Stuart McNair

Alabama not only SEC football team returning good quarterback

Alabama’s Jalen Hurts returning as SEC Offensive Player of Year

Conventional wisdom has it that quarterback play in the Southeastern Conference last year was below par. To be sure, there were a few teams who could have done with better play at the critical position, but in retrospect there were some pretty good men at quarterback, and several return for 2017.
There was a bit of dustup recently when former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, now an SEC football commentator,  was reported as saying that he thinks the top returning quarterback in the league is Nick Fitzgerald of Mississippi State.
Alabama returns Jalen Hurts, who was the first team All-SEC quarterback AND the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 as voted by SEC head coaches.
So what does McElroy see in Fitzgerald, an upcoming junior, that the SEC coaches overlooked? Okay, let’s not be snarky. McElroy and the SEC coaches all saw the same things, and McElroy’s case is not a bad one. In 2016 Fitzgerald averaged more yards per game passing (186.4) than did Hurts (185.3; in other words about 40 inches per game more). Fitzgerald also averaged more on the ground, rushing for 105.8 yards per game to Hurts’ 64.7.
Hurts did a little better in passing efficiency and threw for a couple of more touchdowns. And, really, a big part of a quarterback’s value (particularly true when McElroy led Alabama to an undefeated season and the 2009 national championship) is how he makes his team better. Bama, certainly, was a better team with Hurts at quarterback.
It is not unreasonable to expect a quarterback to make a big jump between his freshman and sophomore seasons, sort of like a team making the most improvement between its first game of the season and its second game. That could be particularly true in Hurts’ case. He went into last season as a backup (most people thought third behind Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman), but by the end of the first half in a season-opening 52-6 win over Southern Cal, Hurts was the No. 1 quarterback on the nation’s No. 1 team.
In a few weeks (July 10-13), SEC Media Days will be held in Hoover in suburban Birmingham and the assembly will be asked to select a preseason All-SEC team. Those who vote in the annual preseason polls have been denigrated for the paucity of success in choosing the annual champion (though the writers and broadcasters got it right with Alabama last year). Chances of picking the top quarterback are even lower. Remember Jeremy Johnson?
McElroy’s proclamation for Fitzgerald notwithstanding, Hurts will likely be the preseason choice.
But there are other worthy candidates.
Many could not name the returning starter at Missouri, but upcoming junior quarterback Drew Lock was second in the league (to graduated Chad Kelly of Ole Miss) in passing yards per game at 283.2 – about 100 yards per game more than Hurts.
Austin Allen at Arkansas, an upcoming senior, gets high marks from knowledgeable observers of the SEC quarterback landscape. He’s the top returning QB in the league in pass efficiency and second to Lock in passing yards per game (263.8).
When Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending injury at Ole Miss last year, the Rebels found out they have a pretty good replacement coming along in upcoming soph Shea Patterson. That injury to Kelly pales in comparison to the other troubles facing Mississippi.
Georgia got good play last year from true freshman Jacob Eason (186.9 yards per game passing), but he’s not likely to get the preseason All-SEC nod, in part because some believe he’ll be surpassed by a 2017 freshman, Jake Fromm.
How about Danny Etling at LSU? To hear the man on the street talk, Etling was inadequate last year as a junior, but he passed for more yards (193 per game) than Hurts, Fitzgerald, or Eason, and ranked right behind Hurts in pass efficiency and total offense.
There’s some buzz about Florida, welcoming Notre Dame washout Malik Zaire, although Feleipe Franks may hang on to the job he seemed to win in the spring. Former Alabama quarterback Luke Del Rio has to get healthy. This is a question mark position for Coach Jim McElwain.
And then there is Auburn. The Tigers may not be very good at developing quarterbacks (remember Jeremy Johnson), but they are good at hyping their latest and greatest (again, remember Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremy Johnson) and also good at snatching transfers (Cam Newton, Nick Marshall). The latest can’t miss quarterback to transfer into Auburn is Jarred Stinnett, who came from Baylor by way of junior college. He’ll get plenty of votes for preseason All-SEC.
There are some other interesting QBs, most of whom won’t be considered by media voters. Another outstanding true freshman quarterback last year was Jake Bentley at South Carolina. Vanderbilt returns junior Kyle Shumur and Kentucky has senior Stephen Johnson back. (Last year Johnson outdueled the real Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.).
Tennessee has to replace Josh Dobbs, who was very good for a very under-achieving team in 2016. Somehow, the Vols seem to think problem solved, either with Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano.
Who knows at Texas A&M? Jake Hubenak, a senior, should have the advantage in experience, but many in College Station think it’s just a matter of time until newcomer Kellen Mond takes over. Coach Kevin Sumlin is in such precarious straits, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pull the trigger and make a change in a hurry.
Hurts probably didn’t get a vote last year for preseason All-SEC quarterback, but he should get most of them this year. But that’s preseason.

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