe Franks (R-So.)
The Skinny: A new coach and a new system mean that we could be seeing a shakeup at quarterback in Gainesville. Franks has the edge on the others in terms of game experience, but he's facing the same learning curve as Trask and Jones when it comes to digesting Dan Mullen's offense. With that, Florida is working with a clean slate this spring and all three of these quarterbacks have the potential to put themselves in position to start. Jones is the intriguing name here. A true freshman and early enrollee, Jones was Mullen's first priority on the recruiting trail, and it's probably fair to assume that Mullen wouldn't work so hard to flip Jones from Ohio State if he didn't envision him running the Florida offense sooner rather than later. However, a report from Orlando Sentinel states that Jones has a ways to go in the wight department to handle the physical toll of executing the types of runs he'll be called on to do in Mullen's offense. Just like Arkansas, Florida probably won't be in a hurry to name a starter by the end spring practice, but this is a situation where the spring game may reveal who's sitting atop the depth chart heading into the summer.
The Incumbent:Jake Fromm (So.)
The Challenger(s):Justin Fields (Early Enrollee)
The Skinny: Georgia is short on depth but long on talent with two five-star quarterbacks as the only signal callers on scholarship. The hit to the depth this year came with Jacob Eason's departure along with Brice Ramsey's graduation. Still, this is obviously a position of strength for the Bulldogs with Jake Fromm entering his second season as the starter. Fromm was a revelation last year taking over for an injured Eason to deliver Georgia its first SEC Title since 2005 and the first College Football Playoff appearance in program history. Fields is an immensely talented quarterback prospect with plenty of buzz, but the idea of him unseating a player like Fromm right away seems frivolous and far-fetched. He'll catch plenty of attention throughout the rest of spring and in the lead up to the season, but this is Fromm's team.
The Incumbent: N/A
The Skinny: Kentucky is another program with the unenviable task of breaking in a new starter and having to choose between options with zero playing experience at the SEC level. Early reports say that Hoak is getting most of the first-team reps while Wilson is still getting acclimated to the playbook. "Gunnar's way ahead as far as understanding everything and making great decisions," quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw said. Hoak may have a slight edge on his competitors at this stage, but this is another situation where a decision might not come until summer. Kentucky is set to have its first spring scrimmage Saturday, according to The Lexington Herald-Leader, so there should be some clarity on the Wildcats' pecking order in the coming days.
The Incumbent:Myles Brennan (So.)
The Skinny: Brennan is the only one of the three with legitimate game experience, but all three will be seeing first-team reps this spring. According to Ross Dellenger of The Advocate, coach Ed Orgeron will likely wait until fall camp to name a starter. Patience is a good move here as LSU is installing a new offense for the second year in a row after Matt Canada's failed run as OC last year. Even with that in mind, Brennan still seems like the favorite here. He's easily the best quarterback recruit LSU has had in recent years as a consensus four-star and he looked promising when called upon as a freshman in 2017. This could be a year where more is asked of the quarterback at LSU without a Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice-type of backfield presence, which means the winner of this competition could have more fantasy appeal than most LSU signal callers have drawn in recent years.
The Incumbent: Jordan Ta'amu (Sr.)
The Challenger(s):Matt Corral (Early Enrollee), Alex Faniel (R-Fr.)
The Skinny: Challengers should come with an asterisk here as this is Ta'amu's team. Ole Miss faced serious uncertainty when Shea Patterson went down with a season-ending knee injury last year, but Ta'amu stepped up and had a remarkable run as the starter that earns him the QB1 mantle in Oxford heading into 2018. In parts of seven games, including five starts, Ta'amu completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,682 yards (9.7 YPA), 11 touchdowns, and four picks while adding four touchdowns on the ground. Ole Miss has some interesting quarterbacks for the future; Matt Corral's development is a storyline of particular interest this spring, but Ta'amu is the guy for the Rebels this year.
The Incumbent:Nick Fitzgerald (R-Sr.)
The Challenger(s):Keytaon Thompson (So.)
The Skinny: In the best case scenario, Fitzgerald will be able to do some non-contact work and manage to learn coach John Donovan's system after Dan Mullen's departure to Florida. Quick refresher: Fitzgerald is working his way back a dislocated ankle suffered against Mississippi in November. That means Thompson will get to run the first-team offense for most of the spring, which will get him acclimated to the new system and give him a comfort level when it's his time to take over next season. This should be a slow spring for Fitzgerald, but that's all with the intention of having him be a full go when fall camp starts in August.
The Incumbent:Drew Lock (Sr.)
The Skinny: Lock is back, which gives Missouri one of the best quarterback situations in the entire conference. He has to learn a new system under Derek Dooley, but Lock is entering his third full year as the starter and as long as there isn't a counterintuitive shift in philosophy, he'll remain a force that gives opposing coordinators trouble. And considering the success of the offense the last two years under now UCF head coach Josh Heupel, Dooley would be foolish to do a massive overhaul of what Missouri has been working with schematically. There will be some new wrinkles for Lock to master, according to Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, such as more concrete route concepts rather than option routes, but Lock has the poise and talent to master those facets and remain one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
The Incumbent:Jake Bentley (Jr.)
The Skinny: There's not much to see here from a competition standpoint as Bentley is entering his third year as the Gamecocks' starter. Bentley has been impressive since stepping on campus in Columbia and is one of the best pro prospects at quarterback in the conference, if not the nation, heading into 2018 (and the 2019 draft). Like Missouri, the only real intrigue as far as the quarterback situation goes is Bentley's mastery of a new offense under Bryan McClendon. However, unlike Vince Dooley at Missouri, McClendon was promoted internally after serving as the receivers coach for the Gamecocks each of the last two seasons, which should lead to a smooth transition.
The Incumbent:Jarrett Guarantano (R-So.)
The Challenger(s):Will McBride
The Skinny: This situation won't get resolved until fall camp when Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst arrives on campus. Still, Guarantano has a chance to make Chryst's life a bit tougher this summer if he puts together a strong spring. Tennessee's new coaching staff is installing a pro-style offense, which will be an adjustment for Guarantano that could pay dividends down the line, according to Mike Griffith of SEC Country. Guarantano has the chance to show his mastery of the offense this spring and enter summer atop the Rocky Top depth chart. Still, the real battle will take place in August when he gets to duke it out with Chryst for the starting gig.
The Incumbent: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The Skinny: There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Jimbo. That means things are going to change around College Station after the Kevin Sumlin era. The Houston Chronicle reports that the Aggies opened practice on March 20, so there hasn't been enough time for either quarterback to separate from the pack. Like many of the other quarterback battles around SEC Country and the rest of the nation, mastery of the scheme is a major factor when there's a new coach or system in place. Concepts like "direct snaps under center" and "using the tight end" are new and scary in College Station, but that's just something Starkel and Mond will have to adapt to under Fisher.
As for what these quarterbacks bring, I have a few thoughts. Starkel won the job out of camp before suffering an injury early in the contest, but he took back over and was occasionally impressive over his final five games. He's more of a classic pocket passer who whips the ball out with a three-quarter arm slot. On the other hand, Mond was a huge recruit coming out of football factory IMG Academy that justified his status with some unbelievable plays as a true freshman last season. He's the type of quarterback that thrived in the spread under Kevin Sumlin, but it remains to be seen how he'll adjust to the pro concepts in Fisher's offense. Fisher figures to let this battle play out into fall camp, but this will be one of the rare cases where the spring game could provide some clues as to pecking order heading into the summer.
The Incumbent:Kyle Shurmur (Sr.)
The Challenger(s):Deuce Wallace (So.)
The Skinny: This one's settled with Shurmur entering his senior year entrenched as the starter. Shurmur quietly had a breakout season for the Commodores last year, completing 58 percent of his passes for 2,823 yards (7.4 YPA) to go with 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. For context, he had nine touchdown passes and 10 picks as a sophomore in 2016. Shurmur's progress was impressive, and he could build on those numbers in 2018 even with Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan gone from the receiving corps. This spring will be about getting acclimated with some new targets behind Kalija Lipscomb, who averaged 16.5 yards per reception last year and had a team-high eight touchdowns. Otherwise this will be a rather uneventful spring for Vanderbilt when it comes to its quarterback sitaution.