Quarterback uncertainty a problem for several SEC teams
GAINESVILLE - It started with Chris Leak at Florida in 2006 and ended with Cam Newton at Auburn this past January. Through the last five years, the Southeastern Conference has won every national championship in college football and a huge reason has been the surprisingly strong play of a quarterback. While many credit the SEC defenses as the reason the league has dominated the sport, the QB play has been almost as dazzling and a major factor by lighting up defenses from another league after going through the brutal SEC all season. But while the SEC coaches meet this coming week in Destin to go over rule changes and no doubt discuss which teams are in contention to win another national championship in 2011, a lot of people are wondering if this is when the streak ends. Quarterback could be a major issue this fall in the SEC.Aaron Murray of Georgia is possibly the top returner but he's surrounded by a team that had a season so bad in 2010 that Mark Richt's job is in danger. "He's what you're looking for,'' declares Richt of Murray. Not a lot of coaches in the SEC can say the same thing about their own quarterback. After producing Heisman Trophy winners and first-round draft picks the last five years, the league is filled with uncertainty at the position. Arkansas's Tyler Wilson could be the next great passer, throwing for over 300 yards against eventual national champion Auburn after replacing the injured Ryan Mallett. But that was one game. A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are young and talented and one or the other has a chance to lead Alabama this year. Many consider the Crimson Tide - along with LSU - as potentially the next great SEC team. But youth is an issue for the Hogs and Tide. South Carolina's Stephen Garcia is probably the top returning talent but he's been suspended so many times there's a question how much longer he'll last in Columbia. Then there's LSU's Jordan Jefferson. He's a great runner but we're talking about a guy who completed just four passes in his team's own spring game. Simply put, there aren't any older, proven players who have shown they can lead a team to a title like Tim Tebow. That could open the door for the rest of college football to finally unseat the SEC atop the sport. Jefferson could be the most intriguing of the bunch. He has a skill set that excites fans . . . until he has to pass in the clutch. But Tigers coach Les Miles thinks better days are coming. "Going into a guy's senior year there's a general want to be one of the best in college, have a great senior year,'' Miles said. "Generally I think in college leadership at the quarterback position must be embraced. I think (Jefferson) understands that.'' If he does, it could be another national title for LSU, which won it all in 2007. John Brantley at Florida is typical of the league this year. He had great credentials coming out of high school but hasn't come close to fulfilling expectations. He's finally in an offense where he can throw more and not try to run like Tebow did. He could finally have a break out season. But questions abound. And that's never good when the quarterback is supposed to be the guy to lead a team. In the SEC, that leader is a major question for at least half the programs this season - including most that could win a national title. Summer is huge for developing chemistry. If you don't have that guy to pace the program, it's tough to build for the fall. "I've challenged him in the offseason,'' new Gators coach Will Muschamp said of Brantley. "It's going to be his role to make sure that we handle the offseason the right way in the seven-on-seven (passing drills) and the team drills where coaches cannot be involved. That's where your leadership has got to develop and John's got to have a huge part in that and I think he will.'' At 'Bama, Nick Saban talks about QBs being ready "when the fur flies'' so he's not flipping out yet over the lack of a proven signal caller. "I think it's important that those guys continue to develop the kind of experience, confidence in doing the job, as well as the confidence in the people around them that they can trust an respect and believe that we can execute with those guys and how that all develops will be a key as to how far we come as an offense next year,'' Saban said. It's an issue going on right now with players working out apart of coaching staffs around the SEC with NCAA rules not allowing coaches to be on the field during summer months. Some will get the trust and develop the relationships with teammates. Others will fail. That's a scary proposition for SEC teams this season. It's also a reason, with virtually no quarterback in the league owning a complete package as a proven winner and leader already in place, that the conference could finally miss out on winning it all in January. Of course, no one expected Newton to win the Heisman going into last fall. So time will tell. But right now, the SEC forecasts to have a lot of trouble getting one of its teams back into the national championship picture. "We don't look at how old they are and what year they are,'' Auburn coach Gene Chizik said of looking for Newton's replacement. "They are faceless, nameless players.'' Chizik means he will evaluate strictly on production. But his comment fits a lot of quarterbacks in the SEC going into next season. The SEC's great unknown this summer at the quarterback position almost league-wide could finally give some team in another conference a chance to win it all unless schools can play catch up this summer.