How the SEC expanded its recruiting footprint to become a passer's paradise
It wasn’t all that long ago that the rap on the SEC was that it was not a quarterback’s league.
Take a look at this lede from a 2015 Bleacher Report column entitled, “The SEC’s Passing Problem: Why Can’t NCAA’s Top Conference Develop Top QBs?” written by Ray Glier, who also authored the book, “How the SEC Became Goliath: The Making of College Football’s Most Dominant Conference.”
“The SEC has just as many NFL quarterback regulars as you’ve got toes on your right foot.
That’s how many regular NFL quarterbacks the SEC has produced in—check this out—17 NFL seasons. You know them because, really, how hard is it to remember five stinking names? Peyton Manning (Tennessee), Eli Manning (Ole Miss), Matthew Stafford (Georgia), Jay Cutler (Vanderbilt) and Cam Newton (Auburn).
The world-renowned—their fans say it is—college football conference called the SEC won seven straight national championships from 2006 to 2012, but just one of those ring-bearing slingers has stuck in the NFL as a regular starter (Newton).
Here’s the thing: It was true at the time.
But not anymore.
Two of the past 3 Heisman trophy winners are SEC quarterbacks (Bryce Young last season and Joe Burrow in 2019). Three other SEC QBs have been Heisman finalists in the past 4 years: Tua Tagovailoa in 2018, and Mac Jones and Kyle Trask in 2020.
This year, 20 played in the SEC.
And the league is only getting stronger as its footprint grows wider.
There’s no question about it: The SEC has become a quarterback’s paradise.
From 1971 to 2006, the conference had precisely one Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback: Florida’s Danny Wuerffel in 1997. And he was coached by a former Gator Heisman-winning great himself, Steve Spurrier, who became the first SEC QB to win the award in 1966. If not for that fortunate Florida pairing, there would’ve been a 36-year gap between Auburn’s Pat Sullivan in ’71 and another Florida legend, Tim Tebow, who won it in 2007.
Since then, 4 SEC quarterbacks have been deemed the best player in the land:
- Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010
- Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012
- LSU’s Joe Burrow in 2019
- Alabama’s Bryce Young in 2021
But there is a big difference here.
Newton and Manziel, Tebow and Wuerrfel, Sullivan and even the ‘Ol Ball Coach himself — they’re all from the SEC footprint, at least as it stands now: Manziel, born and raised in Texas; Newton, born and raised in Atlanta; Tebow, born in the Philippines but raised in Florida; Wuerffel, born and raised in Florida; Sullivan, born and raised in Alabama; and Spurrier, born in Florida and raised in Tennessee.
For years, SEC coaches recruited quarterbacks from SEC country and running backs and linebackers from all over the land. Maybe it was a good ol’ boys network, or maybe they just liked their quarterbacks to know the difference between home fries and hashed browns.
Somewhere along the way, though, someone introduced SEC coaches to a map. And they’ve sure found some buried treasure out there.
The league’s past 2 Heisman-winning QBs came from out of the territory — Burrow hails from Ohio and Young from Los Angeles.
And that’s just Heisman winners.
What about other recent SEC QBs, stars and all?
Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, the 94th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, hails from Ventura, Calif., and played for 2 of California’s great prep programs in Oaks Christian and Long Beach Poly. Alabama’s Tagovailoa, who was just named team captain for the Miami Dolphins, is a Hawaiian football hero, one of the state’s great signal-callers. South Carolina plucked Ryan Hilinski from Southern California (he’s since transferred to Northwestern), Tennessee headed north to New Jersey to snag former starter Jarrett Guarantano, and even Vanderbilt ventured to Big Ten country to take Kyle Shurmur out of Pennsylvania.
This year, Young returns, as does Massachusetts-born and Connecticut-bred Will Levis for Kentucky; Phoenix born-and-bred Spencer Rattler, the former Oklahoma starter who takes over for South Carolina; SoCal star Jayden Daniels, who moved from Arizona State to LSU; and former USC and now Ole Miss QB Jaxson Dart, who is from Utah.
But it’s not just that the SEC has gone national.
The SEC has gone nuclear.
Once the home of the best ground-and-pound football in the country, the SEC hasn’t just reinvented itself. It’s reinvented the rule book.
Two stats really tell this entire story.
Before 2000, just 3 SEC QBs passed for at least 3,700 yards in a season — Tennessee’s Peyton Manning (3,819) and Kentucky’s Tim Couch in 1997 (3,884) and again in 1998 (4,275) — and from 2000-2011, another 3: Florida’s Rex Grossman (3,896) in 2001, Kentucky’s Andre Woodson in 2007 (3,709) and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett in 2010 (3,869)
And how about since 2012?
- 2012: Aaron Murray, Georgia, 3,893
- 2012: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, 3,706
- 2013: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, 4,114
- 2015: Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, 4,042
- 2015: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State, 3,793
- 2017: Drew Lock, Missouri, 3,964
- 2018: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama, 3,966
- 2019: Joe Burrow, LSU, 5,671
- 2020: Kyle Trask, Florida, 4,283
- 2020: Mac Jones, Alabama, 4,500
- 2021: Bryce Young, Alabama, 4,872
- 2021: Will Rogers, Mississippi State, 4,739
Now let’s take a look at 35 touchdown passes in a season.
Before 2000, there were 5 individual 35-TD seasons, by the usual suspects: Wuerffel twice (35 in 1995, 36 in 1996), Couch twice (37 in 1997, 36 in 1998) and Manning (36 in 1997). From 2001-2010, one more: Woodson with 40 in 2007.
And since 2011?
- 2011: Aaron Murray, Georgia, 35
- 2012: Aaron Murray, Georgia, 36
- 2013: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M, 37
- 2017: Drew Lock, Missouri, 44
- 2018: Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama, 43
- 2019: Joe Burrow, LSU, 60
- 2020: Kyle Trask, Florida, 43
- 2020: Mac Jones, Alabama, 41
- 2021: Bryce Young, Alabama, 47
- 2021: Will Rogers, Mississippi State, 36
It would be one thing if the SEC was simply catching up to other conferences by its willingness to push the boundaries in both style of play and geographic footprint.
Instead, the conference has leaped past its ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 competition. In large part by going into their territories.
No longer can these schools afford to overlook the quarterback position.
“You didn’t need John Elway at quarterback always,” said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “You could almost get by with a game manager. But it seemed like all of a sudden, you’re seeing Alabama expand out of the south. They’d always recruited the position locally.”
In particular, the SEC has gone far west and raided the home base of two of the flagship Pac-12 schools. At least, for now.
In the end, it took a former Pac-12 quarterback and USC head coach to help Alabama reel in Young, arguably the biggest “get” in SEC history.
The top-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2020, the Mater Dei quarterback was committed to play for the Trojans and embattled head coach Clay Helton. But as it became clearer that Helton’s job status was on thin ice — and that USC appeared to have its then-QB of the future Kedon Slovis locked in to a potential multiple-year starting role — Young reconsidered Alabama on the advice of then-Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sark, now the head coach at Texas, convinced Young and his parents that the Tide’s offense was similar in nature to Mater Dei’s, giving Young a head start on his college, and eventually professional, career.
And Sarkisian knew what he was talking about, having scouted Young starting in 2014, when he was the Trojans’ head coach.
“The system was Coach Sarkisian’s primary focus (with his recruiting pitch),” Young’s father, Craig, told AL.com’s Matt Zenitz in 2019. “To his credit, he didn’t do any negative recruiting or talking about what USC was or was not or how Alabama stacked up to SC or anything like that. We didn’t talk much about SC at all. It was more about the system, how the system is so similar to what Bryce runs at Mater Dei, how important it is to have a multiple system — a system where you use the tight end, you go under center sometimes and have different formations and different protections — and how that can prepare you for the next level if Bryce is so blessed to be able to do that. Those are the things that were really important and resonated with us.”
But while Young is the latest Southern California superstar to leave the sun and the sand, he won’t be the last.
From 2013-2022, there were 28 quarterbacks from the Southern California and San Diego areas who were rated 91 or above by Scout.com/247Sports.com.
Of those, just 6 committed out of high school to USC or UCLA, SoCal’s two flagship schools.
“It’s not just the SEC, but the Big Ten, ACC, Notre Dame — there’s just this feeling that UCLA and USC have been down and it just seems like in the west and specifically California, kids are more willing to leave home than any other region,” Biggins said. “Sharks are smelling blood in the water. Players aren’t married to staying home. Kids, they see the big stage. They see who make the playoffs. They see who gets drafted. They see it all happening in the south. It’s a perfect storm for colleges to come out here.”
In the 2023 quarterback recruiting class, which is lining up to be one of the strongest in recent memories, two of the four prospects hail from Southern California.
One is Malachi Nelson, out of Los Alamitos High School. He is committed to USC, though Texas A&M is making a hard push for him.
Nico Iamaleava, from Warren High in Downey, Calif.
He’s committed to Tennessee.
BREAKING: Five-Star QB Nico Iamaleava has Committed to Tennessee ?!
The 6’6 200 QB from Long Beach, CA chose the Vols over Georgia, Oregon, Alabama, and Miami.
— Hayes Fawcett (@Hayesfawcett3) March 21, 2022