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July 27, 2014

Alabama among half of SEC looking for answers at QB in 2014

When you shuffle into an SEC stadium this fall, don't forget to buy a game program.

Those familiar names you know: Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray? Gone. Half of the SEC, including Alabama, enters fall camp prepping a first-year starter at quarterback, an uncommonly high turnover quandary for a league that typically basks in star power.

The transition means new faces, and new faces inject parity into the SEC in 2014.

"Some guys are going to have a chance to make a name for themselves. How many seasons start out where you just don't know what a guy's going to do?" said Georgia coach Mark Richt, putting a positive spin on the influx of new signal callers. "Even Jameis Winston, Johnny Football, their first year of starting, all of a sudden they win the Heisman. So anything can happen with a guy who gets his opportunity.

"I wouldn't count out the quarterbacks in this league to play great."

Georgia (Hutson Mason), Missouri (Maty Mauk) and South Carolina (Dylan Thompson) have settled on first-year starters who stepped in to start at least one game as backups in 2013. Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt have haven't tapped a starter at all, adding intrigue to the preseason practices that ramp up around the country in the coming week.

When Alabama practice begins, it's a (somewhat) official start to head coach Nick Saban's task to make decision between two quarterbacks who have only played in mop-up duty in college - senior Blake Sims and junior Jake Coker, who transferred in from Florida State this summer.

Saban knows what he wants to see from the eventual winner.

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"I think every quarterback has to go through sort of a process of development because three things that are critical factors to me at quarterback is decision making, processing information quickly, making quick, good decisions," Saban said. "Two out of three of those things are a little bit innate in terms of a guy understanding a system, feeling confident in application of that system so they can make good choices and decisions, can lead, can be accurate, to enhance the players around him. That's the challenge with a young quarterback.

"How long is it going to take that guy to go through that process? How long is it going to take him to where he can do those things effectively and gain the respect of his teammates and have an effect on them so that you play well together as a unit? I think that's the biggest challenge."

The Plan

Like Saban, the other six SEC coaches in the same predicament have expectations of what it takes to win the position and a plan to acclimate their new quarterback to the starting role. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen said he tries to get backups meaningful game reps in crucial situations the year prior.

"It's the comfort of them in situations that you need more than maybe the playbook," he said.

Others, like South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, hope to reap the benefits of what was a detriment 2013: A starting quarterback injury opening the door for the backup to see significant work. Thompson, a fifth-year senior, takes over for the Gamecocks.

"If they've been with the team two or three years, they go to practice everyday. It's just a matter of whether if they can play with big crowd, when they put the game uniform on and so forth," Spurrier said of preparing a quarterback. "It's sort of like golfer, there are a bunch of us who look pretty on the range, and then we get on the course, what happened to that range swing? All sports are like that, can you play when you're under the gun, the fourth quarter, all that stuff."

Auburn head coach (and play caller) Gus Malzahn, one of the few SEC coaches bringing back a proven starter - 2014 All-SEC pick Nick Marshall - is well-versed in quarterback orientation. He coached Marshall and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton to huge seasons as first-year starters, and even with those players, Malzahn says it can take a month before a coach is willing to let go of the reins.

"Sometimes there's some growing pains, especially early in the season as you're learning your quarterback," Malzahn said. "In the past it's usually taken me three or four games to really get a good feel for how (a new quarterback) reacts to success, adversity, pressure, really all the different situations that come across in a game.

"When we had Cam, it really took a good four games where I really knew fully what his strengths were, which he had a lot of them, really try to build around those."

New in Tuscaloosa

At Alabama, many believe that Coker has a leg up on Sims at this point. With nothing to gain from naming a leader before camp begins, Saban has offered no clues as to where things stand between his top two options.

Saban will likely use at least the majority of camp before announcing a starter for the opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30. He hasn't even ruled out using two quarterbacks in some fashion. MP<> "Whoever Nick Saban trusts the most. That's who's going to be the guy," former UA quarterback Greg McElroy told TideSports.com in April. "That's the guy who is going to make smart decisions, be efficient with the football, take completions when they are there, throw it away when it's not there and make the smart, football-minded play.

"The guy who limits the mistakes and gets explosive plays is going to be the guy. That also has to do with holding yourself to a higher standard in the classroom, being a leader off the field, all of those things would come into play I would imagine, and I'm anxious to see it."

Fans may clamor to know who will lead their team in 2014, but it's hard to argue with Saban's process.

In eight seasons at UA, Saban has only needed to field two first-year starting quarterbacks: McElroy in 2009 and AJ McCarron in 2011. Both won national championships in Year One.

Saban has also seen his new quarterbacks translate fairly quickly.

In McCarron's first four games as a starter, he was 65 of 95 passing (68.4 percent) for 779 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. McElroy numbers were similar: 63 of 93 passing (67.7 percent), 938 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

Ready to roll?

It's a new-look league, but history proves that a new quarterback doesn't make or break a season. In fact, five of the last nine SEC Champions have won with a first-year starter under center.

Who knows, that quarterback you don't know much about may be the answer.

Just grab your game program, study all those unfamiliar names and buckle in.

"It's an unknown quantity of guys," Richt said. "You don't know exactly what's going to happen with these guys. I wouldn't say that the quarterback play is going to be down. We'll just have to wait and see."

Reach D.C. Reeves at 205-722-0196 or dc.reeves@tuscaloosanews.com.



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