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Quarterback position questionable in SEC this year

QB position questionable in SEC this year

Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason is one of several first-year signal callers in the SEC who will be stepping into the shoes of former standouts. Mason is taking over for Aaron Murray, the SEC’s career passing leader. (Reuters)

Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason is one of several first-year signal callers in the SEC who will be stepping into the shoes of former standouts. Mason is taking over for Aaron Murray, the SEC’s career passing leader. (Reuters)

HOOVER, Ala. — A year ago, the SEC sparkled with stars at quarterback. But after four of those players — Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger — were drafted by NFL teams, the SEC approaches the 2014 season with the marquee position in transition.

Gone are seven of the league’s top eight passers from last season. Gone is the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, Manziel. Gone is the SEC career passing leader, Murray. Gone is the winningest quarterback in Alabama history, McCarron, and the winningest in South Carolina history, Connor Shaw.

How those quarterbacks, and others, will be replaced was a popular topic of conversation at SEC Media Days last week.

“Those guys were unknown at some point as well,” said Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, suggesting new stars will emerge. “It’s just part of the game.”

In some cases, there’s no mystery about succession. Georgia is firmly set on senior Hutson Mason as Murray’s successor, South Carolina on senior Dylan Thompson as Shaw’s successor and Missouri on sophomore Maty Mauk as James Franklin’s successor. Mason, Thompson and Mauk played well when their teams’ starters missed time with injuries last season.

In other cases, there’s no clear successor. Coaches at Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M said their starting quarterbacks will be determined by competition in preseason practice.

“The development of that position … is going to be critical to the success of our team,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who promised competition between Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and senior Blake Sims.

The league’s top quarterbacks — based on the media vote for the preseason All-SEC team, anyway — are Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Mississippi State’s Prescott and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, in that order.

“I do think, standing here today, you would rather be in my shoes with a Bo Wallace coming back than without,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said.

“Having said that, there are a lot of people talking about the lack of returning quarterbacks, but standing here last year, no one talked about Nick Marshall, either. Two years ago, before Manziel’s first season, nobody really talked about him.

“There’s no doubt you feel like (the quarterback attrition) might make the league a bit wide open. But there will be somebody that emerges from one of the programs in our conference that has a breakout year at that position. I’m quite sure of it.”

Indeed, some teams with no established quarterbacks seem quite comfortable with their situation.

Missouri feels good about Mauk, who filled in capably after Franklin was injured in the fourth quarter of a victory at Georgia last season. Mauk started the next four games, winning three as the Tigers stayed on track for the SEC East title.

“It did help me a lot,” Mauk said of the experience, “especially from the standpoint of slowing the game down.”

Similarly, Mason played well after a knee injury ended Murray’s season in Georgia’s next-to-last regular-season game. Georgia coach Mark Richt said it’s a “blessing” to have Mason at quarterback this season.

“Not to say we don’t miss Aaron because we do, but it was time for him to go,” Richt said. “That’s just college athletics. After four seasons, you’re out of here. … I think we’ll transition well.”

Like Mason, South Carolina’s Thompson is a fifth-year senior who gets only one season as a starter.

“It did take a lot of patience,” Thompson said.

“We really believe he’s a very good player,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Has a chance to lead us to a big season. Has a chance.”

Just five of the 14 SEC teams return a quarterback who started a majority of the games last season. Three of those five started 11 or more games — Wallace (13), Marshall (13) and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen (11). The other two started seven games — Tennessee’s Justin Worley, who missed the final month of the season after undergoing thumb surgery, and Prescott.

Marshall and Prescott rushed for 1,068 and 829 yards, respectively, last season. Both aim to improve their passing. Auburn hasn’t said if Marshall will be suspended from the season opener after being cited for marijuana possession this month.

Another returning quarterback with starting experience is Florida’s Jeff Driskel, who started 11 games in 2012 but missed all but three last season with a broken leg. He is healthy and encouraged about the Gators’ new fast-paced shotgun offense.

“I’m more comfortable in the shotgun because of the ability to use my legs and because I’ve been around it more,” Driskel said.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said it’s a relief to have a quarterback with experience. “But as far as the new quarterbacks in the league, people are going to do what they do schematically,” Muschamp said. “They may dress some things down to make sure they can execute more, may be a little more simple. At the end of the day, there’s still good skill people in this league, still good offensive lines.”

Even so, it’ll be different — no Manziel, no McCarron, no Murray, no Mettenberger.

“Looking back at last year … there were so many great quarterbacks in our league,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It seemed like every week there was another great quarterback.

“There will be a lot of new ones, and we do know they’re extremely talented. But with that, sometimes there’s some growing pains, especially early in the season as you’re learning your quarterback.”