Nearly all of the potential starting SEC QBs are dealing with same issue
There’s a changing of the guard at quarterback in the SEC.
Gone are the likes of Bryce Young, Stetson Bennett IV and Hendon Hooker. They’re off to the NFL after historic careers as multi-year starters for high-profile SEC programs. Also gone are Will Levis and Anthony Richardson, both of whom could hear their names called early in the NFL Draft after polarizing pre-draft seasons.
It’s safe to say there’s a change at the top of the SEC quarterback hierarchy awaiting in 2023.
I know, I know. KJ Jefferson, Spencer Rattler, Will Rogers and Jayden Daniels are back, as are a handful of others after getting some starting experience. Combine that with the transfer portal additions of Devin Leary and Spencer Sanders, and it’s realistic to project that quarterback play in the SEC should again be at a high level.
But there’s a common denominator with nearly every starting quarterback in the SEC — they’re getting a new offensive play-caller.
Think about it. Look at this list of potential SEC starters with new surroundings after starting at least 6 games in 2022:
- KJ Jefferson, Arkansas — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Dan Enos)
- Spencer Rattler, South Carolina — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Dowell Loggains)
- Will Rogers, MSU — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Kevin Barbay)
- Robby Ashford, Auburn — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Philip Montgomery)
- Brady Cook, Mizzou — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Kirby Moore)
- Devin Leary, Kentucky — New team
- Spencer Sanders, Ole Miss — New team
- Graham Mertz, Florida — New team
The only potential preseason All-SEC guy who has the same team and offensive play-caller is Jayden Daniels.
(This is the part where I have to explain to Georgia and Tennessee fans that you don’t get preseason All-SEC love unless you’re an established starter, and if you don’t believe that, remind me again why Jarrett Stidham and Drew Lock earned 2018 preseason All-SEC love instead of Tua Tagovailoa. Or better yet, remind me why Bo Nix was preseason All-SEC in 2021 and Bryce Young wasn’t.)
Daniels is in an enviable position from that standpoint. Mike Denbrock is locked in as his offensive coordinator, and with Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. returning as primary targets, the LSU starter should benefit from continuity in a way that other established SEC quarterbacks won’t. If that leads to him being a preseason All-SEC guy, it wouldn’t surprise me.
I’d put Jefferson and Leary as the top 2 spots on my preseason ballot with Daniels right behind them. But admittedly, I do wonder how much those quarterbacks could gel with new play-callers.
I can’t imagine that Jefferson is suddenly going to be operating some low-tempo offense with Enos, who worked wonders with Taulia Tagovailoa at Maryland and was instrumental in Jalen Hurts’ development as a backup in 2018. But I’d imagine the Enos influence will call for a bit more passing volume after Arkansas failed to crack the top 100 in attempts/game in each of Jefferson’s first 2 seasons as a starter with Kendal Briles at the controls.
The opposite will be true of someone like Rogers, who operated in the most high-volume passing offense on earth with Mike Leach. But Barbay will utilize a bit more balance with a good amount of his offense out of the pistol formation. Rogers will target tight ends for the first time in his college career. While Rogers won’t have to do quite the heavy lifting we saw with Leach’s offense, we’re also going to need to see how he can get into a rhythm with fewer opportunities for short/intermediate throws.
And what about Rattler? If you polled South Carolina fans, the vast majority would probably tell you that he’s in line for an upgrade after an inconsistent year with Marcus Satterfield. Satterfield’s play-calling came under fire throughout Rattler’s first season in Columbia, which was why there weren’t tears shed when he bolted for Nebraska to join Matt Rhule’s new staff. Satterfield often opted for a pro-style system with Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan concepts, which became difficult to execute with a porous offensive line.
That was the same reason it didn’t work out for both Liam Coen with the Los Angeles Rams and Kentucky with Rich Scangarello. With Coen and Kentucky now reunited to lead Leary, what should we expect? This shouldn’t be like the first month of Levis’ 2021 season. After all, Levis was a first-time starter who enrolled over the summer. Leary is was the 2022 preseason ACC Player of the Year, and he’s already enrolled to participate in spring ball after transferring from NC State, where he threw for a program-record 35 TDs in 2021. Expectations should be high, even if there is a bit of a feeling-out process early on.
That feels like it’ll be the narrative for the vast majority of the conference’s quarterbacks. Even look at some of the not-as-established guys who could step into starting roles (people forget that Alex Golesh was the primary play-caller for Tennessee, not Josh Heupel):
- Joe Milton, Tennessee — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Joey Halzle)
- Jalen Milroe/Ty Simpson, Alabama — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (TBD)
- Conner Weigman, Texas A&M — New offensive coordinator/play-caller (Bobby Petrino)
So basically that leaves Daniels, AJ Swann and Georgia’s next starter as the lone expected signal-callers not dealing with some sort of significant transformation by virtue of a new play-caller or a new team altogether.
(I should add that as of this writing, it’s uncertain if Todd Monken will be returning as UGA’s offensive coordinator after interviewing for multiple OC openings in the NFL.)
Ole Miss fans might also note that Jaxson Dart could still earn the starting job, though I believe that adding a pair of Power 5 transfers, including a 4-year starter with 1 year of eligibility left, suggests that he’s not in high favor with his head coach.
Still, though. That’s a ton of change.
While some will use it as a crutch early in the season, having a new play-caller is such a common denominator that it could even the playing field in a unique way. On the other hand, it also could reward the veteran upperclassmen who have already had to make a transition like that before.
It makes it difficult to project who could perhaps finish as All-SEC quarterbacks. If you don’t think offensive play-caller changes matter, go back to 2019. Nobody in their right mind would’ve said that Joe Burrow was a better quarterback than Jake Fromm before that season. We know how that played out. That’s obviously an extreme example.
But even someone like Hooker is a great reminder in today’s era that sometimes, getting into the right system can take a player well beyond his previously perceived ceiling. Alternatively, we can watch a returning SEC Offensive Player of the Year like Hurts regress in Year 2 with a new play-caller.
These things matter, and unless you’re LSU, Vandy or Georgia, you should be wondering how your quarterback will fit in with his new play-caller. If Monken leaves for the NFL, it’s possible that as many as 12 SEC starting quarterbacks will go into 2023 with a new play-caller.
Change is coming to SEC offenses in 2023. The ones who can roll with it could very well be the ones who punch a ticket to Atlanta.