Get to know college football's new starting quarterbacks after spring practice

3:16 | College Football
Way-too-early Heisman favorites
Tuesday June 6th, 2017

The most important position on the field is often the last position battle to be officially settled. Of course that is sometimes a strategic maneuver, forcing opponents to prepare without knowing exactly what kind of offense they’ll face. But for many of the biggest programs, the QB1 line remains unfilled simply because they don’t know yet.

Compared to those programs, the five power conference teams that have settled on their starters have seized an advantage. For these programs, spring practice was enough to shore up their succession plans under center.

Determining who has actually settled on a starter can be a little difficult with nearly three months until the season kicks off. On one end of the spectrum, there are programs like Auburn, where Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham seems extremely likely to be the starter, but last year’s starter Sean White was limited this spring due to injury and could conceivably regain his role in preseason camp. On the other end of the spectrum, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney declared that Kelly Bryant would be the Tigers’ starter if they played a game now, but Swinney couched the announcement so as to indicate that starter distinction merely places Bryant in the lead of a still contested battle.

But for these five quarterbacks, there’s just about no ambiguity. When their teams open the 2017, they’ll lead the offense onto the field.

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Max Browne, Pittsburgh

You may remember Max Browne from when he won and subsequently lost the starting job at USC last season. While it may seem encouraging that at some point he was considered better than the Trojans’ Sam Darnold, Browne’s role as the starter lasted just three games before he was ousted. His stats in those three games (55-of-87 passing for 474 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions) weren’t horrid, except in Alabama’s demolition of USC in which no one on the Trojans produced anything positive. But USC’s offense was lackluster in the 52–6 thrashing by the Crimson Tide and a 27–10 defeat to Stanford.

Now Pittsburgh will attempt to perform the same resuscitation to Browne that it did to Nathan Peterman, the former Tennessee transfer it converted into an efficient distributor. However, the key question is whether the Panthers can produce similar results without 2015 offense coordinator Jim Chaney, who left for Georgia last season, or 2016 offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who left for LSU this off-season.

Browne’s public debut for the Panthers left plenty to be desired as he went three-and-out on his first three drives in Pitt’s spring game and finished the game 13 of 28 for 144 yards with a touchdown. The good news is he’ll have a solid set of targets to work with, led by the speedy Jester Weah, who averaged 24.2 yards per catch last season, second in the FBS, and the versatile Quadree Henderson.

Will Grier, West Virginia

Another one-time starting quarterback resurfacing at a new school, Will Grier is set to take over for Skyler Howard at West Virginia after sitting out for the last year and a half. Grier’s career got off to a roaring start at Florida in 2015, when he seemed poised to become the Gators’ first consistent quarterback since Tim Tebow after completing 65.7% of his passes for 1,204 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in six games. But he was then suspended for the rest of the season after testing positive for a banned substance and opted to transfer, spending the 2016 season on West Virginia’s scout team.

Coach Dana Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have praised Grier’s leadership since his arrival. Based on his track record on the field at Florida and Holgorsen’s and Spavital’s track records with quarterbacks, Grier seems well positioned to put up some big numbers. However, he’ll have to form a rapport with some new primary receivers now that Shelton Gibson and Daikel Shorts (106 combined catches, 1,845 yards) are gone and deal with an offensive line that loses three starters.

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Tanner Lee, Nebraska

Whereas Max Browne and Will Grier more or less inherited their starting roles, Tanner Lee outright won his, garnering coach Mike Riley’s vote of confidence after spring practice. The Tulane transfer entered 2017 in a competition with Patrick O’Brien to replace longtime starter Tommy Armstrong Jr. but separated himself over the course of Nebraska’s spring practices and shined in the spring game. Lee completed 13 of 19 passes for 190 yards with three touchdowns in the Cornhuskers’ spring finale.

The 6’4”, 205-pounder has a strong arm and fits the mold of quarterbacks who have shined in Riley’s offense better than Armstrong, whom Riley inherited after the coach moved from Oregon State. When Lee guides the Huskers offense onto the field in the season opener, it won’t be his first start, as he spent two seasons starting at Tulane before spending last year on Nebraska’s scout team due to NCAA transfer rules. Lee’s starting experience, however, is decidedly mixed, as he completed 53.6% of his passes for 3,601 yards with 23 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech

No one on this list has bigger shoes to fill than Nic Shimonek. Though he has yet to be officially named Texas Tech’s starter, Shimonek is the all-but-certain successor to Pat Mahomes II, arguably the top quarterback in Red Raiders history and the FBS leader in passing yards last season.

While matching Mahomes’s production may prove difficult, Shimonek is well positioned to shine in an offense that generates completions in bunches. He’ll have three of Texas Tech’s top four receivers back even after Jonathan Giles’s transfer. Shimonek looked up to fulfilling the Red Raiders’ QB legacy in limited action last season, including when he filled in for an injured Mahomes against Kansas and completed 15 of 21 passes for 271 yards with four touchdowns. 

Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame

No. 3 on last year’s depth chart, Brandon Wimbush quickly leapt to the No. 1 spot with last year’s starter DeShone Kizer opting to leave early for the NFL draft and backup Malik Zaire electing to transfer to Florida. Now Wimbush must bear the pressure of rescuing a program and a head coach reeling after last season’s disastrous 4–8 mark.

Wimbush should benefit from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Chip Long, who helped Memphis average 8.3 yards per pass attempt last season despite the Tigers moving on from Paxton Lynch. Wimbush also has just about everything he could want in a supporting cast: a reliable running back in Josh Adams, a veteran offensive line and an explosive go-to receiver in Equanimeous St. Brown.

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As for the new signal-caller himself, Wimbush arrived at Notre Dame with plenty of hype as a four-star recruit who made big waves with his flipped commitment from Penn State to the Fighting Irish. Still, his experience is limited to five career passing attempts in garbage time of a 2015 win over UMass. Buried on the depth chart behind Kizer and Zaire, Wimbush redshirted last season. His arm strength has never been in doubt, but he faced concerns as a recruit about being over-confident in that arm strength, leading to forcing ill-advised passes. Plenty of recruits have learned to overcome that flaw in college; as Wimbush gets his first serious action this fall, we’ll see if he has.

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