- With spring practice in the rearview mirror, SI.com dives into some of the most interesting quarterback battles across the Power 5 conferences.
Spring practice isn’t very useful in providing meaningful competition on which to assess players. The intra-squad scrimmages that are open to the media or broadcast on television often feature obscure point systems, minimal contact and vanilla gameplans. But for teams sorting out quarterback competitions, these scrimmages, and the many other practices that are often closed to the public, can be somewhat valuable. They’re the biggest chance before fall camp for signal-callers to further their cases for the top spot on the depth chart.
Some coaches head into the summer genuinely torn about which QB is best suited to help his team win, others needlessly prolong the charade into fall camp and still others just end the speculation by naming a starter. Regardless of the outcome or lack thereof, the end of spring practice is a key milestone and a good time to take stock of some of the most intriguing quarterback battles, real or contrived, facing Power 5 programs.
Candidates: Jarrett Stidham, sophomore; Sean White, junior
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn has not publicly applied the QB1 tag to Stidham, but that feels more like a formality than an indication that Malzahn is seriously considering someone else at the position. White was limited this spring after undergoing surgery to repair the forearm fracture he suffered in Auburn’s loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but even at 100%, his chances of outplaying Stidham are remote.
Stidham took advantage of White’s absence by reminding the college football world why he was such a highly regarded recruit coming out of Stephenville (Texas) High in the class of 2015. He posted a 16-of-20 passing line for 267 yards in Auburn’s A-Day game and eased any concerns over his ability to adapt to Auburn’s system following his stint in Art Briles’s unique spread scheme at Baylor.
White will vie to supplant Stidham when the Tigers regroup for preseason camp, but this seems a battle in name only, however much Auburn coaches insist otherwise.
Candidates: Kelly Bryant, junior; Hunter Johnson, true freshman; Zerrick Cooper, redshirt freshman
The summer depth chart the Tigers released earlier this month listed Bryant as the starter and Johnson and Cooper as co-backups. That order isn't surprising, as coach Dabo Swinney has consistently said Bryant was the leader while acknowledging that the competition isn't over.
Johnson garnered experience as a reserve behind Deshaun Watson the last two seasons, but both Cooper and Johnson bring strong recruiting pedigrees. None of the three passers looked great this spring. (Another signal-caller not listed on the depth chart, redshirt freshman Tucker Israel, posted the best stat line in the spring game.) And Bryant, listed at QB1, was particularly shaky, hitting on only four of his 13 passes for 43 yards.
It’s worth noting that Bryant had been nursing a hamstring injury, and he reportedly hurt his finger early in the spring game. Still, any hopes that Clemson could avoid a major dip in quarterback play post-Watson should be tempered. Its best bet may be a major leap from Johnson, who has immense potential but will have to prove he's ready for primetime right away.
Candidates: Kyle Trask, redshirt freshman; Feleipe Franks, redshirt freshman; Luke Del Rio, redshirt sophomore
Malik Zaire’s transfer decision could change the complexion of this race. He graduated from Notre Dame (and consequently is eligible to suit up immediately), but an SEC rule, if left as is, would prohibit the dual-threat lefty from joining the Gators. (League commissioner Greg Sankey has indicated the rule could be amended this off-season.)
As speculation swirled over Zaire’s eventual destination this spring, Franks improved his position relative to the other quarterbacks currently on Florida’s roster. He showed well in the Gators’ Orange and Blue game, recording 119 yards on 8 of 14 passing.
Franks seems to have put some daylight between him and Trask, who went just 6 of 15 for 66 yards, but Franks isn’t in the clear yet. He’ll need to wait until fall camp to beat out Del Rio, who started six games in 2016 but underwent surgery on both shoulders this off-season. There’s also the possible arrival of Zaire, whose ability and resume, limited though it may be, would likely make him the Gators’ top option at the position.
Candidates: Malik Rosier, junior; Evan Shirreffs, sophomore; N’Kosi Perry, true freshman
No ACC quarterback competition this off-season will attract as much attention as Clemson’s, but Miami’s is similar to the Tigers’ in a couple of important respects. Like Clemson (Watson), the Hurricanes are replacing a transcendent playmaker (Brad Kaaya) who left eligibility on the table to head to the NFL. Also like Clemson, the Hurricanes could sink or elevate their chances of winning one of the conference’s two divisions by making the right or wrong decision at the most important position on the field.*
After Miami opened the spring with a handful of candidates, two passers seem to have distinguished themselves: Rosier and Shirreffs. But there’s a chance neither of them will lead the first-team offense on the field in Miami’s season-opener against Bethune-Cookman. That’s because N’Kosi Perry, a four-star quarterback in the class of 2016 out of Vanguard (Fla.) High, will enter the fray this fall. While scouts prize Perry for his mobility and passing accuracy, modest expectations are appropriate for a true freshman who didn’t participate in spring workouts.
*SI.com did not forget about North Carolina. The Tar Heels were considered for this list of 10, but they just missed the cut. Their competition to replace No. 2 NFL draft pick Mitch Trubisky should not be overlooked.
Candidates: Wilton Speight, junior; Brandon Peters, redshirt freshman; John O’Korn, senior
Speight entered this off-season looking like one of the few sure things on a Wolverines team that brings back only five starters and 34% of its production, according to SB Nation. He won 10 games and earned all-conference recognition while piloting Michigan to within one controversial fourth-down conversion of a possible College Football Playoff berth. Yet as the Wolverines’ approach their opener against SEC East contender Florida, Speight will need to fend off two capable passers angling to usurp him on the two-deep.
Speight beat out one of the competitors, O’Korn, for the top spot a year ago, and O'Korn feels like a long shot to return the favor. The other, Peters, poses a much more formidable challenge. The No. 4 quarterback recruit in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, Peters redshirted last season before drawing praise for his performance this spring, including a 9-for-17, 160-yard outing in Michigan’s spring game.
Rolling with Speight is the safe route, but Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has made clear his view that intra-team competition is a “meritocracy.” If that applies here, Peters can earn the job by outplaying Speight in preseason camp.
Candidates: Tanner Lee, junior
Mike Riley took a different approach with his team’s quarterback derby than the other head coaches on this list. In late April, he announced through his Twitter account that Tulane transfer Lee, and not redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien or true freshman Tristan Gebbia, was Nebraska’s “top QB heading into the summer” and named Lee the starter. That decision came after Lee starred in the Cornhuskers’ spring game, going 13 of 19 for 190 yards with three touchdowns.
Was Riley's choice a good one? Lee’s track record is mixed. He started 19 games over two seasons with the Green Wave. Yet as comforting as that experience probably is for a program sorting out a quarterback battle, Lee hasn't done much as a college quarterback to point toward him becoming the sort of savvy distributor Nebraska needs to fell Big Ten West defenses. He completed 54% of his passes and threw 23 touchdowns against 21 interceptions.
Good on Riley for showing confidence in Lee by letting everyone know he’s the guy months before the season opener against Arkansas State, but don’t rule out Lee’s competitors getting another shot at the job.
Candidates: Quinten Dormady, junior; Jarrett Guarantano, redshirt freshman
As spring game showings in the midst of quarterback battles go, Dormady’s was close to perfect: He completed all 10 of his passing attempts for 120 yards with two touchdowns. Volunteers head coach Butch Jones didn’t declare a starter afterward and said there was no timetable for when he would do so, but Dormady appears to have taken a lead on Guarantano, who went 4 of 5 for 41 yards in the game.
That said, Guarantano could be a more attractive choice for Jones and the rest of his staff because of the offensive continuity his package of skills would provide. Like predecessor Joshua Dobbs, Guarantano excels at making plays outside the pocket with his legs, and he has more potential as a passer than Dobbs. The Volunteers would welcome a larger stylistic break from the Dobbs era if Dormady builds on his spring game effort, but they could well decide that Guarantano’s game is a better fit, especially given their uninspiring crop of running backs and wide receivers.
Candidates: Sam Ehlinger, true freshman; Shane Buechele, sophomore
Longhorns coach Tom Herman has said that he doesn’t plan to name a starter until August. Yet even if Buechele hasn’t officially won the job, he solidified his status as the best candidate this spring. In the Longhorns’ Orange-White game, he completed 23 of his 39 passing attempts for 369 yards and recorded three total touchdowns, while Ehlinger connected on only 10 of his 31 throws for 148 yards and one score. Ehlinger, the No. 8 QB recruit in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, shouldn’t be written off based on one subpar performance, but he definitely could have done more to tighten this competition heading into fall camp.
After starting 12 games and throwing for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman last season, Buechele seemed like the answer entering the spring, and he looks like the answer coming out of it. That could change, though, if Texas lands Zaire, who reportedly has the Longhorns on his list of finalists.
Candidates: Jake Hubenak, senior; Nick Starkel, redshirt freshman; Kellen Mond, true freshman
The Aggies’ quarterback battle boils down to a simple question: Experience or youth? Kevin Sumlin may prefer the former considering he could be coaching for his job this fall. If that’s the case, Hubenak will get the nod in Texas A&M’s Week 1 bout with UCLA.
The senior didn’t do anything this spring to change his perception as a serviceable, if limited, triggerman in Noel Mazzone’s spread attack. Hubenake completed 8 of 13 passes for 47 yards in the Aggies’ Maroon & White scrimmage.
Neither Starkel nor Mond stole the show either, but both of them performed well enough to remain in the conversation for now and should factor heavily into Sumlin and his staff’s deliberations over Trevor Knight’s successor as Texas A&M ramps up preparations for the Bruins in August. Hubenak offers the security of a proven passer who probably won’t screw things up, while Starkel and Mond could develop into top-flight signal-callers later in their college careers but may not be equipped to lead the Aggies through a rigorous SEC West schedule this season.
Candidates: Hendon Hooker, true freshman; A.J. Bush, junior (juco transfer); Josh Jackson, redshirt freshman
The Hokies’ quarterback competition is the most improbable on this list. Last year's starter Jerod Evans unexpectedly decided to enter the NFL draft this off-season, leaving head coach Justin Fuente with an unproven crop of signal-callers to lead his offense in 2017. Bush, Hooker and Jackson have yet to line up under center for the Hokies in a game, and only Jackson has been with the program for more than a few months. (He sat out last season while redshirting.)
Fuente exited spring ball betraying no preference for any member of the trio, but that indecision shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Fuente waited until late August to name Evans the starter a year ago, and the coach's record as an ace quarterback developer is solace for those anxious about the state of the Hokies’ offense without its lethal dual-threat playmaker steering the ship (Evans) in addition to two of his top three targets from last season (wide receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges).