Athens, Ga.—There is drama on every football team but there ain’t no drama quite like QUARTERBACK drama.
And heading into the 2018 season, nobody has more active quarterback drama than the Southeastern Conference.
Consider this: Georgia is the reigning SEC champion and came within one play of winning the CFP national championship last season. The Bulldogs were directed by quarterback Jake Fromm, a gifted true freshman who coach Kirby Smart told me “has one of the highest football IQs I’ve ever seen.”
So if anybody is a dead-solid lock for a starting job this Fall it should be Jake Fromm, right?
Well, yeah, but……
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Depending on whom you ask, Justin Fields was the No. 1 or No. 2 high school quarterback in the nation last season (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was the other). Despite the presence of Fromm and his success, young Mr. Fields decided to matriculate at the University of Georgia, enrolling last January. He went through spring practice. Based on what I’m hearing Fields is extremely talented—maybe Deshaun Watson talented.
Last Friday Smart, set to begin his third year at Georgia, was asked point blank if it was even POSSIBLE that Fields could beat out Jake Fromm for the starting job. Smart went on an expanded monologue about competition and how it builds a program, etc., etc. Smart talked about playing with consistency, protecting the ball, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Then Smart said this: “We’re going to evaluate them and say, ‘Who’s doing the best job of competing at the standard we want?’ And then we’ll make decisions from there and play.”
Translation: When he signed the Georgia coaches promised Fields he’d get a chance to compete for the job. And that is what is going to happen. A guy like Fromm who has played 15 college football games is not going to lose his job before the opener to a guy who has played zero college games. But let’s see what happens after that.
But wait. There is much more.
Barring injury, the quarterback situation is set at these six SEC schools: Auburn (Jarrett Stidham); Ole Miss (Jordan Ta’amu), Mississippi State (Nick Fitzgerald), Missouri (Drew Lock), South Carolina (Jake Bentley), Vanderbilt (Kyle Shurmur).
Everywhere else there is drama. Specifically:
Alabama: Jalen Hurts vs. Tua Tagovailoa. This one has been going strong since January 8 when Tagovailoa, a freshman, came off the bench to beat Georgia in the national championship game. Tua has the arm. Hurts has the legs and is 26-2 as a starter. Nick Saban would like to play them both. Hurts added a little drama last Saturday during Alabama’s media day when he told reporters he wished the Alabama staff had communicated with him more. The hurt in his voice sounded like a young man who knows he is about to lose his job. Projected starter: Tagovailoa.
Arkansas: Cole Kelley, Ty Storey. Kelley played in nine games last season making four starts. Storey played in two games. Kelley looks more like a left tackle (6-7, 258) than a quarterback but the guy has a good arm. The edge will go to the guy who can master Chad Morris’s up-tempo offense the quickest and make the fewest mistakes. Projected starter: Kelley.
Florida: Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Emory Jones. No doubt that Franks is more athletic and more experienced than the other two (Jones is a freshman and he’s not ready). But Trask is more analytical and Dan Mullen (the new Florida coach) loves that. Trask was not a starter in high school and has yet to play in a college game. So there is some risk. Projected starter: Trask.
Kentucky: Terry Wilson, Gunnar Hoak: After what Stephen Johnson did the past two seasons, Kentucky OC Eddie Gran knows exactly what he wants from this position. And Wilson, a JUCO transfer who started his career at Oregon, fills the bill with his dual-threat skill set. But Hoak, a more traditional drop-back quarterback, has been waiting his turn and has a better knowledge of the offense. The offense will again be built around running back Benny Snell, who is going for his third straight 1,000-yard season. The key will be whether or not Hoak can run it enough to keep the defenses honest. Projected starter: Hoak.
LSU: Joe Burrow, Myles Brennan, Justin McMillan, Lowell Narcisse. Burrow, a transfer from Ohio State, arrived as a graduate transfer after spring practice. Before making his decision, Burrow spent a bunch of time in Baton Rouge talking to LSU coaches about how he would fit into the program. Those coaches fell in love with the guy. The LSU players at SEC Media Days also had praise for Burrow. Projected starter: Burrow.
Tennessee: Jarrett Guarantano, Keller Chryst. Chryst is a graduate transfer who was 11-2 as starting quarterback at Stanford. But that does not automatically give him the nod over Guarantano, who played last season for the Vols, completing 61 percent of his passes. There is a case to be made that Chryst is more familiar with the pro-style offense of Tyson Helton. I believe both will start during the course of the season but Guarantano gets the first chance. Projected starter: Guarantano.
Texas A&M: Kellen Mond, Nick Starkel. Mond is the more athletic of the two and has the ability to extend plays with his feet. And it should be noted that Mond became a more accurate passer over the course of spring practice. Starkel is a traditional drop back passer, which was Jimbo Fisher’s preference at Florida State. Fisher is very demanding of his quarterbacks and intolerant of mental mistakes. Both are good enough to start and win in this conference but right now I’m giving the edge to Mond. Let’s see how everybody feels after the game with Clemson on Sept. 8. Projected starter: Mond.