Each day when Jacob Eason exits the locker room at Georgia’s football complex, he’s liable to walk by some reminder of Matthew Stafford. A plaque commemorating his going first overall in the NFL draft, a picture noting the passing records he set.
At Tennessee, Joshua Dobbs and other quarterbacks will see reminders of Peyton Manning. Occasionally, they’ll see Manning himself. At Auburn, every quarterback who takes the reins gets asked about Cam Newton. And at Texas A&M and Florida, for all their lack of NFL success, Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow still loom over the many quarterbacks who have tried to replace them.
“Some things like that are usually cyclical,” said ESPN analyst Todd Blackledge, himself a former quarterback at Penn State. “I think maybe there’s an expectation because the league is so good, and they’ve won championships, and so many NFL draft picks coming out of the league, that you would assume they should do the same thing with quarterbacks. And that’s not the case.”
Indeed, the SEC remains the most respected and powerful football conference in the country, winner of eight of the past 10 national championships. It is the standard in passion, attendance, and producing star NFL talent — except, lately, at one position.
It’s been a down time for the SEC at the game’s most marquee position. That could change soon if Eason is as good as advertised, if Dobbs and Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly have strong senior seasons, and if transfer Trevor Knight is a star at Texas A&M.
That’s a lot of ifs. For now, it’s fair to wonder: Whatever happened to the great SEC quarterback, and why did he go away?
A drop in star power in the draft
The last time an SEC team had a quarterback picked in the top 10 of the NFL draft, the player never actually played in the SEC: It was Ryan Tannehill, whose Texas A&M squad hadn’t yet officially joined the league when he went eighth overall in 2012. No SEC quarterback was taken in that draft.
This past year the top two quarterbacks picked were from the Pac-12 (California’s Jared Goff) and the FCS level (North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz), and the only other first-round pick was from Memphis (Paxton Lynch.) The first SEC quarterback drafted, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, lasted until the fourth round.
That was still better than the 2015 draft: No SEC quarterbacks were taken.
Three years ago, it was supposed to be the year of the quarterback in the SEC. Big and tall A.J. McCarron had led Alabama to a couple of national championships. Georgia’s Aaron Murray broke Stafford’s school records and a few of Manning’s SEC records. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger simply looked and threw like the prototypical quarterback.
When the NFL draft came around, Murray and McCarron lasted until the fifth round. Mettenberger lasted until a round later.
Could it change in the next draft? Pro Football Focus’ most recent mock draft projects 13 SEC players picked in the first round — but none are quarterbacks.
The same goes for college star power
Manziel may be a punchline now, but he also was the SEC’s last legitimate star quarterback. He won the Heisman Trophy and was the last SEC quarterback to make an AP All-American list: second team in 2013. No SEC quarterback was named first, second or third team in 2014 or 2015. Last year’s All-American third-team quarterback was from Navy.
Blackledge opined that there have been some pretty good SEC quarterbacks lately. He pointed to Dak Prescott, who was “phenomenal” at Mississippi State, but “wasn’t necessarily surrounded by the same kind of talent as other guys.”
In any event, the hopes of the streak ending this year may ride on someone who’s never played a down in the SEC. Athlon magazine projected its All-American first, second, third and fourth teams. No SEC quarterbacks were listed, with the fourth-teamer coming from Houston.
But Phil Steele, the noted national expert, has Ole Miss’ Kelly as a second-teamer, and Blackledge also is very high on Kelly.
“He can really throw it, and has a great arm, and he’s got that kind of moxie and confidence, and he’s got swagger,” Blackledge said.
But the consensus top quarterback this year is Clemson’s Deshaun Watson — who is symptomatic for one of the reasons the SEC is in a quarterback drought.
A few misses
Watson grew up in SEC territory, in Gainesville. But he went to Clemson, which recruited him earlier. Home-state Georgia did offer him before his senior year and then tried hard, but it was too late.
Then there was Jameis Winston, who hailed from the Birmingham, Ala., area, but ended up at Florida State. That’s where he won a Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to a national championship.
There also have been evaluation misses by SEC teams. After the Murray era ended at Georgia, the hope was Brice Ramsey would take over. But he failed to win the job last season.
LSU might have been one quarterback away from being a much better team the past few years. But it hasn’t been able to find its next successor there either.
SEC teams have signed 176 quarterbacks since 2007, according to research by reporter Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News. Fifty-five are still in school, but of the rest well more than half (62.8 percent, or 76 of 121) transferred or gave up football.
A question of need?
It’s been shown that you can win without a star quarterback. Alabama won national championships with Jake Coker and Greg McElroy. LSU won with Matt Flynn. Auburn got to the national championship game with Nick Marshall, who was a fit for the offense but went pro as a cornerback.
But another part of it may be geography. Yes, Watson and Winston were from the deep South. But quarterback talent is spread out nationally, causing SEC teams to look outside the normal footprint: Eason is from Washington state, for instance, and Kelly is from upstate New York (who began his career at Clemson.)
“Good quarterback play is a commodity. There’s been a very finite number of elite quarterbacks in the country,” said Barton Simmons, national director of scouting for 247Sports. “Frankly, when you look at the numbers, most of the guys aren’t in the Southeast.”
Thus, there isn’t a built-in recruiting advantage in the SEC. California and Texas, thanks to sheer population numbers, produce a number of the quarterback prospects.
“It’s not as easy as going and stockpiling a bunch of huge linemen that you can find by the dozen in Florida and Louisiana,” Simmons said.
A brighter future
Exactly half of the SEC’s teams entered August with unresolved, or at least publicly undecided, starting quarterback jobs. And of the seven starters who had been named, only three — Kelly, Dobbs and Knight — are big names.
That, of course, means others can earn their names. Eason was one of the nation’s top-rated quarterback recruits. (So was Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson, but he enters the season sitting behind Kelly.) South Carolina actually signed two four-star quarterbacks, Brandon McElwain and Jake Bentley, and they may be the most exciting thing about what could be a very down year for the Steve Spurrier-less Gamecocks.
Going by the 247Sports Composite, SEC teams signed six of the nation’s top 11 quarterbacks in this year’s signing class: Patterson, Eason, Florida’s Feleipe Franks, Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, McIlwain and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.
“I definitely think that there’s some young talent that’s coming into the league right now that’s pretty special,” Simmons said. “I don’t know that this is the year — I think this is the year we’ll see flashes of it. But I think we’re probably one season away from seeing that this is a league that’s deep at the quarterback position again. Because I feel like the guys that are really talented are freshman this year.”
Eason arrived with the most hype, and it only increased after his spring-game performance. The comparisons with Stafford were made well before he arrived on campus.
Stafford visited his old program this spring, and snuck in the film room to watch some tape of Eason. He was impressed. And when he was asked later that day about pressure on Eason, Stafford just smiled.
“I don’t think it’s that much pressure,” Stafford said. “He’s a super-talented kid. As far as comparisons, everybody’s their own player. I’m sure he’s bigger than I am. He probably throws it farther than I can and all that kind of stuff. I’m just happy for him to get an opportunity to play here. It’s a special place to play, and he’ll have a great time.”