Quarterback competitions abound in SEC exiting spring

Getty Images
1 Comment

Southeastern Conference teams are searching for the next Kyle Trask or Mac Jones, quarterbacks who emerged as stars in their first full season as starters.

Maybe it will be Alabama’s Bryce Young or Georgia’s JT Daniels, or some other young passer.

There are plenty of battles that appear to be ongoing since more than half the league teams ended spring practices with the quarterback competition continuing – or at least no announced starter.

Alabama’s Jones and Florida’s Trask shined once they took over the starting jobs during the 2019 season and were even better in their lone full season as starters, becoming Heisman Trophy finalists and leading their teams into the SEC championship game.

Both are waiting to hear their names called in the NFL draft this week.

Young, Jones’ backup as a freshman, is the front-runner in Tuscaloosa over Paul Tyson and freshman Jalen Milroe. But coach Nick Saban, like many of his peers, always waits until at least preseason camp to let things shake out before making a public declaration.

He called the nation’s top-rated passer in the 2020 class “the quarterback for right now,” meaning he’d be the first-teamer in the spring game.

“I think he’s showed good leadership,” Saban said during the spring. “He’s made good progress. I think he understands the offense. He’s worked hard.”

Georgia’s Daniels appears firmly entrenched as the Bulldogs’ starter after starting four games last season. His spring game performance – 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions – certainly didn’t hurt his cause. But the Southern Cal transfer was even better in the Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati.

Quarterback competitions around the SEC will remain a hot topic through preseason camps. A look at some of the most intriguing battles:

– Florida’s Dan Mullen has been stronger in proclaiming junior Emory Jones as the heir apparent to Trask. He has been the Gators’ primary backup the past two seasons and is more of a dual threat than Trask.

– LSU has three quarterbacks who started multiple games last season, though Myles Brennan would appear to be the favorite again. He replaced Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrows last season and was off to a good start before a torn abdominal muscle ended his season three games in.

TJ Finley logged five starts but Max Johnson replaced him for the final two games and won both in the Tigers’ disappointing follow-up to a national championship season. Freshman Garrett Nussmeier joins the group.

“There is no starting quarterback,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “They’re all competing and all four of them are very, very talented.”

– Tennessee left spring camp with another intriguing situation. Hendon Hooker, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, could face additional competition with former Michigan passer Joe Milton expected to arrive as a summer enrollee.

That would give first-year Volunteers coach Josh Heupel five scholarship quarterbacks, provided they all stick around.

– At Mississippi State, coach Mike Leach has insisted the quarterback battle was “wide open,” though Will Rogers started the final six games as a freshman. Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham also appears to be in the mix and freshman Sawyer Robertson arrives in the summer.

– Texas A&M must replace career passing leader Kellen Mond, with sophomores Zach Calzada and Haynes King topping the list of possible successors. Coach Jimbo Fisher wouldn’t provide any clarity on the situation after the final spring scrimmage.

“Everybody’s worried about the quarterback,” Fisher said. “That’s the last thing I’m worried about. I’m not worried about the quarterback. I’m worried about the pieces around him.”

– At Arkansas, former backup KJ Jefferson is the front-runner to replace Feleipe Franks, ahead of redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby. Jefferson passed for 274 yards and three touchdowns against Missouri when Franks was out with a rib injury.

– Sophomore Luke Doty is the front-runner at South Carolina, where he’s the only quarterback on the roster with experience. Ryan Hilinksi transferred to Northwestern.

– Kentucky’s battle appears to be between Beau Allen and Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.