SEC senior QB class back for more

The SEC’s senior class at the quarterback position includes five returning starters -- Florida’s John Brantley, South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson, Mississippi State’s Chris Relf and Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith -- who’ve started a combined 104 games.

Sounds like a lot, and it is.

Garcia, Jefferson and Smith are all entering their third seasons as the full-time starter. Brantley and Relf started in every game a year ago.

Yet, the only one of the five who’s the closest thing to being a lock to go the whole way this season as the starter is Relf, who was easily the SEC’s most improved quarterback last season.

“He was always a big, strong guy who did athletic things at the quarterback position,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “But he’s now become a quarterback and getting better every day.”

Relf would seem to be entrenched in Starkville, and that’s not to say the other four seniors aren’t. It’s just that each of their situations is a little bit different than what you might expect from a group of veteran quarterbacks with more than 100 combined starts.

Right there at the top is Garcia, whose career has been about as maddening as it gets.

He’s 17-13 as a starter and is only the third quarterback in South Carolina’s history to throw for more than 6,000 yards -- Todd Ellis (1986-89) and Steve Taneyhill (1992-95) are the others.

He’s also one of the few players in college football history (maybe the only one) to survive five suspensions and still be playing.

A fifth-year senior, Garcia is back in Steve Spurrier’s good graces, at least for now, and the Head Ball Coach is even openly bragging about how much more focused Garcia is and how he’s poised for a big season.

Of course, back in the spring when Garcia was serving one of his two suspensions that forced him to miss most of spring practice, all Spurrier wanted to talk about was sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw and how much progress he’d made.

The reality is that Garcia is the Gamecocks’ quarterback and will be their quarterback until he screws up off the field again or doesn’t throw to the right receiver one too many times on the field.

As we've seen over the years, Spurrier can have a pretty quick hook with his quarterbacks.

To his credit, Garcia has been one tough customer, and his teammates have rallied around him.

This is his final chance to put it all together -- on the field and off -- and to cement his legacy as one of South Carolina’s greatest quarterbacks.

But can he do it for an entire season and play and lead with the kind of consistency that it takes to win a championship?

That’s a question that will hover all season.

“I’m not really worried about my legacy, per se,” Garcia said. “I’m more worried about the team in general. The ultimate goal, of course, is to win the SEC championship. And if you do that, you have a pretty good shot at winning the national championship, as the last five years have indicated.”

Garcia is asking the South Carolina fans to trust him … again.

“Hopefully, they take me back one more time,” he said.

At LSU, Jefferson’s problems haven’t been off the field. They’ve been on the field, and in particular, in games.

The Tigers’ passing game was woeful last season, even though they managed to start 7-0 and ended up winning 11 games.

All of the reports on Jefferson since spring have indicated that he’s made significant strides under new quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe and is throwing the ball with as much confidence as he ever has.

He needs to, for LSU’s sake and his sake.

The Tigers have a team capable of winning a national championship in 2011. But to do so, their passing game has to take several steps forward from where it was a year ago.

And if it doesn’t take those steps, it’s probably not going to take long for talented junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger to supplant Jefferson as the starter.

Count Florida’s Brantley as another senior quarterback in the SEC with everything to prove this season.

His first year as a starter in Urban Meyer’s old spread offense was a huge disappointment last season. He never looked comfortable, and his confidence plummeted.

But with Charlie Weis taking over the offense for first-year head coach Will Muschamp, the Gators are switching to a pro-style attack, and Brantley’s teammates say he looked like his old self in the spring.

Muschamp has been clear that Brantley’s his starter, but it’s also no secret that the Gators brought in the top quarterback prospect in the country, Jeff Driskel, who enrolled early and went through spring practice.

As disappointing as last season was for Brantley, it wasn’t a total loss.

“I learned that when things go wrong to forget about it, move on and keep my head up,” said Brantley, who finished with nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. “If you keep your head down, other people’s heads are going to go down.”

Smith’s ride at Vanderbilt has been a rough one ever since making his first career start as a redshirt freshman in the Music City Bowl in 2008, which just happened to be the Commodores’ first bowl win in 53 years.

But the Commodores have struggled mightily in the passing game each of the past two seasons, and while Smith’s numbers haven’t been pretty, he hasn’t had much help at the receiver position.

The Commodores hope sophomore Jordan Matthews can be that big-play threat this season, and Smith feels like he’s more equipped fundamentally to make things happen after working with first-year quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne.

He’s going to have people pushing, too.

The Vanderbilt staff is getting its first comprehensive look this preseason at junior Jordan Rodgers, who did very little in the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, redshirted last season after coming over from junior college.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is also eager to see what the three freshman quarterbacks he signed in this class have to offer -- Lafonte Thourogood, Josh Grady and Kris Kentera.

“I’m excited to have a competition,” Franklin said. “I thought Larry had a great spring. I thought he had a great summer, but he really didn’t compete against anybody. I want to see him have an opportunity to compete against somebody and how he reacts to that. I want to create the most competitive environment we can here.”