It’s not a matter of “if.” It’s a matter of “when.”
Jalen Hurts, Shea Patterson, Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm, Kellen Mond and Tua Tagovailoa all did it in the past 2 years. Conventional wisdom suggests that multiple true freshmen will have a chance to play significant snaps in 2018. There could even be an opening day starter among the recent 2018 SEC quarterback signees.
Gone are the days when redshirts were assumed for true freshman signal-callers. And anyone doubting that apparently missed the show that Fromm and Tagovailoa put on in the National Championship.
With National Signing Day(s) now in the books, it’s time to look ahead to the incoming wave of SEC quarterbacks and their outlook for 2018. Can they contribute? Will they even get to contribute? Who will contribute first?
To answer the last of those 3 questions, it’s probably worth addressing the opportunity issue first. No freshman will compete for an opening day job at Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina or Vanderbilt. Why? There’s an established returning starter and/or a promising backup, or schools like Alabama and LSU that didn’t even sign a 2018 quarterback.
These, however, are the SEC schools that figure to have a quarterback competition involving a 2018 signee:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
For the sake of this argument, let’s hone in on the quarterback pictures at those schools to see how the 2018 signees could fit in this year.
It’s not surprising that more than half of those seven schools have new coaches. And interestingly enough, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M also have returning quarterbacks who played significant minutes last year. It’s because of their new offenses that none will enter 2018 with a starting job in hand. I’d tend to favor those programs as the most likely to turn to true freshmen.
The places with the best hypothetical paths for a true freshman to start are Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee. Cole Kelley, Feleipe Franks and Jarrett Guarantano won’t be given seniority, and even if they do start, they figure to have short leashes.
Texas A&M isn’t included in that group because I’d put the combination of Mond and Nick Starkel ahead of 4-star dual-threat James Foster. Even Jameis Winston redshirted his true freshman season under Jimbo Fisher.
At Arkansas, true freshman Connor Noland could eventually establish himself as Chad Morris’ guy if he plays with better tempo than Kelley. Noland, a 6-3, 205-pound Greenwood, Ark., native, will still have plenty of competition in the quarterback room. Besides Kelley, he’d have to beat out former 4-star recruit Ty Storey, redshirt freshman Daulton Hyatt and even fellow true freshman (and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ grandson) John Stephens Jones.
With that many scholarship quarterbacks to work against, Noland isn’t a likely candidate for early playing time as a summer enrollee.
Unlike Noland, 3-star freshman J.T. Shrout won’t have to battle a deep quarterback room at Tennessee. At least not yet. Returning starter Guarantano and sophomore Will McBride are the team’s only scholarship quarterbacks. Shrout might also be a better fit for Tyson Helton’s pro-style system than the aforementioned veterans. Pruitt got Shrout to flip his Cal commitment just before the Early Signing Period, which suggests that the coaching staff convinced him that he can compete to be the starter.
Though one has to think that Shrout would have had better offers if he were ready to make an immediate impact at a place like Tennessee. The other challenge for Shrout would be if Tennessee signed a graduate transfer, which remains a realistic possibility.
Franks managed to fend off graduate transfer Malik Zaire to win the starting job as a redshirt freshman at Florida. Now it’s Franks who will be the veteran — he’s the only Florida QB with college snaps — trying to prevent a freshman from winning the job. True freshman Emory Jones flipped to Florida on the first day of the Early Signing Period, which was a monster victory for Dan Mullen.
For what it’s worth, it would be atypical for Mullen to start a true freshman. Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald redshirted and were better for it. Neither came in as blue-chip recruits like Jones, though. And both Prescott and Fitzgerald were behind quarterbacks with experience in the system. Jones doesn’t have to worry about that.
He’s also Florida’s only dual-threat quarterback, and as an early enrollee, Jones will get the same amount of time as everyone else to learn the new system. Oddly enough, Mullen’s system can survive inaccuracy (see Fitzgerald, Nick) easier than it can survive an indecisive runner. Franks was the latter under Jim McElwain. That bodes well for Jones.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Mullen decides to roll with Jones and brace for some growing pains. A lot of that depends on how Jones performs in camp, but with his talent and surroundings, he’s the best bet to see the field first among the incoming freshman quarterbacks.
And by “see the field,” I really mean “play meaningful snaps.” I don’t think that’ll be the case for 5-star super recruit Justin Fields. Jake Fromm just led the Dawgs to the National Championship Game, and barring something crazy, there’s nothing that Fields can do in camp to show that he’s more deserving of the starting job.
There’s obviously the possibility that Kirby Smart goes the route Alabama did with Tagovailoa. I still expect Fields to get plenty of reps in 2018, but I expect them to come in the second half of Georgia blowouts (that schedule is, um, favorable). The same could be true of Ole Miss true freshman Matt Corral, who isn’t a likely bet to start after the second half that Jordan Ta’amu put together in Patterson’s absence.
But there’s one 2018 signee who stands the best chance to start from the jump, though I didn’t think it was entirely fair to include him with the rest of the true freshmen. That’s because JUCO transfer Terry Wilson (cover photo above) is entering his third year of college at Kentucky.
With Stephen Johnson’s graduation and Drew Barker’s transfer, Wilson has a prime opportunity to win the starting job. The former Oregon quarterback saw fellow 2016 classmate Justin Herbert do that in Eugene as a true freshman, so Wilson transferred to Garden City Community College (Kansas). After racking up 31 total scores and 2,651 yards from scrimmage in 2017 — and earning the nickname “Touchdown” — Wilson is the presumed favorite to lead what should be a solid offense in Lexington.
To recap, here’s how I’d classify the 2018 SEC quarterback signees who could actually have paths to playing time:
Day 1 starters
- Terry Wilson, Kentucky
- Emory Jones, Florida
Snaps in blowouts as second-string QBs
- Justin Fields, Georgia
- Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Still could need an injury/transfer or two to not redshirt
- Connor Noland, Arkansas
- J.T. Shrout, Tennessee
- James Foster, Texas A&M
Now watch a different 2018 SEC quarterback signee start on opening day.