QB talent pool goes deep in the SEC

Originally Published: August 23, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

When the coaches selected their preseason All-SEC team back in July, Tennessee junior quarterback Tyler Bray didn't make first-, second- or third-team.

That's despite an increasing number of analysts and other longtime football observers raving about Bray's talent as well as his immense upside.

[+] EnlargeTyler Bray
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesTyler Bray passed for 1,983 yards and 17 TDs last season.

The fact is that Bray has to go prove it on the field and help his team win some games that count this season.

But here's another fact: A talent like Bray not even making third-team on the coaches' preseason ballot is a telltale sign that this might be the deepest and most talented crop of quarterbacks the SEC has seen in a while.

"Used to, you might see one or two really good quarterbacks," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "Now, every week, you're facing one in this league, and it seems like everybody is mobile. It's not just a bunch of pocket quarterbacks. They can all move around."

Granted, there might not be a No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in the group like a Cam Newton or Matthew Stafford, but there's an impressive collection of guys who can line up and give defenses fits in a number of ways.

"This is always going to be known as a defensive league," said Arkansas senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who's positioned at the head of the SEC's quarterback class going into the season. "With the caliber of defenses we go against each week in the SEC, we're not going to consistently put up some of the numbers on offense you see around the rest of the country.

"But you look around this year at the quarterbacks in our league and some of the guys teams are bringing back, and maybe we'll change some of the perceptions out there about what we can and can't do on offense."

Wilson was one of eight SEC quarterbacks invited last month to the Manning Passing Academy, which has showcased some of the country's top quarterbacks for most of the past two decades.

Also on that list were Bray, Alabama's AJ McCarron, LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Georgia's Aaron Murray, Kentucky's Morgan Newton, South Carolina's Connor Shaw and Mississippi's Bo Wallace.

Wilson, McCarron, Murray, Shaw and Bray are all returning starters, along with James Franklin at Missouri and Jordan Rodgers at Vanderbilt. Newton started eight games last season for Kentucky, but sophomore Maxwell Smith beat him out this preseason for the starting job.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertZach Mettenberger is getting his chance at LSU.

Mettenberger has yet to start a game in the SEC, but already the Tigers are confident that they will be much more balanced on offense with Mettenberger's ability to throw the ball down the field.

For some, that might seem like a lot of pressure to put on a first-time starter in this league. But for Mettenberger, it's been a long time coming.

"This is what I wanted, and this is why I came to LSU," said Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia but was dismissed from the team after getting into trouble off the field. "The best thing about being at a place like LSU is that you have great players around you and a great offensive line in front of you. I think we're all anxious to see what we're capable of in this offense."

Wilson (3,638 yards), Murray (3,149 yards) and McCarron (2,634 yards) were the only three quarterbacks in the SEC to pass for more than 2,200 yards last season.

Bray was on track to surpass 3,000 yards until he broke his thumb in Week 5. He still threw 17 touchdown passes in seven games.

He knows as well as anybody, though, that the college football world is waiting to see what he does against the Alabamas, Floridas and Georgias this season. In 12 career starts, Bray has beaten just one team (Cincinnati) that finished the season with a winning record.

"That's how you're measured as a quarterback, how you play in the big games and winning those big games," Bray said. "We just haven't gotten it done in the past … for different reasons.

"Those days are over."

Murray, who's thrown 59 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, is another quarterback who still has to prove himself in the so-called big games. He did beat Florida last season but is just 2-7 against nationally ranked teams as a starter.

Murray has admitted to trying to do too much in the past, which has gotten him into trouble in some key situations. He threw 14 interceptions last season, including two costly ones in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State.

"You're never perfect, and I know I have a lot more to do to be the best I can be," said Murray, who's on track to break Danny Wuerffel's SEC record of 114 career touchdown passes.

"I'm excited to have more opportunities to get better and work with [offensive coordinator Mike Bobo] and Coach Richt and improve my game. At the end of the day, no matter who you're playing, it's just football. It's the game I've played all my life, and it's the game I've loved all my life. "I just have to play it to have fun. When I do that, I'm at my best."

The SEC's newest quarterback in 2012 just may be the most exciting. Franklin passed for 2,865 yards and rushed for 981 yards last season in the Big 12. He accounted for 36 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Troy Taormina/US PRESSWIREJames Franklin leads Missouri into the SEC.

Everybody is eager to see how he fares against SEC defenses, and it remains to be seen how healthy Franklin is after coming off shoulder surgery in the spring.

"He's going to make plays no matter what league he's in," Missouri receiver T.J. Moe said. "He's always so calm, and nothing rattles him."

Even though McCarron was named the offensive MVP in the BCS National Championship Game, his best football would seem to be in front of him.

The Crimson Tide will put even more responsibility on McCarron this season, and as he showed in January, no stage is too big for him. Alabama coach Nick Saban said this week that the chemistry between the Crimson Tide's quarterbacks and receivers is as good as it's been since he arrived in 2007. A big reason has been McCarron's leadership and understanding of the offense.

"AJ's one of those guys that knows what everybody's supposed to do on every play," Saban said.

Shaw also played his best football down the stretch last season for the Gamecocks, and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier finally seems genuinely excited about coaching his quarterback again after butting heads with Stephen Garcia for most of the past four seasons.

Shaw completed 74.5 percent of his passes in his last three games a year ago, including wins over Clemson and Nebraska. He passed for 657 yards and threw eight touchdown passes and only one interception in those three games, while also rushing for 239 yards and three more touchdowns.

"I feel more comfortable in the pocket than I did last year," said Shaw, who's always going to be a threat to run. "But you never get completely comfortable, not against the defenses we go against every week."

Chris Low | email

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