KJ Jefferson and Joe Milton flex, Shane Beamer fumes: Week 1 SEC superlatives

The SEC experienced a changing of the guard at quarterback this offseason. After the first week of the 2023 season, the depth of the league at that position might’ve been a bit underrated — taking into account that it is only Week 1, of course.

No battle was more closely followed than the three-man race at Alabama, from which Jalen Milroe emerged to put on a historic debut, becoming the first Crimson Tide player with three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in one game. Milroe shared SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors with another quarterback, Tennessee’s Joe Milton, who answered questions about replacing a program star by accounting for four touchdowns himself. And Milton’s best throw of the day, a ball thrown on a rope from his own 15-yard line to the Virginia 20-yard line, was dropped.

Jaxson Dart held off multiple challengers to win an interesting quarterback battle at Ole Miss and threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns in his opening start. His 78 percent completion percentage was matched by Texas A&M’s Conner Weigman, who looked sensational under new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino. Georgia’s Carson Beck (294 yards, one touchdown) and Kentucky’s Devin Leary (244 yards, one touchdown) were solid as well. And the SEC’s proven commodities like Arkansas’ KJ Jefferson and Mississippi State’s Will Rogers picked up where they left off. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler and LSU’s Jayden Daniels flashed in losing efforts.

Week 2 will allow for more declarative statements about the SEC’s quarterback play. Notable games include Alabama vs. Texas, Ole Miss at Tulane, Texas A&M at Miami, Auburn (with transfer Payton Thorne) at Cal and Vanderbilt (with returning starter AJ Swann) at Wake Forest. Should be a fun slate.

It’s early, but it appears that the upcoming wave of quarterbacks are ready to fill big shoes and stake their own claims as marquee players in the SEC. And a few of them have a chance to step into a bigger spotlight with a second strong outing next weekend.

Let’s take a look at the best and worst from the SEC this week.

The teams that won in Week 1 won big — the average margin of victory in the league’s 11 wins this weekend was 41 points — but Tennessee gets the nod in this category for supplying the SEC’s lone win over a Power 5 school, and by 36 at that.

There were ebbs and flows early on. The Volunteers scored on their opening drive, but the offense sputtered after that until successive scores just before halftime. Tennessee opened the second half with touchdowns on three of four possessions to pull away.

Milton’s big day attracted the attention, but Tennessee’s rush offense (5.5 yards per carry and five touchdowns) led by returners Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright was notable as well. The Vols’ defense held Virginia’s offense to just 3.1 yards per play while recording four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Hard to beat an opening day like that.

Best play: KJ Jefferson, Arkansas

Jefferson picked up where he left off last season with a play that encapsulates why he’s one of the league’s most exciting players, brushing off a would-be tackler to find a receiver for a first down during the Razorbacks’ win over Western Carolina.

Western Carolina linebacker Va Lealaimatafao, listed at 6 foot 1 and 235 pounds, shot a gap in Arkansas’ offensive line and had a clean shot at Jefferson. Jefferson wasn’t bracing for the hit — he was actually in his throwing motion — yet he was still able to absorb that contact, bounce off it, roll out and find a receiver for the first down. Expect highlight reel-type plays regularly from Jefferson this season.

Best freshman debut: Kyle Ferrie, Mississippi State

Breaking in true freshman kickers can be an adventure, but Mississippi State’s Kyle Ferrie earned Co-SEC Freshman of the Week honors after nailing two important kicks for the Bulldogs last Saturday. He hit from 47 yards to score Mississippi State’s first points of the season, and then he connected on a 49-yarder as time expired in the first half. Ferrie went 6 for 6 on extra points too.

Others of note: Alabama’s Caleb Downs, Ole Miss’ Suntarine Perkins and Ferrie’s teammate Creed Whittemore.

Best transfer performance: WR Tre Harris, Ole Miss

It’s one thing for a newcomer to make an impact in his debut; it’s another thing to make school history. That’s exactly what Louisiana Tech transfer Tre Harris did in his Ole Miss debut, setting a record with four touchdown receptions. He finished the 73-7 win over Mercer with six catches for 133 yards.

Best coaching debut: Bobby Petrino, Texas A&M

One of 2023’s biggest preseason questions was how Texas A&M’s offense would fare under new coordinator Bobby Petrino. New Mexico has only seven wins over the last three seasons, but Aggies fans should still be encouraged by what they saw in Saturday’s 52-10 win.

Texas A&M scored a touchdown on its first five possessions. The offense produced six pass plays of 15-plus yards and six runs of 10-plus yards. The Aggies only saw third down seven times in total, converting three of them, and scored 52 points despite holding the ball for almost 10 minutes less than New Mexico. Making sweeping declarations against that level of competition is never the best idea, but it was a much prettier opening start than last season, when Texas A&M didn’t score more than 31 points in a game until the regular-season finale.

Biggest coaching blunder: Harold Perkins’ usage against Florida State

LSU needed Harold Perkins to have a big night against Florida State. As a freshman last season, Perkins wreaked havoc on offenses from the edge, but head coach Brian Kelly opted to move him to inside linebacker to make it harder for offenses to account for him in the game plan. The move had the opposite effect on Sunday night. Perkins was virtually a non-factor against the Seminoles, finishing with five tackles (two solo). He played a career-high 28 snaps in coverage and just seven rushing the passer.

“He’s playing a position for the first time, so there’s a learning curve there,” Kelly said after Sunday night’s loss. “He’s learning how to play linebacker for the first time. We put him in a position last year where he was ‘See ball, get ball.’ Now he’s in a position where, you know, he’s got to get over the top. He’s got a back coming out of the backfield. He’s got to be disciplined and can’t lose his eyes on the quarterback mesh.”

LSU had zero sacks against Florida State on Sunday. Perkins was a first-team All-SEC selection last year with 7.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. See ball, get ball was exactly what the Tigers needed.

Runner-up blunder: Florida puts two No. 3s on the field 

By now you’ve probably seen it, but it’s worth mentioning again that Florida was flagged for fielding two players wearing No. 3 on a fourth-and-short, handing Utah a first down to extend an eventual touchdown drive. It was the lowest of lowlights for the Gators in their dreadful season opener.

Postgame quote of the week: Shane Beamer

There wasn’t a lot to like from South Carolina’s 31-17 loss to North Carolina. The Gamecocks finished with minus-2 rushing yards, nine sacks allowed, a 4-of-14 conversion rate on third down and an 0-for-4 mark on fourth down. An overall frustrating night for Beamer came to a head when he did not receive a stat sheet at the postgame presser.

“It’s kind of the story of the night,” Beamer said. “The clock was wrong the whole game. We’re trying to kick an onside kick to start the second half and we gotta wait on the chain crew because they’re eating a hot dog. That’s the only disappointing thing about tonight.”

For what it’s worth, South Carolina recovered the onside kick anyway. But that’s the only disappointing thing? OK then.

Runner-up: Lane Kiffin 

The Ole Miss head coach hired former Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding to run his unit, and the defense got off to a less-than-desirable start by allowing a 75-yard touchdown on Mercer’s first play from scrimmage. Ole Miss cruised to 73-7 victory after that play, but Kiffin wouldn’t be Kiffin if he didn’t troll.

“I said on the headset that we paid a lot of money, Pete, for you and that’s not what we’re expecting,” Kiffin said. “That wasn’t a really good start but after that they did tell me that we only allowed 14 yards rushing, so maybe my joke he responded to.”

Never change, Lane.

Coolest moment: Mike Leach honored in Starkville

Mississippi State honored its former coach Mike Leach after the first quarter of its season-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana, the first home game since Leach’s death in December. The Leach family was on hand and received a framed jersey from Mississippi State president Mark Keenum and athletic director Zach Selmon. A tribute video was played against the backdrop of a stadium full of ringing cowbells, and the family was given a framed copy of the executive order that all flags on state buildings and grounds would be flown at half-staff for a day in remembrance of Leach’s legacy. And for his first win at Davis Wade Stadium, new coach Zach Arnett received the game ball.

(Photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)

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