Fall camp is here (finally), so here's a refresher and predictions on the SEC quarterback battles
Good for you, reader of this column. You made it.
Correction — we* made it.
We made it to the SEC’s delayed fall camp, which kicked off today (Aug. 17). It’s been an emotionally draining few weeks in the sport. Nobody would fault you if your brain forgot about a few of the on-field storylines for 2020.
Fortunately for you, reader of this column, you’ve come to the right place for a little refresher. Today, the focus will be on the quarterback battles. Where do they stand? Who’s the best bet to get the Week 1 nod?
I’ll try to answer those questions and help you get your mind back to actual football things:
Starting candidates — Mac Jones, Bryce Young, Paul Tyson
Who wins — Jones
Easy, Alabama fans. We’re just talking Week 1. If there’s a theme of this discussion about quarterback battles, it’s that the veterans are going to get the benefit of the doubt (at least until we see these extended fall camps). In this case that’s Jones, who finished his 2019 season by leading an Alabama offense that averaged 40 points per game against a pair of top-25 defenses away from home. As I said then, I think that has to do a lot to give him the leg up.
Maybe if we had a normal offseason with a spring game to see Young’s talent on display, he’d be a more likely Week 1 starter, but instead, all we’ve had are the occasional clips of him getting reps on his own with Alabama receivers. My guess is that Jones will be the guy until he struggles.
Starting candidates — Feleipe Franks, K.J. Jefferson, Jack Lindsey, John Stephen Jones
Who wins — Franks
I don’t think you add a player like Franks unless you plan on playing him immediately in his final year of eligibility. In an offseason like this, you better believe Kendal Briles is relieved to have a veteran in that room. Franks also has the highest upside of anyone in that quarterback group. That much is clear. If you want someone who can prevent Rakeem Boyd from seeing 8-man boxes, Franks is your guy. You have to respect his ability to stretch the field.
Will Franks be the guy if Arkansas struggles with what athletic director Hunter Yurachek dubbed “the toughest schedule in the history of college football”? Um, we’ll see. Franks has shown he isn’t always the right leader to rally the troops when things aren’t going well. But for Week 1, an injury seems like the only thing standing in the way of him being an SEC starter again.
Starting candidates — Jamie Newman, JT Daniels, D’Wan Mathis, Carson Beck
Who wins — Newman
If Daniels were also a grad transfer, I would have told you I have major doubts about Newman. Even with immediate eligibility, that’s not the case. Daniels’ addition made sense from a depth standpoint so that Georgia’s No. 2 wouldn’t be someone who hasn’t even played in game at the FBS level yet. Newman certainly would have had a better chance of separating himself from the USC transfer if he had that spring game. He didn’t have that, though.
What Newman does have is a skill set that’s going to fit better into Todd Monken’s offense than Daniels’. Monken wants to be able to stretch the field, and Newman is the best option to do that. But will Kirby Smart go back to his 2018 ways and be super vague about the Newman vs. Daniels battle a la Jake Fromm vs. Justin Fields? Absolutely. The only thing that seems like a potential issue is if Newman’s reported offseason foot injury doesn’t heal in time for the start of the season.
Starting candidates — Joey Gatewood, Terry Wilson
Who wins — Wilson
I mean, maybe this would be different if we knew if Gatewood were eligible? What a crazy concept, NCAA. As of now, I’d still put my money on Wilson winning the starting job even if Gatewood did finally hear from the NCAA. It’s Wilson’s familiarity in the offense, it’s the trust he has in the locker room and it’s his track record in this conference. Gatewood had the Cam Newton comparisons, but the guy still has just 8 pass attempts at the FBS level. Playing with a banged up knee in 2018, Wilson ran the show for the best Kentucky team in 4 decades. That matters. As long as Wilson can stay healthy, he’ll have that starting job in Week 1 regardless of Gatewood’s pending status.
Starting candidates — K.J. Costello, Garrett Shrader
Who wins — Costello
If you think Leach is going to let somebody else’s quarterback recruit run his offense, I think you’re about to learn a thing or 2 about the pirate-loving MSU coach. That’s not a slight at Shrader, who was put in some tough spots last year as a true freshman who seemingly had to replace Tommy Stevens on a weekly basis.
But Costello was hand-picked by Leach as a grad transfer. He was a second-team All-Pac-12 quarterback just 2 years ago. Costello gives Leach a better chance of throwing the ball 50 times per game. Costello is the best bet to start Week 1 of anybody on this list.
Starting candidates — Shawn Robinson, Connor Bazelak, Taylor Powell, Brady Cook
Who wins — Robinson
Eli Drinkwitz’s offense is a bit of a mystery. He’s won with a variety of skill sets at the quarterback position. As I continue to say, I think he’s the SEC East version of Lane Kiffin. Robinson was a former starter at TCU, though he had an up-and-down 2018 season and he was ineligible in 2019 because of NCAA transfer rules. In other words, he might be the favorite, but he might not have much of a leg up on the competition.
Drinkwitz wants an up-tempo offense with balance. Bazelak is back to 100% after a torn ACL ended his 2019 season in the regular-season finale. Even though Drinkwitz recruited him at NC State back in the day, it would be somewhat surprising to see Bazelak win the job with his wishbone offense skill set.
Starting candidates — John Rhys Plumlee, Matt Corral
Who wins — Plumlee
If there’s anybody in the SEC who really wished he had a true spring, it’s gotta be Corral. With Plumlee playing baseball, Corral could have made a lasting impression on his new head coach. Instead, Kiffin didn’t have much of a quarterback battle to figure out because Plumlee’s baseball season was canceled and, well, so was Ole Miss’ spring. I still would have given the edge to Plumlee, though. Despite the fact that he’s a year younger than Corral, I think Plumlee’s floor is higher. He’s my most intriguing SEC player heading into 2020 because I cannot wait to see how Kiffin uses him.
Plumlee’s play-making ability against elite SEC foes certainly gives Ole Miss a better chance of staying on the field against that brutal schedule. That’s what helps him win that coveted starting quarterback role in Kiffin’s offense.
Starting candidates — Ryan Hilinski, Collin Hill
Who wins — Hilinski
Assuming that South Carolina doesn’t move the rest of its quarterback room to receiver, there will be (I think) a starting signal-caller to name. This might not be as obvious as those aboard the Hilinski hype train might think. Hill is the one who enters as a transfer from Colorado State, where he had multiple years running Mike Bobo’s offense. That could make for an interesting fall camp, especially if Hilinski hasn’t made that Year 2 jump that many in Columbia are hoping for.
But I still think Hill was brought in for depth as a safety net. He wasn’t going to start at Colorado State with former Nebraska quarterback Patrick O’Brien there. I think in what looks like a pressure-packed year, Will Muschamp wants Hilinski to finally be his first true game-changing quarterback. I believe the goal is for Hill to stay healthy — he tore his ACL 3 times at Colorado State — and provide a necessary veteran presence for Hilinski.
Starting candidates — Jarrett Guarantano, Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout, Harrison Bailey
Who wins — Guarantano
Again, how much will we look back and say the pandemic impacted this battle? Guarantano is the veteran in the room, and for the first time in his career, he didn’t have a new playbook to learn in the offseason. You can do a whole lot worse than having one of the league’s 2 most experienced quarterbacks on your roster. Kasim Hill’s transfer means that there’s a legitimate 4-quarterback battle.
Maurer and Shrout might have the upside, but in terms of sensing pressure and reading defenses, they might not work well with what Jim Chaney wants to do. He puts pressure on his quarterbacks to read coverages and make on-time, intermediate throws. Maybe if we saw Bailey do that in a spring game, the conversation would be different. He’ll have a legitimate chance to show those skills with an extended camp, but for now, I’ll give Guarantano the edge to start his third consecutive season opener of the Jeremy Pruitt era.
Starting candidates — Danny Clark, Jeremy Moussa, Mike Wright, Ken Seals
Who wins — Clark
Who will get to run Todd Fitch’s offense? Your guess is as good as mine. This is about as mysterious as it gets. Vandy brought in 4 new signal-callers, none of whom have attempted a pass at the FBS level. And we didn’t even get a spring game to help make that decision easier. Talk about a crapshoot. How weird is Vandy’s quarterback room? Seals is a true freshman, and he’s the only one of the 4 signal-callers who actually got practice reps before everything shut down. He’s potentially the favorite heading into fall camp.
However, if Fitch’s history at Louisiana Tech is any indication, he wants a true dual-threat quarterback. Not a run-first quarterback, but a true dual-threat. Wright, a former 200-meter school record holder, has SEC speed, for sure. He had 50 touchdowns as a senior playing in 4A in Georgia. He’s not your typical Vandy quarterback recruit. Clark will get the nod, if I’m guessing, for the simple fact that he’s got the SEC experience and he’s physically ready to take a hit in the conference. The former Kentucky southpaw will get the first crack … and who knows after that.