It’s hard to believe a league that produced Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Peyton and Eli Manning and Dak Prescott, had a true freshman -- Alabama’s Jalen Hurts -- as its best signal-caller in 2016. But that's exactly what happened last year.
It’s not a coincidence then that Alabama was the only team in the SEC that didn’t have at least four losses. Surprisingly, only two quarterbacks in the league threw for more than 3,000 yards, led by Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen who threw for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns, but also added 15 interceptions.
While there were three seniors in the league, Kelly (a junior college transfer), Dobbs and Knight (an Oklahoma transfer), it became obvious as the year progressed that the future of the position would mainly consist of freshmen or sophomores in 2017.
Hurts wasn’t the only freshman to have success, and that trend could certainly continue.
Soon-to-be sophomores Jacob Eason, Shea Patterson, Hurts, Jake Bentley were each ranked in the 2016 ESPN 300, and played significant roles for their respective teams. Patterson was the only true freshman quarterback who started multiple games, that didn’t play in a bowl game. Hurts started 14 of Alabama’s 15 total games and led the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
The Gators are hoping that former ESPN 300 quarterback Feleipe Franks, a redshirt freshman, or another redshirt freshman -- three-star passer Kyle Trask -- will help solve some of their issues on offense.
Auburn has had some talented teams under Gus Malzahn but the Tigers have had not had much consistency at the quarterback position over the past few years. Malzahn is hoping junior college transfer Jarrett Stidham will finally solve his quarterback issues. While Stidham will technically be a redshirt sophomore next season, he’s had only one year of college football experience and has three years of eligibility remaining.
Incoming freshmen ESPN 300 quarterbacks will include the No. 1 and 2 dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Kellen Mond (Texas A&M) as well as Lowell Narcisse (LSU), Jake Fromm (Georgia), Myles Brennan (LSU), Daulton Hyatt (Arkansas).
No matter how high a player's ranking is, it is still difficult to have a lot of success as a young quarterback in the SEC. One anonymous SEC assistant, however, said the young quarterback talent should help with the overall quarterback play in the league.
“I think between Hurts, [Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald], Eason, Bentley and so forth, you saw first year players doing a lot of first-year things,” he said. “From the standpoint of showing flashes and promise but also making mistakes. I think that’s to be expected.
“I think what you saw toward the end of the year was inexperienced young guys grow up and show big-boy leadership and playmaking ability. Should be a fun conference next year. Needless to say there will be some competitive quarterback battles in the spring and fall camp this year.”
The quarterback position is difficult and a player must fit in with the system, his teammates and with his new coaches. There are no guarantees of who will be the next Newton or Tebow, but the talent level at quarterback continues to improve, so should the on-field performance in the coming years.