10 biggest quarterback battles to watch this spring
Quarterback competitions often aren’t settled until August or September, but spring practices offer an opportunity for players to grab the early edge heading into the summer. While some programs bring back accomplished veterans at the most important position on the field, others are hoping someone will emerge from a pack of candidates to claim the starting job. Below are 10 programs whose QB battles deserve your attention this off-season:
Options: Cooper Bateman, Jr.; David Cornwell, So.; Blake Barnett, R-Fr.; Jalen Hurts, T-Fr.
The Crimson Tide offense will feature a new starting quarterback for the third consecutive season. Junior Cooper Bateman started in Alabama’s only loss of 2015 (a 43–37 defeat to Ole Miss on Sept. 19) before being beaten out by Jake Coker. Now Bateman will face stiff competition from a trio of underclassmen: Sophomore David Cornwell, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts. Cornwell was considered a realistic option for QB1 status entering training camp last fall, while Barnett impressed in workouts last season and Hurts assisted Alabama in its preparation for the national championship game by simulating Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. Regardless of who emerges on top, Crimson Tide fans should have confidence in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin after his success in ’14 and ’15 with Blake Sims and Coker, respectively, under center. But don't expect a speedy resolution to this battle; Kiffin and Nick Saban have allowed the past two quarterback competitions to linger into the first few weeks of the season.
Options: Austin Appleby, Sr.; Luke Del Rio, Jr.; Feleipe Franks, T-Fr.; Kyle Trask, T-Fr.
Florida’s top quarterback from last season, Will Grier, decided to transfer after being suspended for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. The quarterback who played while Grier was suspended, Treon Harris, is switching to wide receiver. Where does that leave the Gators? Their QB battle will pit two true freshman (four-star prospect Feleipe Franks and two-star prospect Kyle Trask) against a redshirt junior (Luke Del Rio) who has transferred twice since walking on at Alabama and a graduate transfer (Austin Appleby) who was benched while leading one of the Big Ten’s worst offenses (Purdue) last season. None of those passers offers much hope for an offensive turnaround for the Gators after they ranked 11th in the SEC in points per game last season and were held under 10 points in two of their final three contests.
Options: Sean Maguire, Sr.; Deondre Francois, R-Fr.; Malik Henry, T-Fr.
The Seminoles appeared poised to make a smooth transition into the post-Jameis Winston era last season after landing Notre Dame standout Everett Golson as a graduate transfer. When Golson struggled at times, it created an opportunity for Sean Maguire to prove he was the best option to lead a Florida State team that will enter this season as a College Football Playoff contender. Maguire was O.K. in 2015, but the rising senior didn’t play well enough to stave off speculation that he could be supplanted in ’16 by one of two quarterbacks who have yet to attempt a pass for the Seminoles. Redshirt freshman Deondre Francois and true freshman Malik Henry, both of whom were ranked among the top 10 QBs in their respective recruiting classes by Scout.com, will look to take advantage of Maguire’s absence this spring while he recovers from ankle surgery.
Options: Greyson Lambert, Sr.; Jacob Eason, T-Fr.
Kirby Smart scored a huge victory for the Bulldogs before they even played their first game under his charge. The new Georgia coach helped convince Jacob Eason, the No. 2 quarterback in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, to stick with the program following the dismissal of former coach Mark Richt. An early enrollee, Eason will have an opportunity to make a strong first impression during spring workouts. If the Lake Stevens (Wash.) High product is as good as advertised, he should be able seize the starting job from senior Greyson Lambert. Lambert shined during an early-season win over South Carolina, setting the NCAA completion percentage record on 24 of 25 passing, but he failed to deliver in a marquee matchup against Alabama (a 38–10 loss), and Faton Bauta—who has since transferred to Colorado State—started over Lambert in the Bulldogs’ 27–3 defeat to Florida.
Options: John O’Korn, Jr.; Shane Morris, Jr.; Wilton Speight, So.; Alex Malzone, R-Fr.; Brandon Peters, T-Fr.
The biggest Michigan-related storyline this spring is the program’s decision to stage workouts at a high school in Florida loaded with elite recruits (IMG Academy). But don’t overlook the actual Wolverines players, particularly those involved in the quarterback competition. The most intriguing option may be John O’Korn, who spent last season working with the scout team after transferring from Houston. He was named the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in 2013 and totaled 4,068 passing yards and 34 touchdowns over two seasons with the Cougars. O’Korn will have to beat out returnees Shane Morris, Wilton Speight and Alex Malzone, as well as highly touted true freshman Brandon Peters, who can participate in spring drills after enrolling early. Zach Gentry, a four-star quarterback in the class of 2015, reportedly took reps at tight end during bowl practices.
Options: Tyler O’Connor, Sr.; Damion Terry, Jr.
One of the quarterbacks vying to lock down the Spartans’ starting job this season led them to one of their biggest wins in recent memory. With star passer Connor Cook battling a shoulder injury, Tyler O’Connor helped Michigan State edge Ohio State 17–14 in a rain-soaked November clash in Columbus. That upset put the Spartans in position to win the Big Ten East and earn a playoff berth. The quarterback who could push O’Connor this spring, junior Damion Terry, completed only one of his four pass attempts against the Buckeyes and two of seven overall last season. Unfortunately for both signal-callers, they’ll have to deal with frequent comparisons to Cook, a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback who guided the Spartans to a 34–5 record as their starter. It won’t help that Michigan State loses several key pieces on offense, including left tackle Jack Conklin and leading receiver Aaron Burbridge.
Options: Malik Zaire, Jr.; DeShone Kizer, So.
Malik Zaire became the Fighting Irish’s clear-cut starter when his top competition, Golson, decided to transfer to Florida State last May. While Zaire came into the spring of 2015 having led Notre Dame to a bowl victory the previous season (a 31–28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl), he enters this spring having not played in a game since September. Zaire broke his right ankle during the third quarter of the Fighting Irish’s win over Virginia on Sept. 12. DeShone Kizer stepped in to lead Notre Dame to a 10–3 record, with its only losses coming against teams ranked in the top seven of the final playoff rankings (Clemson, Stanford, Ohio State). The rising sophomore proved himself against tough competition last season, but Zaire shined in limited action before the injury, completing 65% of his passes for 428 yards with four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 187.9 quarterback rating. Notre Dame must choose between two proven options.
Options: Keller Chryst, Jr.; Ryan Burns, Sr.
In his four years as the starter, Kevin Hogan led Stanford to 36 wins and three Pac-12 championships while solidifying the Cardinal’s status as a national power following the departures of an iconic coach (current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh) and a star quarterback (current Indianapolis Colts starter Andrew Luck). That will be a tough act to follow for whoever succeeds Hogan. Junior Keller Chryst won the backup job over Ryan Burns last season, but neither signal-caller is a proven commodity: They've combined to complete only six passes. The good news for whichever quarterback wins the job is if he doesn’t click with Stanford’s pass catchers right away, he’ll have a Heisman Trophy candidate, junior Christian McCaffrey, to lean on in the backfield.
Options: Kenny Hill, Jr.; Foster Sawyer, Soph.; Grayson Muehlstein, Soph.; Brennen Wooten, T-Fr.
Remember Kenny “Trill” Hill? He’s the former Texas A&M quarterback who was deemed a Heisman Trophy candidate after throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his starting debut against South Carolina. Hill was later suspended two games for violating team rules and then released from his scholarship. He sat out last season after transferring to TCU with two years of eligibility left. To win the starting job, Hill will have to fend off third-year sophomores Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein and early-enrollee Brennen Wooten, a three-star prospect in the class of 2016. Of those three, only Sawyer, a Fort Worth native, has completed a pass for the Horned Frogs. Hill looks like the favorite to take over the position vacated by dual-threat standout Trevone Boykin, but can Hill even come close to replicating the performance that put him on the map in August 2014?
Options: Max Browne, Jr.; Sam Darnold, R-Fr.
Max Browne arrived at USC as the top-ranked quarterback in the recruiting class of 2013, according to Scout.com. The passer ranked No. 2 in that class, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, has already played three seasons in college and will be selected in this year’s NFL draft. Meanwhile, Browne redshirted before serving as Cody Kessler’s backup for two seasons and has attempted only 19 passes for the Trojans. The fourth-year junior will finally get his chance to start in 2016 if he can hold off redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, a four-star quarterback in the class of 2015, according to Scout.com. While Darnold didn’t get any game reps, a decision made by another QB who signed with USC in the same class as Darnold hinted at how well Darnold was performing—Ricky Town transferred out of the program in August.