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September 23, 2010

SEC QBs: A cadre of quality signal callers

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Greg McElroy owns a national title at Alabama, Stephen Garcia has South Carolina off to its best start in three years and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas may be the country's best passer.

For a league known for punishing defenses and overpowering ground games, the Southeastern Conference has a group of quarterbacks getting things done through the air.

"It's something," Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. "You can't take a week off in the SEC."

Especially this season. Nearly a month into the season, according to STATS LLC, passing statistics in the SEC are up in most categories from last year. Quarterbacks have completed 62.9 percent of their throws, compared to less than 58 percent a year ago. And it's no coincidence that the best quarterback play has come from the top teams.

McElroy, Mallett and Garcia are among the top four in SEC completion percentage and their teams are all undefeated and ranked in the top 12.

"I think that in the SEC, if you look at the teams that win the conference or that play for the national championship from our conference, they're normally the teams that have the better quarterbacks and the teams with the more experienced quarterbacks," said Tee Martin, Kentucky's receivers coach and the quarterback on Tennessee's 1998 national championship team.

It's not just the experienced quarterbacks making their marks under center.

John Brantley has kept Florida winning despite a few offensive bumps in its post-Tim Tebow era. Georgia is 0-2 in the SEC, but freshman Aaron Murray has been poised and confident as Bulldogs quarterback. Auburn's 6-foot-6 Cam Newton, once Tebow's backup at Florida, has the Tigers undefeated and moving up the rankings.

For Auburn coach Gene Chick, the SEC looks a lot like the Big 12 when he was Texas' defensive coordinator and staring down skilled passers each game like Reggie McNeal at Texas A&M and Chase Daniel of Missouri.

"Every week someone was an off-the-chart quarterback," Chizik said. "Without me having faced all these different (SEC) guys this year, it appears to be that they're very talented and maybe similar to that."

Two of the SEC's best square off this week when McElroy leads top-ranked Alabama into No. 10 Arkansas to face Mallett, the country's leader in passing yards.

McElroy, who helped the Crimson Tide to last year's national championship, has completed better than 70 percent of his throws this season. However, McElroy readily acknowledges that with runners like Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson he's not asked to do the same things as Mallett.

"Fortunately for me, I have a lot of weapons at my disposal," McElroy said. "The fact that we do have such a capable running game means I am not asked to do as much."

Mallett has done plenty for Arkansas already this season. The 6-foot-6 junior, already considered a top 10 NFL prospect, may have increased his profile when he threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns in a dramatic 31-24 victory at Georgia. Mallett connected on 40-yard TD pass to Greg Childs with 15 seconds left for the game winner after the Bulldogs rallied to tie after trailing 24-10.

"This has got to be one of the greatest moments I've felt since I've played the game of football," Mallett said.

Bigger moments could be ahead for Mallett.

The same might be true at South Carolina with fourth-year junior Garcia playing with more maturity and poise. The Gamecocks are seeking their first 4-0 start since 2001 when Lou Holtz led to a 9-3 mark. South Carolina has struggled to play as well under Steve Spurrier and Holtz has no doubt why.

"It all starts with consistent play from the quarterback," Holtz said.

Spurrier changed the game in the SEC during 12 successful seasons at Florida, daring defenses to slow down his "Fun-n-Gun" attack and sending several Gator passers like Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman to the NFL.

The SEC passing numbers look strong now, Spurrier says, but will come down as league play continues.

"I think SEC defenses are certainly tougher than most of the other conferences around the country," Spurrier said. "So when you play conference games, maybe there's not as quite as many passing yards."

Then again, those strong defenses could lead to improved quarterback play.

Former South Carolina quarterback Todd Ellis, now the team's radio play-by-play announcer, says young SEC quarterbacks have no choice but to pick things up quickly if they hope to gain playing time. So they study more film, put in more reps on the practice field and do what they must to beat the league's top defenses and best coordinators.

The SEC has also done a better job seeking out and developing quarterbacks to do more than hand off to featured tailbacks.

Georgia freshman "Aaron Murray is a perfect example," Ellis said. "He was a highly recruited kid, but clearly he's playing like an elite quarterback."

And expect the country's best conference -- winners of the past four national championships -- to continue chasing the country's best high school quarterbacks, said Martin, the Kentucky assistant.

"Success in this league is directly associated with having a great quarterback," he said.


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