- No matter which signal-callers are still celebrating once the confetti stops falling in Atlanta, all four playoff teams will have some uncertainty to address within their quarterback depth charts this spring and beyond.
It is not too soon to begin thinking about the offseason. After Alabama and Georgia square off in the national title game in Atlanta on Monday night, we will probably spend all of five minutes relishing what took place in 2017 before commencing the long wait for ’18. For the four teams that competed in the College Football Playoff, the focus will quickly shift from what they’ve accomplished this season to the big roster question they need to resolve for next season: What’s going to happen at quarterback?
The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, as well as Oklahoma and Clemson, will head into spring ball with varying levels of uncertainty surrounding the most important position on the field. None of the four teams’ situations are identical, and one feels far more predictable than the other three. Before taking in the last game of this season, let’s dive into the QB outlooks of each national semifinalist, listed in order of their playoff seeding:
The Tigers entered this fall needing to account for maybe the most consequential personnel departure in the country, and they wound up doing it with remarkable ease. Junior Kelly Bryant emerged from a battle with redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson to replace first-round draft pick Deshaun Watson as the starter, and he proceeded to guide Clemson to its third consecutive ACC championship and final four berth. Bryant is not as advanced a passer as Watson was in college, but he’s thrived alongside a well-stocked running back corps as a mobile playmaker who can scramble for long gains and reliably hit manageable throws.
The limits of that skill set were made plain in the Tigers’ Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama, in which Bryant completed only half of his 36 passing attempts with zero touchdowns against two interceptions and totaled 19 rushing yards. One dud of a performance under the bright spotlight of the playoff won’t obscure everything Bryant showed as Clemson’s starter leading into the bout with the Crimson Tide, and he should enter spring practice as the favorite to retain the job. But Bryant will need to fend off a group of talented youngsters. Cooper got the call when Bryant was forced to check out of the Tigers’ lone loss of the regular season, at Syracuse on Oct. 13, with an injury, and the Jonesboro (Ga.) High product was rated the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2016, according to the 247Sports Composite. Johnson, a five-star in the class of 2017 named the most valuable player of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, showed well in limited action in 2017, completing 21 of his 27 passing attempts.
Then there’s Trevor Lawrence, a 6'6", 208-pound pro-style passer rated the No. 1 overall player in the class of 2018 who plans to enroll this month and who already has a Twitter account dedicated to his flowing locks. Head coach Dabo Swinney said in December that Lawrence is “way ahead of Deshaun from a physical standpoint” coming out of high school, according to The State. Clemson fell one game short of getting a shot at a repeat title with Bryant at the controls this season, and it’s reasonable to expect him to show improvement as a passer in his second year helming the Tigers’ attack, but assuming he opens the season leading the first-team offense, any slippage in 2018 would inevitably prompt calls for the Tigers to try out one of the shiny (and mostly unused) toys below him on the depth chart.
Of the four teams who reached the national semifinals this season, Oklahoma seemingly has the most straightforward path to a simple resolution at quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield played his last college game on Monday against Georgia, which means Lincoln Riley will need a new signal-caller to run his Air Raid attack in 2018. The frontrunner to succeed Mayfield made a cameo against the Bulldogs’ stingy defense. Three plays before Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter leaped to swat Sooners kicker Austin Seibert’s 27-yard field goal in double overtime, Riley had Kyler Murray float out to Mayfield’s right and receive a pitch from him behind the line of scrimmage, but Murray was chased out of bounds for no gain.
Odd as it may have seemed for a headlining starting QB to lob the ball to the backup in crunch time of a must-win game, Riley had good reason to think Murray might be able to make something happen with the ball in his hands. After completing his stint at Allen High School as one of the most accomplished prep quarterbacks in Texas history, Murray signed with Texas A&M but played only eight games there in 2015 before electing to transfer amid reported “trust issues” with coaches. He sat out in accordance with NCAA eligibility rules in 2016 before serving this season as Mayfield’s backup and starting the Nov. 25 game against West Virginia in which Mayfield was punished for his sideline behavior the previous week at Kansas.
On his first snap against the Mountaineers, Murray faked a handoff, spotted a lane on the right side of the line, flitted through it and galloped 66 yards to set up a touchdown on the ensuing play. The speed he flashed didn’t surprise anyone who knew about him reportedly clocking a hand-timed 4.38 40-yard dash this spring. Murray won’t match Mayfield’s record-setting passing efficiency—though he did connect on 85.7% of his 21 attempts with three touchdowns and no picks this season—but it’ll be interesting to see how Riley tweaks his system to accentuate Murray’s wheels. Sophomore Austin Kendall, who appeared in two games as a reserve behind Mayfield in 2016, has drawn less attention for what he’s done on the field since getting to Norman than his pre-game chatter about an opponent that went on to whip the Sooners.
Jake Fromm is one win away from becoming only the second true freshman quarterback ever, along with Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985, to lead his team to a national championship. That there’s even a tiny chance he’s not guaranteed to hold on to QB1 status as a sophomore might seem absurd on its face. It’s less absurd when you consider the other passers who will be on Georgia’s roster next season.
Sophomore Jacob Eason entered 2017 as the Bulldogs’ top option after starting 12 games as a true freshman in 2016 and arriving in Athens as the No. 2 signal-caller in the class of 2016, according to the 247Sports Composite. A knee injury in Georgia’s season-opening win over Appalachian State opened the door for Fromm to start the Bulldogs’ big-time road victory at Notre Dame the following week, and he hasn’t looked back since. Eason got over the knee issue but spent most of the rest of the season watching Fromm from the sidelines and is now facing questions over whether he’ll transfer to a program closer to his high school in Lake Stevens, Wash.
Meanwhile, last month, Georgia reeled in a passer with an even loftier recruiting reputation than Eason, Harrison (Ga.) High’s Justin Fields, a dual-threat who has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton, was named Most Valuable Player at the prestigious Elite 11 competition this summer and rated the No. 2 overall player in the class of 2018, behind only Lawrence, according to the 247Sports Composite. Fields committed to Georgia in October, but he decided to sign with the Bulldogs in the early window two months later even though he had options to join other programs and, by that point, Fromm had piloted the Bulldogs to an SEC East title and playoff berth while rounding into one of the nation’s most efficient passers. Fromm will have the leg up on Eason (assuming he doesn’t transfer) and Fields regardless of what unfolds against Alabama on Monday night, but if Fields is as game-ready as talent evaluators seem to think he is, it may not be long before he’s pushing Fromm for first-team repetitions. Short of that, the intrigue over watching such a highly touted prospect face a college defense for the first time will inevitably become a major talking point—and, perhaps, a headache for head coach Kirby Smart—in the spring and entering fall camp.
A comfortable double-digit win over the reigning national champions in the playoff was not enough to push the state of Alabama’s quarterback position to the back burner. On the day of the Sugar Bowl, AL.com reported that true freshman Tua Tagovailoa is “expected to play some, working in conjunction with starter Jalen Hurts” and that “the feeling at Alabama is that Tagovailoa could give the Tide a lift from a passing standpoint.” Tagovailoa ultimately didn’t take any snaps, but neither Hurts’s performance against Clemson nor his SEC Offensive Player of the Year award in 2016 nor his 25–2 record as a starter will stave off questions over whether the Crimson Tide are better off with someone else under center.
Tagovailoa is a former five-star recruit who attended Marcus Mariota’s high school in Honolulu and stuck to his commitment to a program located 4,300 miles away despite Hurts seizing control of the offense as a true freshman last season, a development that could have scared away other blue-chip prospects intent on getting early playing time. Realistically, Tagovailoa was a huge long shot to seriously compete with Hurts to start in Alabama’s Week 1 win over Florida State in September, but he’s been building hype about his potential since the spring game, in which Tagovailoa threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
The buzz grew when Tagovailoa saw the field this season. He’s completed 35 of his 53 passing attempts for 470 yards with an 8–1 touchdown-interception ratio and authored scintillating sequences like this spin-and-rifle dime to true freshman Devonta Smith in garbage time of a Sept. 23 win over Vanderbilt. Hurts is a powerful runner who has developed into a savvy RPO playmaker, but he has completed only 61.4% of his passes this season, good for 44th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and five SEC signal callers, including Fromm, posted higher efficiency ratings than Hurts’s 138.65 during conference play. His perceived limitations as a thrower, coupled with Tagovailoa’s apparent upside as a thrower, have made the latter the subject of fevered interest in Tuscaloosa. Hurts could well lead the Crimson Tide to their fifth national title in nine years on Monday night, but whether or not Tagovailoa sees the field against the Bulldogs, he could be in position to challenge Hurts for his spot in the first-choice lineup next fall.