By JOHN ZENOR
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — It is the year of the veteran quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
The SEC has eight returning starters at quarterback and could have as many as five graduate transfers leading offenses. The teams are hoping that’s a recipe for success in a league that hasn’t produced a first-round pick at quarterback since Johnny Manziel in 2014.
“I think it’s unique that you would have five graduate transfer quarterbacks possibly starting in our conference, and it’s also a really good year for the quarterback in the SEC,” said Kirby Smart, Fromm’s coach at Georgia. “It seems in my experience having been in the SEC for a lot of years, whether as a coach or a player, I don’t know that there’s been a year where there’s been so many quarterbacks that have the experience they have.
“Some of them may not have the experience at that university, but they have experience. That’s usually not a good sign for defensive coordinators in our conference. … It makes it really tough because that position determines a lot of the outcomes of games. That’s your leader and the guy that touches the ball every play.”
There’s little true star power beyond Fromm and Alabama’s Tagovailoa , the Heisman Trophy runner-up last season. Either or both could snap that first-round QB drought for a league that routinely sends a bounty of talent into the NFL at other positions. Both are also surrounded by talented playmakers and blockers.
Florida’s Feleipe Franks, LSU’s Joe Burrow and Kentucky’s Terry Wilson all are also back after helping lead their teams to 10-win seasons.
South Carolina’s Jake Bentley has started 32 games over the past three seasons. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond (20 starts) and Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano (18) have started in multiple seasons as well.
“I think it’s great for the league,” Fromm said. “You get great competition week in and week out, and that’s what everybody wants. That’s what everybody wants to see. We’re excited about it.”
Even most of the teams with new starters have seasoned vets, though Auburn and Mississippi will be starting freshmen.
The biggest name among the new guys is Missouri’s Kelly Bryant , who led Clemson to the national championship game two seasons ago. Bryant started 18 games but left after losing the starting job to talented freshman Trevor Lawrence.
His presence greatly eases the worries about replacing four-year starter Drew Lock. Even South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who faced Bryant at Clemson, predicts “a very smooth transition.” Muschamp praised Bryant’s accuracy and mobility.
“But I probably think his best attributes as a player is his intangible qualities,” the Gamecocks coach said. “The guy is an outstanding leader. He positively affects people around him. He gets guys going and believing in what you need to do to be successful.”
At Arkansas, graduate transfer Ben Hicks was a three-year starter at SMU while Nick Starkel is a former Texas A&M starter.
Vanderbilt has Riley Neal, who passed for 7,393 yards and 46 touchdowns over three seasons at Ball State.
Mississippi State grad transfer Tommy Stevens spent two seasons under coach Joe Moorhead at Penn State. He’s battling Keytaon Thompson for the starting job.
LSU’s Burrow started last year as a grad transfer from Ohio State. He finished a solid debut season with 394 passing yards and four touchdowns in a Fiesta Bowl win over Central Florida.
He’s the first LSU quarterback to pass for 2,500-plus yards and rush for at least 350 in the same season. LSU coach Ed Orgeron expects to free him up for more runs this season.
“He reminds me of Bobby Hebert, a quarterback that I played with who was a tremendous football player that had all of the intangibles of a leader,” Orgeron said. “Joe’s very tough. Joe’s going to lead by example. His team believes in him. We expect him to have a great year.”