STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Many of the questions that surrounded Southeastern Conference quarterbacks before the season remain unanswered.
In fact, there could be more right now.
Some teams already are resorting to backup plans.
South Carolina will start its third different quarterback Saturday when freshman Lorenzo Nunez takes the field against Central Florida. Nunez replaces Perry Orth, who struggled in a 52-20 loss to Georgia last week after being pressed into duty when a separated shoulder and bruised hip sidelined starter Connor Mitch.
This marks only the second time Steve Spurrier has started a true freshman quarterback in his 26-year head coaching career. Jesse Palmer started one game for Florida as a freshman in 1997 when Spurrier was coaching the Gators.
“That’s just where we are right now,” the South Carolina coach said.
Some other quarterback flips have come after questionable performances.
Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson, the media’s pick as the preseason second-team all-SEC quarterback, has been benched after throwing six interceptions in the Tigers’ first three games. Redshirt freshman Sean White, who hasn’t taken a snap in a college game, starts Saturday against Mississippi State.
Jake Coker started Alabama’s first two games of the season before Cooper Bateman got the call for last week’s 43-37 loss to Mississippi. Coker replaced Bateman after Alabama fell behind and is expected to start Saturday’s game with Louisiana-Monroe. Coker and Bateman have thrown a combined five interceptions in the 12th-ranked Crimson Tide’s last two games.
“We’ve got to throw the ball to the right place at the right time and we can’t throw it to the other guys,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “That’s probably the No. 1 issue.”
Florida has tried both Will Grier and Treon Harris. Gators coach Jim McElwain announced Wednesday that Harris has been suspended for Saturday’s game with Tennessee.
Despite the uncertainty, SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, quarterback of Alabama’s 2009 national championship team, takes issue with the notion that this is a down year for signal-callers in the conference.
McElroy believes the quarterback situations have improved at a number of SEC schools since this point a year ago. He cites No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 8 LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida as examples.
“Is it really an epidemic?” McElroy asked. “Or is it just a matter of perception and us becoming a little bit too overzealous with our praise going into the season, especially with that of Jeremy Johnson at Auburn?”
There is certainly plenty of room for improvement.
Kentucky’s Patrick Towles was 8 of 24 for 126 yards with two interceptions in a 14-9 loss to Florida last week. A week earlier, Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs went 13 of 31 in a 31-24 overtime loss to Oklahoma. Missouri’s Maty Mauk has completed just 52.5 percent of his passes. Vanderbilt’s Johnny McCrary has more interceptions than touchdown passes.
Two of the SEC’s hottest quarterbacks are Atlantic Coast Conference transfers.
Chad Kelly was kicked off the Clemson squad last year after arguing with coaches on the sidelines during the spring game. After leading East Mississippi Community College to a national title, Kelly transferred to Ole Miss, where he is ranked second nationally in passing efficiency.
Greyson Lambert headed to Georgia as a graduate transfer after losing his starting job to Matt Johns at Virginia. Lambert set an NCAA single-game record for passing accuracy last week by going 24 of 25 in the seventh-ranked Bulldogs’ blowout of South Carolina.
That doesn’t mean either quarterback has arrived just yet.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said this week that Kelly played “average,” though he also called his quarterback a winner and said “he has an it factor to him.”
“There were about three or four times that we missed on explosive plays because he is glued in and not going through the progression he needs to go through,” Freeze said. “We need to coach him better and get him more prepared.”
One week before his record-setting performance against South Carolina, Lambert threw seven straight incompletions to open Georgia’s game against Vanderbilt. Ole Miss and Georgia are joined in the Top 10 by LSU, where Brandon Harris has thrown just 31 passes while playing alongside NCAA rushing leader Leonard Fournette. Harris has avoided mistakes, as LSU is one of only three Football Bowl Subdivision teams without a turnover.
There doesn’t seem to be a single SEC quarterback that doesn’t have something to prove.
“It’s still too early to really say there’s a problem with the quarterback play in the SEC,” McElroy said. “I think there are a lot of talented guys. It’s going to come down to consistency. That’s what it always comes down to at the quarterback position.”
AP Sports Writers R.B. Fallstrom, Gary Graves, Pete Iacobelli, Mark Long, Charles Odum, Teresa Walker and John Zenor and AP freelance writer Bryan Lazare contributed to this report.
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