Taking an early look at Hunter Johnson, Tate Martell and more top quarterbacks in the recruiting class of 2017
Quarterbacks can make or break a recruiting class. Land a really good one, and it can overshadow a lack of depth at other positions. Pursue several to no avail, and that year’s haul won’t generate a lot of optimism about the future. It makes sense: There are countless examples of otherwise talented offenses that sputter without elite signal-callers. Conversely, top-flight passers can help paper over deficiencies at the skill positions.
But while quarterbacks are top recruiting priorities, any program looking to add one to its 2016 class around this time last year faced a major problem. A majority of the best QBs had already issued verbal commitments: Six of the top 10, according to Rivals.com’s latest rankings, to be exact. The remaining four have since announced their intentions in advance of National Signing Day.
It should come as little surprise, then, that many of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2017 have done the same. Seven of the top 10, according to Rivals.com, have made verbal pledges. While they won’t sign their National Letters of Intent for more than 14 months and it’s rarely safe to completely rule out the possibility of decommitments, these QBs are no strangers to the fan bases of the programs they plan to join.
Here is SI.com’s early look at the top 10 quarterbacks in the class of 2017.
Hunter Johnson (Tennessee)
In Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee already boasts one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC, a league that’s light on QB talent right now. The Volunteers have also done well to shore up the position for the foreseeable future, to the point that at least one blog is raising the question of whether the program is becoming “Quarterback U.” Tennessee signed three four-star quarterbacks in its 2015 class (Jauan Jennings, who later switched to wide receiver; Sheriron Jones; and Quinten Dormady) and has secured a verbal commitment from one in its 2016 class (Jarrett Guarantano, ranked the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the country).
Yet none of them are as highly regarded as Johnson, who committed to the Volunteers in August after passing for more than 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore at Brownsburg (Ind.) High. At the time, Johnson said one major factor in his decision was “the energy around Tennessee right now,” according to Rivals.com. He is yet another piece of evidence of how Butch Jones has recruited well at Tennessee despite producing mediocre results on the field. The third-year coach has prospects, including the nation’s top quarterback, buying into hype and excitement without the wins to back it up (so far). Volunteers fans will hope Johnson can help change the latter part.
Tate Martell (Texas A&M)
The optimism built over the first month of Texas A&M’s season—which featured wins over then-No. 15 Arizona State and Arkansas and a rise to No. 9 in the AP poll—has given way to consternation over a series of double-digit-point losses in conference play and, more notably, quarterback drama. But as sophomore Kyle Allen and freshman Kyler Murray battle for snaps this season (and probably the next one, too), the Aggies have another blue-chip signal caller set to enter the fold in 2017.
Martell created headlines when he committed to Washington as a 14-year-old. He reopened his recruitment after former Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian left for USC and pledged to the Aggies in August. “I love that it's a college city, and coach (Kevin) Sumlin and coach (Jake) Spavital are really great,” Martell said of his decision, according to Rivals affiliate AggieYell.com. “The offense fits me really well and the facilities there, the fan base—I mean, everything is unreal. I love everything about the school.”
Martell, who has been compared to former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel, currently plays at Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman—where he completed 62% of his passes for over 2,500 yards with 40 touchdowns against only two interceptions as a sophomore—after beginning his high school career at Poway (Calif.) High. Texas A&M does not have a quarterback committed in its 2016 class.
Shawn Robinson (TCU)
Speaking of Texas A&M quarterbacks … A former Aggies passer, Kenny Hill, could compete for TCU’s starting job after star Trevone Boykin moves on this off-season. But Hill—and the rest of the Horned Frogs’ QBs—may need to hold off Robinson in 2017. In June Robinson rebuffed reported scholarship offers from Texas, Baylor, LSU, Alabama and Michigan, among other programs, to commit to TCU, where co-offensive coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham have transformed a limited offense into one of the nation’s most explosive attacks. “Well, since the first time I visited TCU, I kind of knew in the back of my head that that's the place for me,” Robinson said when he committed, according to Rivals.com. “It's just the family atmosphere they have. I feel very comfortable around the coaches.”
Robinson, a proficient passer and dynamic runner, should fit well in the Horned Frogs’ up-tempo system. As a sophomore at Guyer High in Denton, Texas, he threw for more than 2,800 yards with 33 touchdowns against only five interceptions while adding over 1,400 yards and 17 scores on the ground. Other programs in the Lone Star State will undoubtedly continue to pursue Robinson in the months before signing day, but for now he represents one of the biggest recruiting wins of coach Gary Patterson’s tenure. The longtime TCU coach seemed excited when Robinson went public with his pledge.
Tua Tagovailoa (Uncommitted)
Former Oregon star and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota was a three-star prospect out of St. Louis High in Honolulu whose only other reported scholarship offer came from American Athletic Conference member Memphis. Programs are taking a different approach with the class of 2017 quarterback starring at Mariota’s high school alma mater. Tagovailoa already lists scholarship offers from more than 10 programs, including USC, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Nebraska. He passed for more than 2,500 yards with 33 touchdowns against only three interceptions as a sophomore and tacked on 576 rushing yards.
It’s easy to see why Ducks fans would be excited about the possibility of their program signing “the next Mariota,” particularly because current starter Vernon Adams Jr. will depart after this season. Yet at this point there seems a pretty good chance that Tagovailoa will end up playing for another Pac-12 program instead. In a lengthy feature on Tagovailoa this fall, Sports Illustrated’s Lindsay Schnell reported Oregon has expressed interest in Tagovailoa but has not extended him a scholarship offer. Meanwhile, the Ducks picked up a verbal commitment earlier this month from another class of 2017 passer, Basha (Ariz.) High’s Ryan Kelley, who ranks 10th in the country among pro-style QBs, according to Rivals.com.
Jake Allen (Florida)
Florida didn't sign a quarterback in its 2015 recruiting class after watching Jones decommit and end up at Tennessee and unsuccessfully attempts to flip Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Florida State’s Deondre Francois. The Gators have one passer in the class of 2016 committed, Manvel (Texas) High’s Kyle Trask, but he’s a two-star prospect. They’d like to add another player at the position in this cycle, with possible targets including former LSU commit Feleipe Franks.
Regardless of what transpires between now and signing day 2016, Florida fans can take comfort in the fact that their favorite program has a highly touted quarterback lined up for the next year. Not only is Allen a promising prospect—an accurate passer who impressed analysts this summer and threw for more than 1,100 yards with 13 touchdowns before announcing he would miss the remainder of the season at Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High due to a lower back injury—but he also plans to serve as a recruiter for the Gators. “I believe the quarterback is the leader of the football team, and because I committed to early, I take it upon myself to make sure I get the best guys to come play at UF with me,” Allen said in July, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I’m just trying to get my favorite guys to come join me at UF. The coaching staff didn’t ask me to do it. This is all me.” Among Allen’s reported targets are class of 2016 Miami commit Sam Bruce and uncommitted class of 2017 recruit Trevon Grimes.
Davis Mills (Uncommitted)
Mills took an unofficial visit to Stanford earlier this month and described his experience as “great,” saying that he “really liked the feel of the school and just how the coaches interacted with me really showed that they wanted me out there," according to Rivals.com. The Greater Atlanta Christian (Ga.) School standout’s stated interest in the Cardinal jibes with one prominent recruiting analyst’s description of him as a “high-academic kid.” Mills said a few months ago that he had talked with in-state power Georgia but that the two sides haven’t really communicated since the Bulldogs earned a commitment from another four-star quarterback in the class of 2017 (more on that below). While Mills has not indicated when he’ll pick a school, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week, “I kind of want to get it over with. But at the same time, I don’t mind waiting just to make sure I’m making the right decision.”
Mills is part of a strong crop of junior quarterback prospects in the Peach State. Though the group lacks a Deshaun Watson-level star, Mills joins Georgia commit Bailey Hockman (No. 93), uncommitted Chase Brice (No. 127) and Alabama commit Jake Fromm (No. 137) in the top 150 of Rivals.com’s national rankings. Of the four passers, Mills (No. 52) is the most highly regarded. He has backed up the hype through 11 games this season by completing more than 60% of his throws for over 2,100 yards.
Lowell Narcisse (Auburn)
In the preseason, SEC media members picked Auburn to win the conference championship. The optimism stemmed in large part from the belief that junior quarterback Jeremy Johnson would lead one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Instead, Johnson was benched after three games, and the Tigers’ attack has sputtered in SEC play. Narcisse can’t fix Auburn’s offense this year, but his commitment to the program in July should inspire hope that the Tigers' $4.1 million-per-year investment in Gus Malzahn will yield better returns than last-place division finishes.
Narcisse, who chose the Tigers over Clemson, Alabama and LSU, returned earlier this month after sitting out the regular season with a torn ACL. As a sophomore at St. James (La.) High, he threw for more than 3,100 yards with 31 touchdowns and ran for more than 1,400 yards with 18 scores. “I fit right into the program and can maximize my athletic ability,” Narcisse said in July, according to AL.com. “(Auburn) will be give me a great opportunity to show the talent that I have.” When Narcisse arrives on The Plains in 2017, he’ll join a projected quarterback rotation that includes current redshirt freshman Sean White, true freshman Tyler Queen, JUCO transfer John Franklin III and West Orange (Fla.) High’s Woody Barrett, the No. 17 dual-threat prospect in the class of 2016, according to Rivals.com.
Tristan Gebbia (Uncommitted)
Gebbia took an unofficial visit to Washington in November and received a scholarship offer, adding to a list that also includes Alabama, Arizona State and Miami, among other programs. The Calabasas (Calif.) High standout has taken multiple other trips this year, including to Nebraska. Rivals.com analyst Adam Gorney reported that it “seems like Arizona State and Nebraska have emerged as possible favorites in his recruitment” while conceding that it is “still too early to say one team definitely stands out most.”
It may be difficult at this point to predict where Gebbia will end up, but the program that does land him will be bringing in one of the nation’s most gifted passers. As a sophomore last season, he threw for more than 3,300 yards with 35 touchdowns, registered five rushing scores and led Calabasas to its first postseason win in more than a decade. “He has a major arm, can make all the throws and once he settled in and got into rhythm, the 2017 prospect moved the offense up and down the field with ease,” Gorney wrote of Gebbia after a Calabasas win in October. The Coyotes don't lack for star power: In addition to Gebbia, they feature Darnay Holmes, the No. 2 cornerback in the class of 2017, according to Rivals.com; and Keyshawn Johnson Jr., the No. 35 wide receiver in the same class and the son of three-time Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson, among several other talented prospects.
Chris Robison (Oklahoma)
In a three-month span earlier this year, Oklahoma stocked its quarterback depth chart for the post-Baker Mayfield era by earning verbal commitments from class of 2016 quarterback Austin Kendall and class of ’17 quarterback Robison. First-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley helped the Sooners—who did not take a QB as part of their 2015 recruiting class—land both signal callers, though Robison may possess more long-term potential and arguably projects as a better fit for Riley’s Air Raid scheme. As a sophomore at Mesquite Horn (Tex.) High last season, Robison passed for nearly 3,900 yards with 44 touchdowns and contributed three rushing scores. He has competed on Horn’s track team, profiles as a “dual-threat” passer and is already drawing comparisons to Mayfield, who has one season of eligibility remaining after ’15. “I loved OU and it was the greatest decision for me,” Robison told Rivals.com affiliate SoonerScoop.com in July.
Robison, who also lists scholarship offers from TCU and Oklahoma State, among other programs, was the first player in the class of 2017 to pledge to Oklahoma. The Sooners have since received a commitment from only one other player in that class, four-star defensive back Robert Barnes.
Bailey Hockman (Georgia)
Most Georgia fans probably aren’t spending too much time these days thinking about Hockman. There’s plenty to worry about on the quarterback front this season, as the Bulldogs’ passing offense has ranged from O.K. to putrid during conference play. There's also Jacob Eason, a five-star signal caller in the class of 2016 being hailed as the Bulldogs’ savior. Georgia fans are traveling to Washington to watch Eason play, and coach Mark Richt met him for breakfast the day after a recent win over Auburn. And that’s without mentioning Cartersville (Ga.) High’s Trevor Lawrence, a class of 2018 passer whom one recruiting service has already assessed a five-star rating and to whom the Bulldogs have already extended a scholarship offer.
But Hockman, who became the first member of Georgia’s 2017 class when he issued a verbal commitment in June, says he’s eager to compete with Eason when he arrives in Athens. “He’s a great player and obviously everyone knows that,” Hockman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country right now. He can play. The guy can flat-out play, but competition is what football is about. I’m going to push him, and he’s going to push me. We’re going to make each other better.” Under his father and head coach, Kyle Hockman, at McEachern (Ga.) High, Hockman passed for nearly 3,600 yards and 42 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.