By David Brandt
AP Sports Writer
HOOVER, Ala. — South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley vividly remembers the hit that welcomed him to the Southeastern Conference.
He was throwing a screen pass last season when Tennessee’s 6-foot-3, 260-pound Derek Barnett burst through the line and slammed him to the ground.
“That didn’t feel too good,” Bentley said with a grin Thursday at Southeastern Conference media days.
But Bentley proved to be a quick learner as a freshman, winning four of his seven starts. Now he’s part of a group of young SEC quarterbacks that could represent the league’s next generation of stars.
Though the SEC always has multiple first-round NFL draft picks, there’s been a drought at the quarterback position. The last SEC quarterback taken in the first round was Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2014 — and his brief stint in the NFL was disappointing.
The one recent success from the SEC is Dak Prescott, but he was a major surprise for the Dallas Cowboys after being drafted in the fourth round out of Mississippi State.
It remains to be seen if anyone from the current group — which includes Bentley, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Georgia’s Jacob Eason and Mississippi’s Shea Patterson and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald — can turn into the next Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford or Eli Manning.
But the early returns are encouraging, especially as it relates to the upcoming season.
“They have all the talent to be able to do it,” SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy said. “And I like the supporting cast that a lot of them have coming back. It’s just a matter of if improvements are made during the offseason and the rapport is developed with the receivers.”
“If it is, the offenses in this league could take a significant step forward.”
Hurts helped lead Alabama to the national championship game before losing to Clemson. The 6-foot-2, 214-pounder threw for 2,780 yards and 23 touchdowns while also running for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The ability to throw and run is a common theme for the league’s young quarterbacks.
Fitzgerald was one of the biggest surprises in the SEC last season, winning the starting job during fall camp before throwing for 2,423 yards and running for 1,375 yards. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder is extremely quick for his size and once he got going in the open field, he proved very difficult to bring down.
Eason led the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record in both his and coach Kirby Smart’s first season. Eason had some ups and downs, but finished with 2,430 yards passing, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Patterson, the Ole Miss freshman, was forced into action late in the season after senior Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury. He started just three games, but managed to throw for 880 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for 169 yards.
His relatively slight 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame and ability to improvise on running plays has drawn some comparisons to Manziel. He said he’s studied tape of Manziel to see how he moved in the pocket, but he’s especially partial to watching film of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
“You find yourself doing what they do — without even trying to do it,” Patterson said on Thursday at SEC media days. “But I want to be myself. I don’t want to be known as a comparison to anybody else.”
Bentley earned the starting job at South Carolina midway through the season and started the final seven games of the year. He threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns while completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.
Auburn transfer Jarrett Stidham could have a big impact as well. The sophomore threw for more than 1,200 yards as a freshman at Baylor in 2015. He’ll be competing with junior Sean White for the starting job.
“Our quarterback depth has been our Achilles’ heel,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “It’s been a frustrating deal for everyone. We’ve got that solved now.”
Florida finally has the numbers on its QB depth chart and has the talent for one of several players to emerge, being it veteran starter Luke Del Rio, who is recovering from surgery, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, who ended spring drills as the leader, or recent graduate transfer Malik Zaire from Notre Dame.
“We’re always looking to add to everything that we do and create competition,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “And ultimately it doesn’t matter what the profession you’re in, but true competition is something that really breeds excellence.
“We’re now up to finally our number in the scholarship count that we want to be in the quarterback room. We’ve got some real options there.”