Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano leads SI.com's list of 10 quarterbacks to watch in the class of 2016.
While the drama of National Signing Day awaits, the recruiting battles for top quarterbacks are long over. Several have already moved into their dorms and joined their new programs, and many made their commitments early.
The only lingering intrigue was five-star Jacob Eason’s flirtation with Florida (which ended with him sticking with his earlier Georgia commitment) and four-star Feleipe Franks’s November flip from LSU to Florida.
While the fight to land the top high schools passers is over, attention now turns to what those passers bring to their respective schools and when the college football world might see them on the field. For some, that could happen as soon as this fall while others may have to wait a year or two. All 10 quarterbacks on this list, though, are unquestionably part of their school’s offensive futures.
Jarrett Guarantano, No. 3 QB, committed to Tennessee
Although Joshua Dobbs gives Tennessee a reliable option for 2016, Tennessee fans have ample reason to be excited about their future with Guarantano under center. The highest-rated QB recruit to Knoxville since Jonathan Crompton in ’05, Guarantano shows great accuracy both from the pocket and on the run and knows how to read defenses. Although a capable runner, Guarantano says he likes that Tennessee’s offense doesn’t “rely on the quarterback to run so much, but they also ask the quarterbacks to pick up a few yards if [need be].”
With Dobbs entering his senior season, Guarantano could assume the starting role in 2017 if he can beat out Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones, both former four-star recruits from the Volunteers’ 2015 recruiting class. Guarantano says he’s working on his touch throws—while also “getting the footwork down to match it”—and is looking forward to playing with Jalen Hurd, Tennessee’s rising junior tailback who rushed for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns in ’15. To get a chance to actually play alongside Hurd, the 6’4”, 195-pound prospect will need to live up to expectations right away.
Shea Patterson, No. 1 QB, enrolled at Ole Miss
Chad Kelly’s return ensures we’ll have to wait at least a year to see the top-rated quarterback in this year’s recruiting class to the field, but Patterson is sure to factor into an SEC West title race at some point. The No. 4 overall recruit in this year’s class is noted for his accuracy, awareness and ability to make throws on the run. By enrolling early, he’ll have a full year of time with the Rebels before he seeks to succeed Kelly as the starter.
Jacob Eason, No. 2 QB, enrolled at Georgia
Unlike Guarantano and Patterson, Eason immediately should be in the mix for the starting job at Georgia. Starter Greyson Lambert returns after a relatively error-free season (just two interceptions in 2015), so nothing will be handed to Eason. But Lambert offered little proof he was the type of quarterback who could lead the Bulldogs to an SEC title and playoff berth; Eason has that potential. New coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will give him the chance to prove he can live up to the hype right away.
Feleipe Franks, No. 4 QB, enrolled at Florida
Had Eason flipped to Florida, Jim McElwain would have had an abundance of wealth in the form of young, talented quarterbacks. Instead, the Georgia-Florida rivalry will add a new element as Eason and Franks could go up against one another three or four times over their careers. Will Grier’s decision to transfer from Florida following his suspension for performance-enhancing drug use leaves the Gators with Treon Harris as their only lettering returning quarterback. However, transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby join the mix, so Franks won’t be the only new name vying for the starting job this off-season.
Shane Buechele, No. 9 QB, enrolled at Texas
After a 5–7 season in which quarterbacks Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes combined to throw for 1,751 yards and nine touchdowns (both last in the Big 12), coach Charlie Strong can’t afford loyalty or patience with his returning passers. That means Buechele will have a solid opportunity to win the job beginning in spring practice. Even if he can’t win over new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert in time to start Week 1, don’t rule out Buechele taking over mid-season if Heard or Swoopes struggle.
Zerrick Cooper, No. 11 QB, committed to Clemson
With a Heisman finalist returning, Clemson has little to worry about at quarterback in 2016, and Cooper is unlikely to factor into coach Dabo Swinney’s immediate plans. However, another stellar season for Deshaun Watson likely will lead to him leaving for the NFL, creating an opportunity for Cooper in ’17. The Tigers recruited two quarterbacks in last year’s class, but neither Kelly Bryant nor Tucker Israel was as highly touted as Cooper, a four-star dual-threat quarterback. A redshirt season spent learning the offense and improving his arm strength could position Cooper to fill Watson’s outsized shoes.
Brandon McIlwain, No. 12 QB, committed to South Carolina
The highest-rated quarterback to commit to South Carolina since Scout.com began ranking recruits in 2002, McIlwain could take over the starting job this fall. Four Gamecocks quarterbacks who attempted passes this past season return for ’16, including starter Perry Orth, so it’ll be a crowded competition. But after South Carolina ranked ninth in the SEC in passing yards, new head coach Will Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper have little reason to rely on only returning talent. McIlwain’s arm strength and ability to make plays outside of the pocket could win him the job.
Nick Starkel, No. 27 QB, committed to Texas A&M
The drama that has surrounded Texas A&M’s quarterbacks since Johnny Manziel makes any new addition interesting. As a three-star recruit, Starkel isn’t as highly regarded as any quarterback the Aggies have brought in since before Manziel, but Scout.com praises his quick release and good pocket presence. The transfers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray leave Texas A&M short on bodies, but Starkel still likely enters at third on the depth chart behind Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight and former JUCO passer Jake Hubenak.
Patrick O’Brien, No. 17 QB, committed to Nebraska
Starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. returns for his senior season after passing for 3,030 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015. But Armstrong’s accuracy problems (55.2% completion percentage and 16 interceptions) leave room for improvement, possibly creating some wiggle room for O’Brien to exploit. The Cornhuskers didn’t sign a quarterback last year and haven’t brought in a passer as highly ranked as O’Brien since Armstrong. Even if O’Brien doesn’t pull the upset to win the starting job this fall, the 6’4”, 230-pound four-star is certainly a key part of coach Mike Riley’s future plans under center.
Jake Zembiec, No. 29 QB, enrolled at Penn State
The Christian Hackenberg era is over in Happy Valley, so Zembiec, who enrolled early, joins the competition to replace him. The three-star passer with commendable pocket awareness, poise and dual-threat ability fits James Franklin’s offense well but will have to beat out rising sophomore Trace McSorley and redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens, both former three-star recruits. Former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead takes over offensive coordinator duties for the Nittany Lions, so at least McSorley and Stevens won’t have a relationship edge on Zembiec.