By Nick Bromberg and Sam Cooper
Congratulations on making it through another year of SEC Media Days.
Media days came to a conclusion on Thursday with South Carolina, Auburn and Ole Miss each taking their turn in Birmingham on Day 4.
“Probably the biggest question mark about the team is who is going to be the starting punter.”
Above is a real quote from Gus Malzahn’s opening statement on Thursday, so you know he feels good about his Auburn team entering 2017. Another quote that epitomized Malzahn’s optimism was a comparison to the 2013 team that reached the national championship.
“Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team is that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013. That’s a good comfort for me,” Malzahn said.
“We’ve got a challenging schedule. We’ve got some great teams in our league. We play the defending national champions on the road week two. But I really like where we’re at. And just got that feeling where there’s a lot of excitement around our complex, not just with our coaches, but our players. And we’re really looking forward to the season.”
Auburn has “more starters back than we’ve had in the last 12 years,” Malzahn said, but the quarterback position has been a question mark in recent seasons. Now that he has Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham in the fold, Malzahn is more comfortable with the depth at the position. Still, he’s not ready to name Stidham the starter over Sean White just yet.
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“Probably the thing that I’m most excited about is we have quality depth and our quarterback position,” Malzahn said. “And that’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two years. That gives me, I know our coaches and our players, comfort.
“Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man. What he’s done since he’s been at Auburn, just his leadership. He’s really done a good job trying to win over his teammates and his work ethic. I’m very excited about Sean White. When Sean White’s healthy, he plays at an extremely high level. Last year when we got on that roll, that 6-game win streak, he was leading the league in completions and quarterback efficiency.”
Muschamp keeps things loose
Unlike most of the other coaches in the league, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp kept it light during his time at the podium.
Muschamp cracked jokes toward the media, about himself and about his team. He seemed at ease heading into his second season with the Gamecocks. The team exceeded expectations in Muschamp’s first year, reaching the Birmingham Bowl (a 46-39 loss to USF).
Speaking of that bowl game, Muschamp joked that he didn’t bring any defensive players to Media Days in Hoover — about 15 minutes from Birmingham — because “the last time he brought defensive guys to Birmingham it didn’t go real good.”
“We gave up a bunch of points and a bunch of yards,” Muschamp said. “So I didn’t know if they’d want to come, so I didn’t ask them.”
Joking aside, Muschamp did talk some football. He knows he has a young team, about 70 percent of which is comprised of underclassmen, he said. One of those young guys is quarterback Jake Bentley. Muschamp said the staff intended to redshirt Bentley, who skipped his entire senior year of high school to enroll early at USC, but his play on the scout team pushed him onto the field.
The Gamecocks were 2-4 when Bentley was inserted into the lineup. Muschamp rotated two others before finally making the switch. He did so after getting reassurance from athletic director Ray Tanner.
“After we had lost to Georgia, I went home that night and was just kind of going through in my mind just thinking what we need to do to improve,” Muschamp recalled. “I called Coach Tanner. I said, ‘Am I wrong to think we need to play a high school senior?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not telling you what to do. You can do whatever you want to do. If your gut tells you to do it, do it.’”
The next morning, Muschamp told offensive coordinator Kurt Roper it was time to give Bentley a chance. From there, the Gamecocks won four of five down the stretch.
Having a young quarterback in place allows Muschamp and company to continue to build around him.
“If you have an established guy at that position, it helps your skill recruiting offensively and helps your offensive line recruiting, and then it helps you on defense, because guys want to understand that having a guy at that position that can excel, you’re going to win games,” Muschamp said. “And that’s part of the process in recruiting is saying we’re going to win some football games. Which we are at South Carolina. No doubt.”
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Freeze has high hopes for quarterback Shea Patterson
Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson wasn’t supposed to play in 2016. The season, as planned by Ole Miss, was Chad Kelly’s.
But Kelly suffered a torn ACL in a game vs. Georgia Southern and missed the team’s final three games of the season.
Enter Patterson, who went from redshirt freshman to starting quarterback. As a sophomore in 2017, Patterson is the Rebels’ undisputed starter. And Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze didn’t shy away from praising Patterson and said his “ceiling is very high” as both a quarterback and a team leader.
“I think it’s a great, great question, and it has to happen,” Freeze said when asked by a reporter about Patterson being the face of the Rebels. “And I think the great thing is I think his ceiling can be really high. I don’t know that I can help him at all or that our coaching staff can help him with his release. It’s pretty good. One of the better I’ve seen coming out of high school. His feet can — you know, maybe [new offensive coordinator Phil Longo] can help him some with that. His running around, I wish we could take credit for training him to do that, but that just comes natural to him.”
After a 5-7 season in 2016, Ole Miss is serving a self-imposed bowl ban in 2017. So the Rebels will enter 2018 on a two-year streak without a bowl game.
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