The season is almost here: Do you know who your team’s starting quarterback is?
In some cases the answer is obvious, even if it’s not exactly reassuring. (Sometimes a little drama can be a welcome development.) Elsewhere, the pecking order at the start of preseason practice remains a mystery, made all the more mysterious in an era of high-profile transfers, dismissals and early-enrolling freshman that’s made rapid upheaval the norm from one season to the next. Proven vets graduate; freshman phenoms fade; up-and-comers come and go. Keeping track can feel like a full-time chore.
If you’re just catching up, consider this your cheat sheet. We’ve ranked every SEC team’s 2016 quarterback depth chart from the most promising to the least, with an eye toward the past and future as well as the present. Whose time has come? Whose time has passed? Who’s got next? Here’s our best guess, before everything changes again.
This feature and more is available in the Athlon Sports 2016 SEC Football Preview, available on newsstands now and in our online store.
1. OLE MISS
The Incumbent: It seems like a very long time ago that Chad Kelly was considered a gamble, and given his track record before arriving in Oxford — a dismissal from Clemson; an arrest outside a club in his native Buffalo, N.Y. — not necessarily a good one. As it turned out, the only problems Kelly caused in 2015 were for opposing defenses, which he victimized en route to single-season school records for total yards (4,542), passing yards (4,042), touchdowns (31), completion percentage (65.1) and efficiency rating (155.9) among nearly a dozen other marks. (He added 10 more touchdowns rushing, for good measure.)
The Heir Apparent: Had he chosen any other school on this list (and he certainly could have), Shea Patterson might have found the starting job gift-wrapped for him the moment he set foot on campus. Instead, the most touted passer in the 2016 recruiting class will bide his time this fall, backing up Kelly as a true freshman with an eye toward moving to the top of the depth chart in 2017. Assuming he does, Patterson will be the first Ole Miss starter who actually signed with the Rebels out of high school in more than a decade.
The Incumbent: With 22 career starts to his credit, senior Joshua Dobbs is the conference’s most seasoned quarterback, by far, and arguably the most versatile: In 2015 he led all SEC signal-callers in rushing yards (671) and touchdowns (11), effectively serving as a third tailback in the league’s most run-oriented offense. Dobbs could stand to improve his consistency as a passer — his efficiency rating, 127.0, was slightly below SEC and national averages — but given how close Tennessee came to snapping its East Division title drought anyway, even a small step forward may be all the Vols need to get over the hump.
The Heir Apparent: Dobbs is in no danger of losing his job, but those around the program rave about sophomore Quinten Dormady and his big right arm. Incoming freshman Jarrett Guarantano was a coveted recruit, but it would be a major surprise if Dormady were not the starting QB in Week 1 of the 2017 season.
The Heir Apparent: Crimson Tide quarterbacks tend to be more or less interchangeable, and Cooper Bateman fits the template to a tee: At 6'3", 224 pounds, he’s latest in a long line of sturdy, pocket-bound “game managers” who are perfectly content to let the defense and ground game carry the day. As a redshirt junior, Bateman is also the oldest signal-caller on the roster, and the only contender for the job with significant playing time already under his belt. If we know anything about the way quarterback derbies are conducted in Tuscaloosa, it’s that Nick Saban always defers to experience.
The Comer: If anyone has ever stood a chance of defying that assumption, it’s redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, who arrived last year from California as one of the most highly touted QB recruits in Saban’s tenure. Barnett is taller (6'5") and skinnier (200 pounds) than the standard Bama model, but he more than held his own in the spring and will have every opportunity to jump the line of succession.
The Odd Man Out: Whatever happened to David Cornwell? This time last year, Cornwell was widely regarded as the frontrunner to start the Tide’s season opener following a surprisingly strong showing in the spring. By kickoff, he was so far submerged on the depth chart, his only chance of glimpsing the starting lineup was through a periscope.
The Incumbent: For Georgia fans hoping the first act of the Kirby Smart era would be to declare the existing QB depth chart null and void, well … just keep telling yourself there’s still time. For now, though, the status quo holds: Senior Greyson Lambert worked with the first offense throughout the spring and showed no signs of yielding the job after starting all but one game in 2015. At his best, the Virginia transfer was eerily accurate (he completed 24-of-25 passes against South Carolina) and never prone to killer mistakes (he threw just two interceptions, fewest of any FBS passer with more than 200 attempts), the chief reason he was 10–2 as a starter. On the other hand, despite his efficiency, Lambert’s play-within-the-offense approach yielded too few big plays, and even in wins he had a tendency to disappear.
The Comer: Inevitably, the preseason buzz will center on Jacob Eason, a towering (6'5", 211 pounds), big-armed freshman from Washington with five-star credentials from every outlet that gives them. Physically, Eason is the second coming of Matt Stafford, the perfect counterpart to the lo-fi stylings of a more limited player like Lambert. He was also stuck running with the third-string offense throughout the spring. Whether that’s just the new kid paying his dues or an accurate reflection of Eason’s place in the pecking order may be the biggest question the new staff has left to answer.
The Incumbent: Look, nobody is saying LSU needs Brandon Harris to be great. There’s more than enough transcendence on tap in the backfield, at wide receiver and along the line of scrimmage for the Tigers to survive and thrive with mere competence behind center. But that was all equally true in 2015, which ended with Harris serving up six interceptions in the final five games as a would-be championship season careened off the tracks in November. Clearly Harris has the physical tools and, as a junior, the experience to see a title run all the way through. No matter how loaded the surrounding lineup looks on paper, though — and make no mistake, it is loaded — if he can’t come up with the handful of timely plays the team needs to scale the Great Wall of Bama, the season will go down as another golden opportunity wasted.
The Comer: It’s tempting to dismiss Purdue transfer Danny Etling, whose abbreviated tenure as QB1 for a Big Ten bottom dweller was hardly a ringing endorsement for his capacity to lead a team with national ambitions. Résumé notwithstanding, though, there’s a reason Les Miles welcomed him aboard: Etling was a four-star recruit out of high school, and it’s not hard to imagine him finding his comfort zone as a veteran surrounded by blue-chip talent. In a season with such little margin for error, a good insurance policy can go a long way.
The Heir Apparent: Arkansas coach Bret Bielema ended what little drama there was by officially naming Austin Allen as the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback in late April. He inherits the job from his departed brother, Brandon. Physically, the younger Allen is a virtual clone of his older brother, who turned in an SEC-best 166.5 pass efficiency rating last year as a senior. If Austin comes anywhere near that number in 2016, Bielema may start looking into an actual clone whose eligibility never expires.
The Wild Card: For raw talent, the most intriguing option behind Allen is probably Ricky Town, a former blue-chip recruit who served a mandatory redshirt in 2015 after transferring from USC. From the neck up, Town’s first season in Fayetteville was a different story: “He never really got a grasp of the offense,” Bielema told reporters before spring practice, adding that Town struggled so badly with terminology that coaches often felt “like we’re speaking French to him.” Still, once the Razorbacks hit the field in March, Town appeared to be on equal footing with sophomore Rafe Peavey and redshirt freshman Ty Storey, and once his brain catches up with his arm, his ceiling could surpass both.
The Incumbents: In retrospect, it seems obvious that the bubble that inflated around Jeremy Johnson last summer was bound to pop — by mid-August he was being floated as a bona fide Heisman favorite based less on anything he’d done in his first two years on campus than on the assumption that any big, relatively mobile quarterback running the same system that exploited Cam Newton’s and Nick Marshall’s talents to maximum effect was bound to succeed. By the end of September Johnson had been benched, and the perceived invincibility of Gus Malzahn’s scheme had been roundly debunked. But Johnson’s understudy, redshirt freshman Sean White, didn’t fare much better, suffering a knee injury that left the position in flux from week to week over the final month of the season, and occasionally from series to series.
The Comer: Not surprisingly, Auburn fans seemed far less interested in continuing the White-Johnson debate in the spring than they were in monitoring the progress of the new guy, junior college transfer John Franklin III, who enrolled in January with designs on claiming the job for himself. Franklin has never been pegged as a blue-chip recruit, earning three-star grades out of both high school and junior college. But his size (6'1", 174) and athleticism have evoked comparisons to Marshall, as did his trajectory to Auburn: Like Marshall, and Newton before him, Franklin’s detour through the junior college ranks was preceded by a false start at another powerhouse, in Franklin’s case Florida State. The pecking order remains up in the air, but that’s not a bad precedent to have on one’s side.
8. TEXAS A&M
The Stopgap: The last time many SEC fans saw Trevor Knight, he was in an Oklahoma uniform, doing his best Johnny Manziel impersonation en route to a 45–31 stunner over Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. If you’re just catching up, it was downhill from there: Knight suffered through a sophomore slump in 2014, lost the starting job outright the following spring, and spent the entirety of the Sooners’ 2015 playoff run watching from the bench. On the bright side for A&M, it’s possible to rationalize most of Knight’s problems at OU as the result of a series of injuries — at full speed, he’s flashed enough playmaking ability to envision him thriving in his new environment. But he’s rarely remained healthy for long, and the options behind him are alarmingly thin if he doesn’t pan out this fall.
The One(s) Who Got Away: Between Matt Davis, Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, the mass exodus of four- and five-star quarterback talent under Kevin Sumlin defies modern precedent and almost defies belief, especially given that the last three members of that quartet — Hill, Allen, and Murray — all played significantly early in their careers and were pegged as rising stars before encountering turbulence. Regardless of what Knight achieves in his final year of eligibility, unless it results in a championship, a major bowl bid, or a sustained Heisman run, the Aggies will be left wondering what might have been if at least one of his predecessors had stayed the course.
The Stopgap(s): For a guy with three years of eligibility left to spend, Luke Del Rio has been around the block. Heck, he’s been around most of the continent: Following a decorated prep career in Colorado — where his dad, Jack, served as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos before moving on to his current gig as head coach of the Oakland Raiders — Del Rio has spent each of the past three seasons in a different corner of the country, first as a walk-on at Alabama (2013), then as a backup at Oregon State (2014), and finally as a transfer at Florida, where he spent 2015 biding his time with the scout team during his NCAA-mandated year on ice. If spring practice was any indication, he’s finally found his niche. Despite a strong push from fifth-year Purdue transfer Austin Appleby (11 career starts at Purdue), Del Rio was the only holdover from coach Jim McElwain’s first year in Gainesville and maintained the edge heading into the summer.
The Heir Apparent: The looming question is, how long can either of the veteran retreads hold off hyped freshman Feleipe Franks? To the disappointment of many fans, the local product didn’t immediately seize the reins in his first few months on campus, nor did he appear to come very close. Still, there remains little doubt that Franks is the most physically gifted passer in the pipeline, and probably the only one with legitimate star potential down the line.
The One Who Got Away: None of the above would have mattered in the slightest if not for the premature departure of Will Grier, who was 5–0 as a starter in 2015 and well on his way to living up to his blue-chip recruiting marks before he was slapped with a year-long NCAA suspension last October. Ideally, Grier could have resumed his starting role this fall after sitting out the first six games and still enjoyed two full years of eligibility beyond that in 2017-18. When McElwain refused to guarantee his old job would be waiting for him, however, Grier balked and announced in April that he would continue his career at West Virginia.
10. SOUTH CAROLINA
The Incumbent: Coach Will Muschamp was clear in the spring that he had no intention of identifying a “clear-cut No. 1 quarterback” heading into the summer, a familiar refrain for the Gamecocks after a 2015 campaign that saw three different QBs log multiple starts. By most accounts, though, the pecking order in the spring looked a lot like it did over the second half of the season, with former walk-on Perry Orth (when healthy) at the top of an uninspiring field of contenders. As a fifth-year senior with eight starts under his belt, Orth is both the oldest signal caller on the roster and the most game-tested.
The Comer: Specifically, the young player most Gamecocks fans have in mind is true freshman Brandon McIlwain, a four-star recruit from Pennsylvania who enrolled early and ended the spring running with the first-string offense in Orth’s absence. Coaches like McIlwain’s mobility; fans like that he represents a clean slate in the wake of last year’s descent into last place. So far, it looks like he’ll be given every opportunity in the fall to live up to expectations on both counts, but he’ll also have to contend with fellow freshman Jake Bentley, a four-star prospect from Alabama who’ll join the fray a year earlier than expected after deciding to forego his senior year of high school.
The Odd Man Out: What will McIlwain’s emergence and Bentley’s earlier-than-expected arrival mean for sophomore Lorenzo Nuñez? While he was extremely limited as a freshman in the passing game, Nuñez did offer glimpses of his athleticism (375 yards rushing, good for second on the team) and seemed to stand a decent chance of overtaking Orth in the spring on talent alone. Instead, he was sidelined by a knee injury and forced to watch as the “dual-threat” torch was passed on.
The Incumbent: There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Missouri’s offense was a disaster in 2015, coming in dead last in the SEC in both yards and points per game, and Drew Lock hardly distinguished himself amid the broader collapse, posting easily the worst pass efficiency rating (90.5) of any FBS quarterback with at least 200 attempts. Still, there are glimmers of hope that Lock’s disappointing debut can be written off as a mulligan, beginning with the fact that he was a wet-behind-the-ears true freshman who, had it been possible, should have been redshirting.
The One(s) Who Got Away: In the end, most of the frustration for the lost season was directed not at Lock but at his predecessor, Maty Mauk, whose inability to stay out of the doghouse — he was officially suspended twice during the campaign, sidelining him for the final eight games — thwarted any plans to bring the freshman along slowly. Mauk was booted from the team for good in January, ending any hope that remained of him rekindling the spark as a fifth-year senior that helped Mizzou to consecutive SEC East titles in 2013-14.
The Incumbent: At Vanderbilt, it often seems like “rebuilding” is less of a passing phase in the lifespan of the program than a permanent condition. If the Commodores stand any chance of breaking the cycle of futility under third-year coach Derek Mason, though, it will almost certainly be on the arm of Kyle Shurmur, a big, heady sophomore who boasts the kind of prototypical size (6'4", 223 pounds) and tools that are guaranteed to grab NFL scouts’ attention. (It also doesn’t hurt that Shurmur’s late uncle, Fritz, and dad, Pat, have a combined four decades in the league as coaches.) Obviously, with just five starts to his credit as a true freshman, Shurmur is a long way from thinking about the next level just yet.
The Wild Card: Wade Freebeck appeared in just one game last year after starting four as a true freshman, an unlikely trajectory for a guy hoping to supplant a younger player as a junior. But Freebeck did enough in the spring to remain within “a hair whisker” of Shurmur, according to Mason, who also says he believes the collective quarterback talent on hand is the best at Vanderbilt in 20 years. That’s a tall claim, if only because Jay Cutler’s time in Nashville falls well within that window.
The Heir Apparent: It took longer than expected, but ready or not, it’s Drew Barker’s time. After nearly two full seasons as an understudy, the most celebrated Kentucky recruit since Tim Couch finally cracked the starting lineup for the Wildcats’ final two games last November, then found himself in the spring as the only returning scholarship quarterback on the roster. Although coaches (being coaches) insisted “there’s no depth chart” going into the summer, there was also no indication that junior college transfer Stephen Johnson or early enrollee Gunnar Hoak posed a threat to Barker’s grip on the full-time job.
The One Who Got Away: Barker’s ascension to QB1 came at the expense of Patrick Towles, a big, durable slinger who started 22 consecutive games in 2014-15 and put up some perfectly respectable numbers (4,866 yards, 23 touchdowns) in the process. But Towles’ production plummeted over the second half of last season — his last five starts yielded a single touchdown to seven interceptions — and in the wake of his demotion it became clear his odds of fending off Barker for the third consecutive spring were distant at best. Instead, Towles opted to spend his final season of eligibility at Boston College, where he’s virtually assured of resuming his familiar status atop the depth chart.
14. MISSISSIPPI STATE
The Heir(s) Apparent: There’s no replacing Dak Prescott, who cemented his status in 2015 as the best quarterback in MSU history, by a mile, and arguably the best player, period. Coach Dan Mullen didn’t feel compelled to chase a graduate transfer or a junior college project in search of a quick fix. Instead, he’ll seek to fill the post-Prescott void the old-fashioned way, with a pair of long-serving backups, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald and junior Damian Williams, vying for the top job in their third and fourth years on campus, respectively. Neither candidate arrived as an especially touted recruit, nor do they figure, at this point, to command much attention from pro scouts. But both have seen the field in a limited capacity, and whoever emerges in the fall will have spent years absorbing Mullen’s system. That system has yet to attract a can’t-miss QB prospect to Starkville — even Prescott was a three-star afterthought — but has consistently gotten the most out of the talent on hand.
The Wild Card: Behind the frontrunners, the most intriguing athlete in the mix is redshirt sophomore Elijah Staley, whose combination of defensive-end size (6'6", 248 pounds) and athleticism (he’s spent time on the MSU basketball team) make him very difficult to dismiss. Staley lacks polish as a passer, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker in this scheme: If he can replicate the production of, say, Chris Relf, an equally huge, raw talent who held down the starting job for most of 2010 and 2011 — both winning seasons — Bulldogs fans will take it.
– By Matt Hinton