Looking back at the hot mess that turned out to be the SEC's 2016 quarterback signees
Step back in time to exactly 4 years ago. Coming off Alabama’s national title to cap the 2015 season, the SEC’s golden age was set to continue, mainly because of the crop of young quarterbacks who signed in the 2016 class. The nation’s top 2 signal-callers, Shea Patterson and Jacob Eason, signed at Ole Miss and Georgia, respectively. Five of the nation’s top 9 quarterback recruits inked on the dotted line with SEC schools. Eight SEC quarterbacks ranked at least 4-stars or better. Add it all up, and it was fair to think that the conference was about to enter a golden era for quarterbacks.
Now step into 2020, and look back at the hot mess that class turned out to be.
It was impossible to know at the time that the SEC was going to miss on so many promising quarterback recruits. In fact, nearly all of the 2016 SEC quarterback signees were misses.
If you need a little reminder of just how underwhelming that group was (relative to some high expectations), here’s everything you need to know:
To recap, that’s 1 All-SEC quarterback in that group. It was Hurts, who was easily the top signal-caller of the bunch … and even he lost his job and ultimately transferred (very few human beings on planet Earth wouldn’t lose their job to Tua Tagovailoa).
If you want to know how backward the entire rankings were, consider this. Hurts was ranked behind the likes of Malik Henry (shoutout “Last Chance U”), Brandon Peters, Guarantano, McIlwain, Jack Allison (who?) and Austin Kendall. Henry, Peters and Guarantano actually all came in as higher-rated recruits than Dwayne Haskins.
But it’s easy to pick apart rankings after the fact. Let’s instead take a closer look at something more alarming — Guarantano is the last hope of anyone in that group to start and finish his career playing quarterback at the same SEC school (Wilson changed to receiver before he ever started a game at quarterback). That’s mind-boggling. Twelve of 14 quarterbacks transferring is a ridiculously high number, even by today’s standards.
There are guys like Franks and Bentley who at least experienced success as a starter before injuries opened the door for them to lose their jobs and find a new home as Power 5 grad transfers. You can throw Eason and perhaps even Patterson in that group, as well.
Still, though. How did only 1 of those quarterbacks (Hurts) live up to their potential?
There isn’t some all-encompassing answer to that question. There are a bunch of “why it never worked out” explanations there. Some overlap is there. Let’s take a closer look that those.
The “thrown into the fire too early” group
There are a few obvious names that come to mind here:
- Jacob Eason, Georgia
- Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
- Feleipe Franks, Florida
- Brandon McIlwain, South Carolina
It wasn’t that these guys all struggled as true freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Eason had his fair share of 4th-quarter comebacks as Georgia’s starter in 2016, and Patterson flashed his Johnny Manziel-like potential during the latter half of that 2016 season when he took over for an injured Chad Kelly. Franks and McIlwain struggled more with their short-leash opportunities and unlike Patterson and Eason, they didn’t really do anything to show that they were the quarterback of the future.
The thing I think all of these quarterbacks had in common was that in hindsight, they felt destined to fail because of the personnel around them. Those offensive lines were not where they needed to be, and far too often, it felt like those guys were considered sitting ducks. You know, as if it wasn’t difficult enough to be making the transition from high school to the SEC.
Rewatched TAMU-SC. I’ll stand by McIlwain appearing scared to death back there and tentative, but the OL was owned again. Orth vs. UGA.
— Brad Crawford (@BCrawford247) October 2, 2016
I can’t definitively say that those 4 quarterbacks would have been better had they been able to sit their first 2 seasons. Eason won the Georgia job, but injuries forced others into action. Did they see ghosts too often after that? Possibly. I think for Eason and Patterson, they actually wouldn’t have fallen into this category if they could’ve been healthy in that all-important Year 2. But it still felt like their coaches would have rather sat them a year or 2 to get their feet wet.
I thought it was interesting hearing a respected offensive mind like Dan Mullen talk about what he saw on film from Franks with Jim McElwain in 2017. It sounded like Mullen believed Franks was thrown into the fire far before he was ready. Mullen was tasked with fixing a lot of Franks’ bad habits, which he did a pretty decent job with for the most part (going through his progressions properly, not relying so much on his arm talent, learning when to run, etc.).
But Mullen might have had less damage control had Franks not experienced that disastrous 2017 season with McElwain. The same could be said about the other 3 quarterbacks at their respective Power 5 transfer destinations.
The “never even got close enough to the fire” group
This list doesn’t have the household names because, obviously, these guys never got the chance to start:
- Woody Barrett, Auburn
- Gunnar Hoak, Kentucky
- Lindsey Scott, LSU
- Micah Wilson, Mizzou
And by “never got a chance to start,” I should probably just say “never started.” Everybody has a chance.
Barrett was really the only guy on that list who was truly billed as a blue-chip recruit. His situation really wasn’t that wild, though. He got to Auburn and suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him during his redshirt freshman season. Malik Willis passed him up on the depth chart, and when Jarrett Stidham arrived, that was pretty much all she wrote for Barrett’s chance at getting the gig at Auburn. He left school after just 1 year of being buried on the depth chart, but he eventually had some success at Kent State.
Hoak didn’t get the “thrown into the fire” treatment, either. He actually sat his first 2 seasons in Lexington. His opportunity came in 2018, but he lost an offseason quarterback battle with Terry Wilson, who started every game for the Cats during their historic season. The irony with someone like Hoak is he actually would have had a good chance of earning the full-time starting gig at Kentucky had he stayed in 2019 because of Wilson’s season-ending injury. Instead, he went to Ohio State, where he backed up and even more talented Justin Fields.
As for Scott, the 2015 Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year didn’t want to stick it out at LSU. He couldn’t leapfrog Danny Etling for the starting gig in spring of his redshirt freshman season in 2017, and he left. Scott actually enrolled at 3 schools after LSU, including Mizzou, where he ultimately wasn’t able to win the starting job from Kelly Bryant.
The same was true for Micah Wilson, who made the aforementioned switch to receiver after 3 years of backing up Drew Lock.
This specific group’s lack of success, however, was far from the only reason why the 2016 class turned out so rough.
The “cup of mediocre coffee … at best” group
Remember, I did say there would be crossovers from group to group. This list is of guys who briefly started (less than a season) and ultimately couldn’t hold down the starting job:
- Brandon McIlwain, South Carolina
- Nick Starkel, Texas A&M
- Deuce Wallace, Vanderbilt
- Cole Kelley, Arkansas
I’ll take Starkel’s cup of coffee as an SEC starter over these other guys, especially considering that he started and put up big numbers in a bowl game. I tend to think that had Kevin Sumlin stayed at Texas A&M, he actually could have been an OK college quarterback. But in stepped Jimbo Fisher, and Kellen Mond had a more versatile skill set to run his offense than Starkel did. As for the Arkansas thing, well, let’s just say I’m not sure many quarterbacks could have succeeded in Chad Morris’ offense there.
I remember McIlwain being one of the promising elements of South Carolina’s rebuild in the aftermath of the Steve Spurrier departure. The 2-sport star was going to be the Gamecocks’ quarterback of the future. But with that aforementioned brutal offensive line, he’d rush throws. He never really figured it out as a passer, and he turned into a 1-dimensional quarterback. When Bentley got the start against UMass, he never looked back. Sure, it was an offseason battle, but Bentley finished the year showing more promise than McIlwain and ultimately that forced him to transfer to Cal.
Kelley, to his credit, was the lone Arkansas quarterback to win an SEC game the past 3 years. There’s a great trivia question. But he had off-the-field problems and with disastrous surroundings (including Morris’ system that totally didn’t fit him), he wasn’t ever really a long-term option at Arkansas. He transferred after the 2018 season while Arkansas’ quarterback carousel continued.
The “didn’t progress enough” group … which is basically everyone
You could make a legitimate case that everyone in that group of 14 belongs somewhere in this group. That includes Hurts, who was benched in that national title game because he didn’t progress enough as a passer. To be fair, he did develop much more in 2018 and 2019 in that department, and he ultimately had one of the better careers of any college quarterback in the 2010s.
Jalen Hurts had an unbelievable college career
— 2019 Heisman runner-up
— National champion
— Threw for 80 TDs, 9,477 YDS
— Won SEC Offensive POY as a freshman
— Came off the bench in the 4th to lead Bama to 2018 SEC title
— Broke Bama & Oklahoma single-season QB rushing YDS records pic.twitter.com/dFMhELPAZs
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 29, 2019
When you look back at that group, it sort of makes you wonder if their careers could have been different if they had been developed by better offensive minds.
Hurts obviously developed at Oklahoma, and Eason rehabbed his reputation at Washington so much that he is considered a potential 1st-round pick in the April NFL Draft.
Alabama and Tennessee’s revolving door of offensive coordinators probably didn’t help Hurts or Guarantano, and it wasn’t like Scott ever got a chance to play in Joe Brady’s offense at LSU. None of them had 4 years with Mullen, Mike Leach or Lane Kiffin.
Well, I should probably note that Kyle Trask was also part of that 2016 class. Why wasn’t he in that group of 14? Well, besides being the lowest-rated recruit in Florida’s 2016 class, he wasn’t a top 100 quarterback recruit nationally (that’s what happens when you’re not a starter on your own high school team). Go figure that Trask can have the most prolific SEC career of all of those players (Hurts will still likely have the best overall college career). Trask already showed promise in his first 2 years in Mullen’s system, and he’ll probably have preseason All-SEC honors heading into Year 3.
But as for the top 14, the hay is pretty much in the barn with that group. Maybe we’ll get a surprise season from Guarantano or Franks, and perhaps Bentley will keep Utah in the Pac-12 hunt. Even if that does happen, it’ll still feel like that 2016 group was a major disappointment.
It’d be a sad exercise to go back and look at the excitement each SEC fan base had about their new quarterback. Keep that in mind as the final SEC signal-callers are signed for the 2020 class on Wednesday.
Predicting quarterback success is a fickle business, and sometimes, it takes 4 years to see the mess.