There is no substitute for experience, but for Steve Spurrier there’s always a substitute for his quarterback.
It’s likely that no college coach has made more changes — in-game, in between games or in a moment of anger — over the last two decades than Spurrier, the man currently in charge at South Carolina who also led Florida to a national championship.
Spurrier played the position in the Southeastern Conference and in the NFL and he has coached some of college football’s most prolific performers at that spot. As such, he arguably has developed a greater sense of what it take to play there than anyone else.
“Certainly, experience helps,” he said. “The ability to think clearly and make quick decisions helps. Training, experience, practice, practice, practice. All those things are very helpful. Certainly you have to have ability to start with.”
Three years ago, Tim Tebow obviously had the ability when he went to the University of Florida following a high school career during which he was a two-time All-State selection and a Parade All-American at Jacksonville Nease.
Since then, he has accumulated an unprecedented wealth of experience, which included the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore and two national championships in the past three years.
Based on his talent alone, he probably would make Florida the team to beat in the SEC this fall. However, he far outdistances any of his conference peers when it comes to experience as well.
“My belief in quarterbacks is when you go out and recruit them or you’re looking for a guy that you want to lead your team, you want to find a guy that is a great leader, is a great competitor and is a proven winner,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “Tim has shown he can do all those things.”
With preseason practices set to begin this week throughout the conference, no one else has shown near as much. The uncertainty of who will perform well and who won’t at that position makes the 2009 SEC season a difficult one to predict.
And that uncertainty is evident on the practice fields of Vanderbilt and Tennessee as well, as incumbents have strong competition.
Here’s a rundown of the quarterback position in the SEC:
Been there, done that
• Tim Tebow (Sr.), Florida. Quite simply, he’s the guy every coach would like to have as his quarterback. His leadership and playmaking ability are unquestioned, and his name already shows up throughout the Gators’ record book.
“I promise you, if they ever lose a game again, it won't be because of him,” UT coach Lane Kiffin said.
• Jevan Snead (Jr.) , Ole Miss. Widely recognized as the best pure passer in the SEC, Snead looks to build on a 2008 campaign in which he had twice as many touchdowns (26) as interceptions (13). Plus, he enters the season with some buzz given that he got one coach’s vote (later changed to Tebow) for preseason All-Conference quarterback.
“Those first three or four games (in 2008), he wanted to be Superman every play,” coach Houston Nutt said. “ … So it took him about four, five games to really get going. I tell you, he's been very, very good.”
Time to prove it
• Stephen Garcia (Soph.), South Carolina. Garcia is the only quarterback on the roster with any game experience, which in his case is a mere eight games played and three starts. There are three newcomers, led by South Carolina high school player of the year Stephon Gilmore, just waiting for Spurrier to make a change.
“If we're to have a big year, (Garcia) has to really, really play well,” Spurrier said. “He's got to play a lot better than what happened last year.”
• Ryan Mallett (Soph.), Arkansas. Mallett was a highly coveted recruit out of high school when he signed with Michigan and his decision to transfer was a national story. If he fails to produce in coach Bobby Petrino’s second season, there is not one proven backup.
“One thing Ryan can really do is throw the deep ball,” Petino said. “If we can run the ball better and run the ball more consistently, it should open up our deep passing game and our ability to get the ball down the field.”
• Mike Hartline (Jr.), Kentucky. He started the first eight games of last season before he gave way to freshman Randall Cobb. He then was reinstalled as the starter for the Liberty Bowl and was named that game’s most outstanding offensive player.
Cobb will start this season as a wide receiver, and it’s up to Hartline to keep him there.
“Hartline should show marked improvement, and I believe he will,” coach Rich Brooks said. “…The people around Mike Hartline will be more experienced and better as well.”
It’s my turn
• Greg McElroy (Jr.), Alabama. At Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, he waited behind Chase Daniel and then set a national high school record with 56 touchdowns in his only season as a starter. Having sat behind John Parker Wilson, he’ll now have two seasons to make his mark with the Tide.
“He's a good leader; he's instinctive; players like him; he makes good decisions,” coach Nick Saban said. “… He's only going to get that experience by playing and making plays.”
• Joe Cox (Sr.), Georgia. Coaches and teammates have praised his leadership ability, which to this point he only has been able to display in practice. With Matthew Stafford in place, Cox attempted just 58 passes in the past three seasons.
“The success of this team is not all on my shoulders,” Cox said. “There are 10 other guys that get the job done as well. I won't carry the team.”
• Larry Smith (Soph.) and Mackenzie Adams (Sr.), Vanderbilt. Coach Bobby Johnson always is quick to add Jared Funk to the mix as well, but Funk has yet to play in a college game. Smith, on the other hand, started and distinguished himself in the Music City Bowl, and Adams has been an occasional starter over the last two years.
“We're not going to decide anything that early,” Johnson said. “I think it would be crazy to tell a guy he couldn't have a chance to compete for a starting position when you start practice.”
• Jonathan Crompton (Sr.) and Nick Stephens (Jr.), Tennessee. Both players started six games in 2008 and neither distinguished himself in doing so. With a new coaching staff and scheme, it honestly looks to be a job that’s up for grabs. Late last month, junior college All-American Nick Lamaison signed and potentially added to the confusion … make that ‘competition.’
“We have a great quarterback competition to look forward to,” Kiffin said.
• Jordan Jefferson (Soph.) and Jarrett Lee (Soph.), LSU. Jefferson is the one to beat off his performance at the Chik-fil-A Bowl (16-25, 142 yards, 1 TD, 25 rush yards), but with only two starts, he hardly is a proven commodity. Lee is big and strong and started eight games in 2008.
“We're fortunate, in my opinion, to have two guys that have experienced (SEC play), and at this point in time can look towards their development to happen a little bit more even and with more success,” coach Les Miles said.
• Kodi Burns (Jr.), Neil Caudle (Jr.), Chris Todd (Sr.), Tyrik Rollison (Fr.), Auburn. Burns and Todd each threw more interceptions than touchdown passes in 2008, Caudle threw just five passes without a pick or a TD. Rollison probably won’t open the season as the starter but could get there eventually.
“Our quarterback situation is going to be very unique,” first-year coach Gene Chizik said. “ … When you haven't locked down on a position and said, ‘This is my starter,’ that means it's up for grabs for everybody that walks through the doors.”
• Tyson Lee (Sr.), Chris Relf (Soph.), Tyler Russell (Fr.) Mississippi State. Lee is a former junior college All-American who started eight times for the Bulldogs in 2008, but Relf might be a better fit in coach first-year coach Dan Mullen’s offense. Russell is an in-state star and an option if the staff decides to focus on the future.
“Our quarterback battle will go on until I find that we have one true leader and a guy that's gonna win football games for us,” Mullen said. “That might be in two-a-day camp, that might be right before the first kickoff, (that) might be Week 4 for us.”