COLUMBIA, S.C. — More and more the Southeastern Conference is turning to the air to pile up points.
It makes sense for the league traditionally built on running the ball and stout defense — the SEC may have never been deeper at the quarterback position than it is now.
Two of the top three passers in the country after the first full week of games hail from the SEC in Missouri’s Drew Lock and Mississippi’s Shea Patterson.
“There’s no doubt things are changing in the SEC,” said Todd Ellis, South Carolina’s quarterback from 1986-89 and now its play-by-play announcer.
Lock led a torrid offense with seven touchdowns and 521 yards passing as the Tigers put up 72 points and 815 yards overall in a win over Missouri State. Patterson, a sophomore, passed for 429 yards in his fourth career start, leading Ole Miss to a 47-27 win over South Alabama last week.
And they weren’t alone.
— Jake Bentley threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns as South Carolina had perhaps the most surprising win the conference, upsetting North Carolina State 35-28.
— Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur finished with 296 yards and two touchdowns in the Commodores’ 28-6 win over Middle Tennessee.
— First-year starter Quinten Dormady helped rally Tennessee with two touchdowns in the drama-filled 42-41 win over Georgia Tech.
It’s early, but the start is promising.
The SEC has produced its share of talented quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. And let’s not forget about the Manning family of father Archie and Super Bowl champions Peyton and Eli.
Steve Spurrier tweaked the old SEC philosophy at Florida with his ‘Fun-n-Gun’ attack in the 1990s.
Now, Ellis sees a transformative shift in offensive philosophy among SEC attacks.
He believes it’s a bottom up revolution with more high school prospects trained in the spread offense, giving SEC teams a bevy of quarterbacks well-skilled in the run-pass option and capable of throwing the ball all over the field.
And they only seem to get better.
Lock made his first start in 2015 and completed 21 of 28 passes and two touchdowns in a 24-10 win over South Carolina. He thought he had a the game all figured out. Then Florida came in the next week and knocked him around — he was sacked three times and threw a pick six in the Gators’ 21-3 win.
“Since then, I’ve learned a lot,” Lock said.
His seven touchdowns last week tied an SEC record while his yardage was the fifth most by an SEC quarterback.
Scout.com had Ole Miss’ Patterson rated as the No. 1 quarterback prospect when he signed two years ago. He started the last three games in 2016 when Rebels’ starter Chad Kelly was hurt, averaging nearly 300 yards a game with eight TDs.
Vanderbilt’s Shurmur, son of Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, also played some as a freshman in 2015 before taking over the starting job last season.
Commodores coach Derek Mason said Shurmur improved his decision making, throwing the ball away instead of trying to make something out of nothing.
“That’s a different Kyle Shurmur than we’ve seen the last couple years,” Mason said.
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp believes it’s more essential than ever to have a confident, skilled leader at the top of your quarterback depth chart. It’s one reason he inserted Bentley as the starter in the middle of last season with his offense struggling.
“He is the leader of your team because it affects everybody in your organization,” he said. “Having a natural leader in that position is certainly a benefit.”
That’s also true of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts , who as a freshman led the Crimson Tide to an undefeated regular season, an SEC title and a spot in the national championship game.
Hurts was poised and efficient in leading top-ranked Alabama to a 24-7 over Florida State.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said Hurts, who ended with 96 yards passing and a TD, had opportunities for more explosive plays that went awry against the Seminoles powerhouse defense, either due to missed assignments, poor throws or not letting a play develop.
Not everyone in the SEC is set at the quarterback position. There are a few QBs who will have to prove themselves in the league sooner than later.
No. 22 Florida started freshman Feleipe Franks then switched to Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire because of offensive problems in a loss to No. 8 Michigan.
No. 15 Georgia faces No. 22 Notre Dame without starter Jacob Eason, who sprained a knee ligament in beating Appalachian State. Freshman Jake Fromm will get his first start for the Bulldogs.
Whoever is behind center, Ellis believes the talent is there and teams will continue to attack downfield.
“It’s not going to stop,” the former Gamecocks signal-caller said, “when you have such talented players everywhere you look.”
AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi, Charles Odom in Athens, Georgia, Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama contributed to this report.