Cameron Newton has abundant faith in No. 4 Florida’s new quarterback.
And he should know: Both were once Tim Tebow backups and potential heirs to the Heisman Trophy winner.
“The whole college nation will be hearing about John Brantley, because he’s an excellent quarterback,” Newton said.
Plenty will be hearing about Newton, too. He’s set to start his first game for No. 22 Auburn Saturday against Arkansas State. Newton just arrived by way of a Texas junior college while Brantley stuck it out with the Gators.
Newton and Brantley will have substantial company around the Southeastern Conference when the season opens, even if Jeremiah Masoli doesn’t wind up joining them.
Newton is one of five quarterbacks set to make their first start for an SEC team. The others are Aaron Murray (Georgia), Nathan Stanley (Mississippi), Matt Simms (Tennessee) and either Chris Relf or Tyler Russell (Mississippi State).
At least eight teams will open with starters who didn’t finish last season in that role. The combined passing numbers for the five returnees who saw SEC action in 2009: 1,658 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
That includes Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith and Kentucky’s Mike Hartline, who were sidelined with injuries at season’s end.
Having a new quarterback is not always a hindrance, particularly when the new guy is a longtime backup like Brantley. Alabama’s Greg McElroy led the Tide to a national championship last season in his first year as a starter but fourth in the program. And Arkansas’s Ryan Mallett, maybe the league’s only bona fide star passer going into opening weekend, put up big numbers quickly.
But it can make for quite an interesting ride. See Snead, Jevan.
After all, defenders in the SEC are fast, the hits vicious and the challenge considerable.
“You see a lot of quarterbacks that come through who are great and just struggle in the SEC,” McElroy said. “It’s so hard to play consistently in this league because week in and week out, you’re getting a team’s best shot. You’re getting a well-coached team, you’re getting a disciplined team, you’re getting a team that has big, fast athletes. That makes it difficult to be consistent.”
Just ask Stephen Garcia. The up-and-down South Carolina junior is the SEC’s most experienced quarterback but he’s being challenged by freshman Connor Shaw leading up to Thursday night’s opener against Southern Miss.
The Rebels’ situation is more up in the air. The NCAA denied Masoli’s request for a waiver after his transfer from Oregon. Ole Miss is awaiting results of an appeal.
“We were devastated,” coach Houston Nutt said Wednesday. “We were hurt by the decision, but it’s like I told our guys: It’s life. It’s why football’s the greatest teacher there is. There’s going to be ups and downs. But it’s not over with Jeremiah. Hopefully by Friday we’ll get a different answer but if not, we’re getting two quarterbacks ready to go.”
That would be the sophomore Stanley and JUCO transfer Randall Mackey. Stanley backed up the aforementioned Snead, throwing just 23 passes. Snead, a Texas transfer, was intercepted 20 times in his second season.
None of the first-time starters face FBS teams coming off winning seasons, which could help ease through the opening day jitters.
A look at the other new SEC quarterbacks:
_Brantley is the most high-profile new starter, because of his team’s record and his predecessor’s accomplishments. He’ll take the field against Miami (Ohio).
“I’m trying not to think about it too much so that I don’t get too nervous,” Brantley said. “It’s going to be a little nerve-racking running out there the first time, but if you’re not nervous then there’s something wrong. I’m excited. I just can’t wait for Saturday to come.”
_The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Newton won the Tigers’ starting job in the spring, and gives Auburn a dual threat to run coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense.
Newton transferred from Florida after getting charged with stealing a laptop (he says he bought it not knowing it was stolen). The charges were dropped after he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders.
“I think he’s a great quarterback,” Brantley said. “He’s a really smart football player. He knows the game of football. It’s just unfortunate because of his past but I think he’s going to do a great job at Auburn. I’m pulling for him.”
From Newton’s perspective, “I feel like the luckiest man on earth to be able to start for any Division I school.”
“We were just waiting our turn, and unfortunately he got the chance,” Newton said. “But I’m still in an excellent situation myself, so it worked out for the both of us.”
_No SEC team has less seasoning at quarterback than Georgia. Murray is a redshirt freshman, backed up by freshman Hutson Mason and two walk-ons. The only Bulldog player with game time at quarterback is Logan Gray, last year’s backup to Joe Cox and now a receiver.
No wonder coach Mark Richt said Georgia’s “quarterback room has got to be the youngest room maybe in the history of college football.”
But he’s been here before, having started David Greene and Matthew Stafford as freshmen.
_Mississippi State’s Relf was mostly a runner when he saw action last season, gaining 131 yards against Ole Miss. He did throw five TD passes. Russell is a redshirt freshman.
_At Tennessee, Simms beat out freshman Tyler Bray but he hasn’t even seen Neyland Stadium on a game day much less started.
“I have played it through my mind a million times, almost everyday since I have been here,” Simms said. “Even though each time I play it over in my mind it gets better, it’s not going to compare to when I actually do it for the first time. I am just going to try and stay focused and not keep my mouth wide open just looking around at the place.”
AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla.; Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn.; Charles Odum in Athens, Ga., contributed to this story.
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