A pre-spring dig into the handful of true SEC quarterback battles
It’s going to be a totally different story from last year.
Heading into last season, there were 10 SEC teams that had a new starting quarterback or new offensive coordinator. Heading into 2022, we know that number will be much smaller.
As of Feb. 15, these are all the SEC teams we know will have either a new starting quarterback or a new offensive coordinator:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
And I suppose if Haynes King wins the A&M starting job, technically there would be just 6 SEC programs making a significant change on offense.
One would think that means we’ll see more continuity. At this time last year, that was lacking in a major way. That’s why Matt Corral, JT Daniels and Bo Nix were the only quarterbacks at SEC Media Days. This year, I’d be stunned if only 3 signal-callers made the trip.
But today’s exercise isn’t trying to predict which signal-callers will represent their team in Atlanta (the host site for 2022 SEC Media Days). It’s trying to figure out which SEC quarterbacks have the chance to win battles heading into spring.
For the sake of saving time, let’s assume that the following SEC teams don’t have true battles:
- Alabama (Bryce Young)
- Arkansas (KJ Jefferson)
- Georgia (Stetson Bennett IV)
- Kentucky (Will Levis)
- LSU (Myles Brennan)
- MSU (Will Rogers)
- South Carolina (Spencer Rattler)
- Tennessee (Hendon Hooker)
The means we’ll have battles at Auburn, Florida, Mizzou, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Vandy. Injuries happen, and obviously, the same is true of the transfer portal. We can update that as needed. For now, though, let’s dig into each SEC battle heading into spring with a way-too-early lean on the eventual starter:
The candidates — TJ Finley, Zach Calzada, Robby Ashford, Dematrius Davis, Holden Geriner
The skinny — It’s hard to have an offensive identity when you don’t have an offensive coordinator. Mike Bobo was fired at season’s end, and after 3 weeks, Bryan Harsin replaced him with Austin Davis … only to watch him leave after 6 weeks on the job. With Bo Nix off to Oregon, this will be the first true quarterback battle on The Plains since 2019 when Nix beat out Joey Gatewood and Malik Willis.
(Sorry, Auburn fans. Didn’t mean to go there.)
Finley and Calzada underwhelmed after injuries knocked out the starters on their respective teams. Both have had nearly a full season’s worth of SEC reps, which is a positive. The negative is that outside of Finley’s 2020 South Carolina showing and Calzada’s 2021 Alabama showing, it’s been more bad than good. Auburn was No. 12 in the SEC in quarterback rating in 2021, ahead of only Vandy and A&M, who was led by Calzada.
Ashford is a former Hoover High School star who transferred from Oregon back to his home state, but he has yet to play a college rep in 2 years. Davis didn’t see any college reps as a true freshman in 2021 — he was recruited by Gus Malzahn’s staff — while Geriner enrolled this spring.
Bodies aren’t lacking. But of those 5, it’s Davis who has been on Auburn’s roster the longest. That’s telling.
The way-too-early lean — Finley
For what it’s worth, I think Harsin’s next move should be going out and getting JT Daniels. The former Georgia quarterback will reportedly make his decision after he completes his undergraduate degree this spring before enrolling at his next destination over the summer. Would I bet on Harsin doing that, though? No. He’s had major turnover in his quarterback room, and even as Finley struggled in relief of Nix, he stuck with him.
It’s also telling that Harsin already went out and landed 2 Power 5 transfers. Clearly, he’s not all in with Finley. Perhaps Harsin is hopeful that Finley could be pushed, or that he’d at least have more depth in the event that he were to get hurt like he did last year.
Where it gets tricky is if Harsin’s next offensive coordinator wants a true dual threat. Finley and Calzada are by no means mobile quarterbacks. That would favor Ashford or Davis. For now, though, Finley gets the edge just because Harsin showed him favor down the stretch in 2021.
The candidates — Anthony Richardson, Emory Jones, Jack Miller, Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, Jalen Kitna, Max Brown
The skinny — It’s interesting that instead of seeing a mass exodus of quarterbacks post-Dan Mullen, we’ve actually seen the opposite in the early stages of the Billy Napier era. He kept Jones, who entered the transfer portal but then decided that he wanted to stay in Gainesville after a rocky first season as Florida’s starter. Instead of waiting another year (or more) behind CJ Stroud just to battle 5-star 2021 enrollee Kyle McCord, Miller took his talents to Florida. Neither Del Rio-Wilson nor Kitna left upon Napier’s arrival and Brown was a late addition to the 2022 class.
Oh, and Richardson didn’t go anywhere even though he surely could’ve been one of the top transfer portal targets after flashing some remarkable upside in a limited sample size in 2021.
Napier was likely able to avoid a quarterback room overhaul because of the similarities between his offense and Mullen’s. Both tend to use misdirection with true dual-threat quarterbacks. Levi Lewis was Napier’s starter for most of his time at Louisiana, and he became one of the top Group of 5 quarterbacks in the country. Much like there was for the majority of Mullen’s time at Florida, there’s significant value in running Napier’s offense.
The way-too-early lean — Richardson
The first on-field priority for Napier has to be maximizing Richardson’s potential. That means getting him more comfortable with reading defenses and keeping his eyes downfield. Richardson does things that can’t be taught, which was why it became so frustrating to see him not start until the Georgia game when Florida’s division title chances were all but gone. It’d be tough to envision Jones winning the starting job after watching the mistakes he made in Year 4 in Mullen’s offense.
It felt like Miller was brought in to be the backup in the likely event that Jones transferred. That’s still a possibility. It’s an awfully crowded quarterback room that will inevitably have some turnover post-spring. Could that mean Del Rio-Wilson and/or Kitna bounce? With the new undergraduate transfer rules, that’s certainly possible.
But if you’re Napier, you can’t worry about tipping your hand and splitting first-team reps 5 different ways. Richardson gives Florida the highest floor AND the highest ceiling in 2022. He showed in 2021 that he deserves those first-team reps and perhaps now with Mullen not around to make sure his 4-year investment into Jones is seen through, Richardson will get the work he needs with Napier.
The candidates — Brady Cook, Tyler Macon, Sam Horn
The skinny — Gone is Connor Bazelak after a disappointing second season in Eli Drinkwitz’s offense. Bazelak struggled to stretch the field, and with his limited mobility (that got worse after the Kentucky injury), Drinkwitz’s offense became too tailback-dependent for the second consecutive season. Cook started in the bowl game, and Macon flashed his rushing ability in the Georgia game.
Of course, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that Horn eventually makes an impact as a true freshman. He certainly doesn’t fit the “game manager” label that Bazelak often got tagged with. The No. 8 quarterback in the 2022 class isn’t afraid to take chances, but he might need a bit of time to add some weight to his 6-4 frame, and he won’t enroll until the summer.
What’s interesting is that Luther Burden, AKA the Mizzou signee who finished as the No. 1 receiver in the entire 2022 class, played his senior year of high school at East St. Louis. That’s where Macon went. Even though they didn’t play together, they became tight. Why is that significant? The last thing Drinkwitz wants is a subpar passing offense that makes Burden consider other offenses to play in. Nobody is saying that will happen, but there needs to be a sense of urgency in Columbia, especially with Burden’s arrival.
The way-too-early lean — Cook
It felt like Drinkwitz tipped his hand by starting Cook and giving him all the reps in the Armed Forces Bowl. If you just watched the opening drive, you would’ve thought that Cook was ready to become a 2022 Heisman candidate:
Brady Cook introduces himself to the College Football world 👀
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) December 23, 2021
While we saw Cook make some nice throws and show that escapability that’s been lacking from the position, he still went 56 minutes between touchdown drives against a service academy. Any notion that he’s about to take the league by storm would be premature.
Still, Cook is the most experienced quarterback of the bunch, which really isn’t saying much. Macon was a true freshman in 2021, and he still at least got a decent amount of reps in the Georgia game when Bazelak was hurt. I’d expect Drinkwitz to also potentially be in the Daniels market post-spring, but for now, Cook should be considered the leader in the clubhouse while Macon and Horn develop.
The candidates — Jaxson Dart, Luke Altmyer, Kinkead Dent
The skinny — Following in Matt Corral’s footsteps will be no small feat, especially in the post-Jeff Lebby era. Altmyer was put in a brutal spot replacing Corral in the Sugar Bowl against Dave Aranda’s loaded defense, so he can’t be judged for just that. Even if he had set the world on fire, Kiffin probably still would’ve gone into the portal to add some depth with Corral gone and John Rhys Plumlee also off to UCF.
Having said that, the Dart addition made a ton of sense. He was a true freshman starter at USC, but he didn’t fit Lincoln Riley’s system. At least not as well as a certain Caleb Williams. Dart might’ve come to college in Altmyer’s 2021 class, but reps are key. One of the byproducts of Corral gutting it out in the latter half of the season following the Tennessee injury was that Altmyer really didn’t get a ton of opportunities. Dart was in a different situation at USC, where he essentially got half a season’s worth of action in place of Kedon Slovis.
The way-too-early lean — Dart
It’s worth mentioning that Altmyer has a key advantage in that he has a year under his belt of learning Kiffin’s offense. That could give him a “better than the optics” chance at winning the starting job. Even for Corral, that learning curve was steep. But Dart enrolled at Ole Miss in January. There should be plenty of time for him to get comfortable. Maybe this would be a bit different if we knew that Dart wasn’t arriving until the summer.
There’s a reason why Kiffin busted out the Aston Martin to try and woo Dart to Oxford. The ability to stretch the field is there, and while he’s not Corral as a runner, Dart’s mobility is up to the Kiffin standard. As long as Dart doesn’t show obvious struggles with grasping the decision-making in Kiffin’s system, I’d expect him to be given the keys to the Aston Martin.
The candidates — Max Johnson, Haynes King, Conner Weigman
The skinny — It’s wide open. Truly. Calzada left for Auburn after an ineffective run replacing King, who won the job out of camp in 2021. We really only saw 1 game of King because of his broken leg, so he’s by no means the “entrenched” starter. Johnson was LSU’s starter for all of 2021, but with a new coaching staff in town, he elected to take his talents to College Station to try and win a different SEC West job.
Then there’s Weigman, AKA Jimbo Fisher’s highest-rated quarterback signee since Jameis Winston. By the way Fisher talks about the 2022 signee, you’d think he was Winston 2.0. There’s no doubt that he’s viewed as the future face of the program.
As for the present, well, that might be a different discussion.
The way-too-early lean — King
The most incomplete aspect of A&M’s 2021 season was not seeing a full dose of King. The freakish athleticism, the improving accuracy, the open-field ability … all of that was supposed to be seen in the first year of the post-Kellen Mond era. I can’t help but wonder if Fisher wants to run it back, though obviously, he needed depth at quarterback beyond having a true freshman backup (redshirts are almost automatic for true freshmen quarterbacks in Fisher’s offense). We saw what a lack of quarterback depth did to the Aggies with a historically dominant defense.
Fisher’s past tells us that he wants a quarterback with the full playbook open. Does Johnson do that? I’d argue that he doesn’t quite check the mobility box. At least not at the level that Fisher’s offense demands. That seems harsh when we’re talking about someone who has a career 35-7 TD-INT ratio with 8 games of 3-plus touchdown passes. More times than not, a guy entering Year 3 of college with that type of résumé is getting early Heisman love instead of being questionable to win a starting job.
There’s still a path for Johnson to show up to camp with a chip on his shoulder and ultimately beat out King. In all likelihood, Fisher will again play his decision close to the vest. But as long as King can make a full return, I’d expect Fisher to roll with the guy who spent 2 years in his offense.
The candidates — Mike Wright, Ken Seals, AJ Swann, Drew Dickey, Walter Taylor
The skinny — It was a rotating mess at quarterback in Year 1 of the Clark Lea era. Seals was the returning starter, but he regressed behind a porous offensive line. Wright ended up stepping into the starting role, and the offense was better with his mobility. Granted, the bar was low. Teams who are totally set at quarterback usually don’t sign 3 in 1 recruiting class, which is what Vandy did with Swann, Dickey and Taylor.
Swann is interesting because he’s not your typical Vandy quarterback recruit. He’s an Elite 11 guy who enrolled early. He could be the long-term option, especially if Vandy is again staring at the SEC’s worst offense. The Commodores officially promoted Joey Lynch to full-time offensive coordinator after he took over play-calling duties in Week 2 of 2021. He wants a true competition in the spring, and given how much of a struggle it’s been in the passing game since Kyle Shurmur left after 2018, there’s a dire need to figure out the quarterback situation.
The way-too-early lean — Wright
It might’ve surprised some to see Seals stick around after he lost his starting job to Wright. And to be fair, it’s not like Wright set the world on fire himself. He averaged 6 yards per pass attempt and while he certainly added another dimension to the offense with his ability to call his own number, he only reached pay dirt with his legs once. But he was at least more effective than Seals, who averaged just 5 yards per pass attempt in an injury-riddled 2021.
Ideally, the offensive line play would improve and help out whoever the starter is. In all likelihood, though, that’ll prevent Swann from getting thrown into the fire from the jump after the way things went with Seals in 2021. That means it’s Wright who should be favored to emerge … even if that just means keeping the seat warm for Swann.