Top quarterback battles to watch this spring
- While many college football quarterback battles won't be decided until the fall, competitions at Auburn, Clemson, Texas and more bear watching during the spring.
Spring practice offers opportunities for players to make cases that they belong near or at the top of their respective position’s depth chart for the upcoming season. Final decisions often won’t be made until preseason camp, but there’s no doubt a strong impression in March can mean a lot come September. This is especially true for quarterbacks. In the coming weeks, many signal callers across the country will look to prove that they deserve to lead the first-team offense on the field in Week 1. SI.com is breaking down five of the most intriguing QB battles to track.
Candidates: Sean White, Jarrett Stidham
Had the Tigers found a way to complement their powerful running game with a potent passing attack last season, they could have, at the very least, made things interesting at the top of the SEC West. Instead, Alabama strolled to a division title, and as Auburn cycled between White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III at quarterback, it dropped games to Texas A&M and Georgia and settled for eight wins.
Gaining yards through the air shouldn’t be much of an issue in 2017 if Stidham is as good as advertised. He comes highly touted as a former five-star recruit out of Stephenville (Texas) High. Stidham threw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman at Baylor in 2015 before transferring and enrolling at McLennan Community College in Waco. He later chose the Tigers over Texas A&M and Florida. Stidham could be a devastating triggerman in coach Gus Malzahn’s uptempo spread, but he will need to prove he’s better than White, who seized the starting job last season and went on to lead the SEC in completion percentage. White has been unable to fully partake in workouts this spring while recovering from a broken arm suffered in the Tigers’ Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. He's working back onto the field, though, so this battle could still heat up this spring.
Candidates: Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson, Kelly Bryant
How will the Tigers replace Deshaun Watson? The answer to that question will help determine whether they have any shot at defending their national title or, less ambitiously, whether they can edge title threat Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division. There is no signal caller on Clemson’s roster who can even come close to replicating what Watson did in compiling one of the best individual résumés in college football history, but co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott do have some talented options from which to choose.
Head coach Dabo Swinney said junior Bryant was leading the race entering the spring, but it’s hard to glean much from Bryant’s limited track record as a reserve behind Watson. Meanwhile, Cooper redshirted in 2016, and Johnson, the No. 5 quarterback in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, is participating in spring workouts after enrolling at Clemson early. Johnson might offer the most upside, though true freshmen typically aren’t ready to operate offenses with the command and precision required to sustain championship runs (Jalen Hurts is the exception that proves the rule). Going with Bryant might be the safest move, but don’t rule out either Cooper or Johnson taking a turn at QB1 at some point during the 2017 season.
Candidates: Luke Del Rio, Kyle Trask, Feleipe Franks
Since Jim McElwain took over as Florida’s head coach prior to the 2015 season, the Gators’ quarterback situation has been defined by frustration, inconsistency and upheaval. The best QB to lead Florida’s offense during McElwain’s tenure, Will Grier, was suspended for a performance-enhancing drug violation and transferred to West Virginia. And Treon Harris, Austin Appleby and Del Rio have all fallen short of the sort of consistent, sure-handed distributor the Gators need under center to lay waste to upper-tier SEC defenses.
Florida’s QB outlook isn’t much better this season. Del Rio is back after starting six games in 2016, but a pair of shoulder surgeries will sideline him for the spring (though he is expected to participate in fall camp). That leaves a pair of unproven freshmen, Trask and Franks, to vie for first-team repetitions in Del Rio’s absence. Franks has a loftier recruiting profile than Trask; Franks ranked fifth among quarterbacks in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, while Trask was a two-star prospect who backed up Houston reserve D’Eriq King at Manvel (Texas) High. Both passers will try to use Del Rio's absence this spring to prove they're a better choice.
Candidates: Shane Buechele, Sam Ehlinger
On most teams, a quarterback who passed for nearly 3,000 yards and more than 20 touchdowns as a true freshman would not need to win a battle to preserve his starting status. At Texas, however, Buechele, now a rising sophomore, faces the prospect of losing the job to another true freshman. Ehlinger arrived in Austin earlier this year as the No. 8 quarterback in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com. He issued a verbal commitment to the Longhorns long before the program replaced former coach Charlie Strong with former Houston coach Tom Herman, but it makes sense that Herman would want to give Ehlinger a shot to supplant Buechele with a new system and staff (including new offensive coordinator and play-caller Tim Beck) in place. Ehlinger dealt with injuries as a senior at Westlake (Texas) High, but he’s highly regarded for his accuracy and ability to make plays with his feet.
Herman’s comments this spring indicate this competition won’t be settled soon, and there’s a possibility neither Buechele nor Ehlinger will get the call for the season opener against Maryland—Texas is reportedly recruiting LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris. If Harris picks the Longhorns, Herman could opt for experience over youth and potential.
Texas A&M Aggies
Candidates: Jake Hubenak, Nick Starkel, Kellen Mond
Harris actually could be a better fit at Texas A&M, which successfully integrated a graduate transfer quarterback just last season (Trevor Knight) and offers a clear path to major playing time. More likely, the Aggies will turn to either Hubenak, a junior college import with scant experience in two seasons in College Station, or one of two QBs who have yet to start a game in college. Starkel will benefit from having learned Sumlin’s system while redshirting in 2016, while Mond enrolled earlier this year after earning higher marks from talent evaluators as a recruit. Mond's talent and upside is plain, and Starkel has drawn praise for his arm strength, but Sumlin may be hesitant to hand over the reins to a freshman (true or redshirt) when he might be coaching for his job this season. Hubenak’s track record, meager though it may be, could convince Sumlin he can lift this offense, which features top-shelf playmakers like wideout Christian Kirk and running back Trayveon Williams, to a higher level than either of the newbies can.
However the battle shakes out, it’s astonishing that Texas A&M is even in this position. It wasn’t that long ago the Aggies had two former five-star quarterback prospects (Kyle Allen, Kyler Murray) on their roster.