LITTLE ROCK — Midway through Arkansas’ season, the time is right for a look at players trending toward All-SEC recognition at the glamor positions.
At both quarterback and running back, there are some surprises.
In category one are the Heisman Trophy winner, a two-time national champion, the league’s all-time passing leader, and a one-time chameleon. There is a case to be made for each of the “Ms” — Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger.
Depending on the back half of the season, two of the four are likely to be invited to New York for presentation of the Heisman. The twist is that Mettenberger could upstage both the invitees as the All-SEC quarterback if he continues to produce as he has during LSU’s 5-1 start.
Erratic last year, he has a league-leading quarterback rating of 190.1 with 15 touchdown passes against two interceptions; a year ago, it was 12 vs. seven. His completion percentage is up almost 10 points and his quarterback rating has improved more than 60 points. For perspective, his qbr in 2012 was only a couple of points better than the 122.7 Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen has accumulated by completing 34-of-77 the past two weeks.
With Florida dead ahead and Alabama a month away, LSU’s new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be a Broyles Award finalist if Mettenberger continues his impeccable play and the Tigers get to 11-1.
Lost in the glitz are the stats compiled by South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw whose quarterback rating of 173.9 includes seven touchdown passes and nary an interception. He is no Manziel on the move, but he can run and Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy demonstrated last week that mobility is of great value, extracting the Gators from a field position hole in the first quarter with a 19-yard completion after departing the pocket and buying time prior to his 51-yard TD pass just before half.
Manziel has the second-best quarterback rating at 188.1, McCarron has dead aim on a third national championship, while Murray has both mojo and opportunity. Murray orchestrated the game-winning drive against LSU and followed with a hurry-up drive against Tennessee that ended with his touchdown pass with five seconds to play. He gets bonus points because the Bulldogs did it without star running back Todd Gurley and Gurley’s backup. As long as Gurley is out, Murray must carry the load.
Gurley’s absence opens the door for other running backs in the league, much like last year when Arkansas’ Knile Davis and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore were preseason All-SEC, but did not make the all-team that matters. Unless he is hurt, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon will be All-SEC because voters understand the share-the-load system at Alabama and will let him slide on the stats.
If Gurley is out of the picture or does not play for a couple more weeks, LSU’s Jeremy Hill, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, and Arkansas’ Alex Collins — none of whom were on the first three units of the coaches’ preseason all-conference team — are the most likely beneficiaries. They are fourth, third, and first in the SEC in rushing yardage, but Hill had only six carries for 50 yards in the first two games and Davis has played one less game than Collins. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 215, Davis has topped 100 yards in four games and has carried 47 times in the last two games vs. 45 carries in the first three games.
Limited to 54 yards rushing by Florida’s superb defense, Collins also caught five passes vs. the Gators. Running back with Collins and Jonathan Williams was one of the few spots where Arkansas’ personnel was superior to the Gators’ and that tandem will be a point of emphasis for South Carolina on Saturday in Fayetteville.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.