- Will Alabama be able to keep Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa in the fold? Will a leader emerge at places like Ohio State and Florida State? What happens under center this spring could dictate the fate of more than just these 18 teams in 2018.
It’s been two months since the confetti stopped falling to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf in celebration of Alabama’s win over Georgia in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Programs put the finishing touches on their 2018 recruiting classes on National Signing Day about a month ago, and more than four months remain before the start of “talking season”, let alone the real one. Despite the long wait, we’re already looking ahead to this fall, specifically the quarterback battles that bear monitoring during spring practice.
Programs often head into the summer dead period with unresolved competitions at the game’s most important position, and graduate transfers can drastically alter the picture closer to the start of fall camp, but QBs can increase or decrease their chances of winning the starting job with their performance in drills and intra-squad scrimmages. Below are 18 of the most intriguing battles around the country to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead.
Contenders: Jalen Hurts, junior; Tua Tagovailoa, sophomore
The seeds of one of the offseason’s most fascinating QB battles were planted at halftime of the national title game, when Alabama head coach Nick Saban decided to replace two-year starter Jalen Hurts with true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who provided the Crimson Tide the offensive spark they needed to force overtime and pull out a three-point win over Georgia. Hurts’s commendable public response to the benching, his honoring of an apparent promise to shear his dreadlocks if Alabama won it all and this amicable Twitter exchange with Tagovailoa belie the reality that Tagovailoa’s star turn on the biggest possible stage came at Hurts’s expense.
Hurts is facing an uphill climb in reclaiming his status as the Crimson Tide’s first-team quarterback, a process that will begin in earnest this spring. (SI’s Andy Staples went into more detail on the Hurts-Tagovailoa dynamic in January.) Alabama received a verbal commitment last month from East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew, but until further notice, it’s unreasonable to think he’ll be anything more than a depth piece in case Hurts and/or Tagovailoa gets injured.
Contenders: Kelly Bryant, senior; Hunter Johnson, sophomore; Trevor Lawrence, true freshman
This isn’t Kelly Bryant’s first quarterback competition. Last year, he beat out then true freshman Hunter Johnson and then redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper to earn the right to succeed two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson as the Tigers’ starter. One of those challengers, Cooper, decided to transfer—fellow reserve QB Tucker Israel also chose to leave the program via transfer—but Johnson is back after acquitting himself well in limited action last season (21 of 27, 234 yards), and Clemson is bringing in the 247Sports Composite’s No. 1 quarterback recruit in the class of 2018, Cartersville (Ga.) High’s Trevor Lawrence.
The scouting evaluations on Lawrence suggest he might be too talented for Tigers coach Dabo Swinney to keep off the field, even as a true freshman, but keep in mind that Swinney relegated Johnson, himself a former five-star prospect, to the bench in favor of Bryant last year.
Contenders: Jake Allen, redshirt freshman; Feleipe Franks, redshirt sophomore; Emory Jones, true freshman; Kyle Trask, redshirt sophomore
Emory Jones, the 247Sports Composite’s No. 10 quarterback in the incoming recruiting class, has a clearer path to immediate playing time than most of the quarterbacks ranked higher than him. That helps to explain why it was so important for new Gators head coach Dan Mullen to flip Jones from Ohio State and convince him to sign his National Letter of Intent in the early window in late December.
Florida’s lone alternative with college game experience, Feleipe Franks, tossed only one more touchdown (nine) than interception (eight) while ranking 12th among qualifying SEC passers with a 54.6% completion percentage last season. Mullen and his staff should give Franks a fresh look, but whereas Franks is a holdover from a previous coaching regime with a different offensive philosophy, Jones has the built-in advantage of being the first passer Mullen pursued to command his spread system.
Contenders: James Blackman, sophomore; Deondre Francois, redshirt junior; Bailey Hockman, redshirt freshman
Deondre Francois’s potential breakout season ended before it could really take off last September, when he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee during the fourth quarter of Florida State’s Week 1 loss to Alabama. James Blackman was thrust into the difficult position of running the offense of a projected national title contender as a true freshman with a three-star recruiting rating who didn’t enroll early for spring practice. There were some predictable growing pains for Blackman, like when he completed only 11 of his 26 passing attempts in a 35–3 loss at Boston College in late October, but he did enough to put himself in position to compete for the starting job as a sophomore, in a new scheme implemented by first-year head coach Willie Taggart that should be amenable to Blackman’s skill set. This spring presents a prime opportunity for Blackman to bolster his case, as Francois is not expected to be cleared to fully participate.
Contenders: Justin Fields, true freshman; Jake Fromm, sophomore
In most circumstances, an underclassman quarterback who just led his team to 13 wins, its first conference championship in more than a decade and an appearance in the national title game would not need to prove that he belongs atop the depth chart. Fromm might have to because of the quarterback Georgia is bringing in, Harrison (Ga.) High’s Justin Fields, whose big frame (6'3", 225 pounds), electric dual-threat skill set and Atlanta-area roots call to mind Cam Newton. The only player in the 247Sports Composite’s class of 2018 rankings who checked in ahead of Fields was Clemson’s Lawrence.
Though it’s hard to imagine Fromm won’t be orchestrating the Bulldogs’ first offensive drive in their Sept. 1 opener against Austin Peay, Fields could make it difficult for head coach Kirby Smart to resist a change under center if Georgia’s offense hits a rocky patch during SEC play.
Contenders: Myles Brennan, sophomore; Justin McMillan, redshirt junior; Lowell Narcisse, redshirt freshman
None of LSU’s options at quarterback for the upcoming season are particularly appealing, especially after Texas A&M beat out the Tigers on signing day for four-star signal-caller James Foster. Without Foster, the Tigers have two QBs (Myles Brennan and Justin McMillan) who have combined to throw 25 passes in college and another (Lowell Narcisse) who redshirted last season. In a radio interview in early February, new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger said Brennan would “take the first snap” of spring practice, but at a news conference the previous month Ensminger didn’t totally dismiss the possibility of the Tigers using a two-QB system. What’s clear is that LSU needs to find a viable solution at the controls of its offense in order to have any hope of challenging Alabama or Auburn in the SEC West after losing second-team all-conference running back Derrius Guice to the NFL this offseason.
Contenders: N’Kosi Perry, redshirt freshman; Malik Rosier, redshirt senior; Cade Weldon, redshirt freshman; Jarren Williams, true freshman
In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Miami head coach Mark Richt made plain that Malik Rosier, who started all 13 games for the Hurricanes last season, will enter the spring as the their top QB. “Malik is the starting quarterback, for sure,” Richt said. “Someone’s got to dethrone him. Someone’s got to beat him out if that’s going to happen.” But there’s no denying Rosier had some rough moments during the back half of Miami’s 10–3 campaign, and it’s not like the Hurricanes are short on potential replacements, even after the controversial graduate transfer of Evan Shirreffs.
N’Kosi Perry was rated the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite, and during the early signing period Miami added Jarren Williams, the No. 5 pro-style passer in the class of 2018. The Hurricanes also bring back Cade Weldon, the son of 1991 Heisman Trophy runner-up Casey Weldon.
Contenders: Dylan McCaffrey, redshirt freshman; Shea Patterson, junior; Brandon Peters, redshirt sophomore
It’s not easy to handicap this competition without a resolution on Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson’s status. If he’s granted immediate eligibility over allegations that he was misled about NCAA sanctions levied on the Rebels, Patterson would become the favorite to lead the Wolverines’ first-team offense on the field when they resume their rivalry with Notre Dame in South Bend on Sept. 1. If Patterson is forced to sit out this season, Michigan likely will turn to Brandon Peters or Dylan McCaffrey. Of those two QBs, only Peters has attempted a pass in college, but he ended last season on a low note, completing only 20 of his 44 throws with zero touchdowns and two interceptions in Michigan’s seven-point loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Also, a January report from the Detroit Free Press indicated that graduate transfer Wilton Speight, who missed the final nine games of 2017 after fracturing three vertebrae in his back, could consider returning to Ann Arbor if Patterson is forced to sit out 2018.
Contenders: Tristan Gebbia, redshirt freshman; Adrian Martinez, true freshman; Patrick O’Brien, redshirt sophomore
It took Scott Frost less than two weeks to grab a quarterback with the potential to lead Nebraska to the top of the Big Ten West. Adrian Martinez announced he had received a scholarship offer from the Cornhuskers on the same early-December day that the program made official the open secret that Scott Frost would be its next head coach. Before long, Martinez had decided to rescind his verbal commitment to Tennessee and announce for Nebraska, inserting him into a QB derby with no obvious favorite following Tanner Lee’s departure to the NFL. Martinez is set to square off with two unproven options recruited for former head coach Mike Riley’s pro-style system, underclassmen Tristan Gebbia and Patrick O’Brien.
If Martinez outduels O’Brien and Gebbia in the spring and fall camp, Frost’s QB management at his previous stop suggests he won’t hesitate to run Martinez out with the 1s against Akron in Week 1. UCF’s McKenzie Milton started 10 games as a true freshman under Frost in 2016.
Contenders: Ian Book, junior; Avery Davis, sophomore; Phil Jurkovec, true freshman; Brandon Wimbush, senior
Notre Dame’s quarterback problem is one of quality, not quantity. Though it may have several QBs who can manage the offense reasonably well this season, it’s uncertain which one of them is best suited to take the reins of an attack losing star tailback Josh Adams and go-to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to the NFL. Brandon Wimbush started 12 games last season, but his ability to make plays with his legs (803 rushing yards, 14 rushing TDs) couldn’t paper over his limitations as a passer (49.5% completion percentage).
Head coach Brian Kelly rotated Ian Book in for Wimbush during the Citrus Bowl against LSU, and Book went on to connect on 14 of his 19 throws, including two touchdowns, in an eventual four-point win over the Tigers. The Fighting Irish will also have two four-star signal-callers from their last two recruiting classes available in Avery Davis (2017) and Phil Jurkovec (2018), the latter of which won’t be on campus until the summer.
Contenders: Joe Burrow, redshirt junior; Dwayne Haskins, redshirt sophomore; Tate Martell, redshirt freshman
There should be a lot more clarity after the spring about who has the best shot at succeeding four-year starter J.T. Barrett. Burrow’s redshirt sophomore season was derailed when he broke his hand last August, allowing Dwayne Haskins to get the bulk of the backup work behind Barrett. Haskins looked good in the eight games he appeared in, hitting on 70.2% of his 57 attempts for 565 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. If spring practice wraps with Burrow trailing either or both of Haskins and Tate Martell in the competition for the starting job, then it seems possible he could elect to transfer to another program with immediate eligibility after graduating in May.
Both Haskins and Martell bring loftier recruiting pedigrees than Burrow—himself a former four-star prospect and Ohio Mr. Football award winner—but Burrow did put up a 22-for-28 passing line as Barrett’s primary backup in 2016 while Haskins was redshirting and Martell was still in high school.
Contenders: Dru Brown, graduate transfer; Taylor Cornelius, redshirt senior; Spencer Sanders, true freshman; Keondre Wudtee, redshirt sophomore
The quarterback who passed for more yards than any other in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season is out of the picture and, in all likelihood, will hear his name called within the first two round of this spring’s draft. Mason Rudolph leaves an immense statistical void in his wake, but the pool of players who could fill it grew in early February when Hawaii graduate transfer Dru Brown announced he would play for the Cowboys this fall.
Brown will need to fend off two signal-callers who are already on campus (Taylor Cornelius and Keondre Wudtee) plus another one who’ll get to Stillwater this summer (Spencer Sanders). Seven dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2018 earned higher rankings than Sanders, according to the 247Sports Composite, but few high school passers can match his résumé. Sanders was named the Gatorade player of the year in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting states, Texas, after totaling 5,225 passing and rushing yards and 70 touchdowns as a senior at Ryan High in Denton.
Contenders: Shawn Robinson, sophomore; Justin Rogers, true freshman
The second of Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill’s two seasons as TCU’s starter saw the Horned Frogs rebound from a 6–7 record in 2016 to post 11 wins and finish behind only College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings. To avoid another dip in ’18, the Horned Frogs will need one of two highly touted dual-threat quarterback recruits to prove, at minimum, a serviceable replacement for Hill in an offense featuring a prime breakout candidate at wide receiver (Jalen Reagor) plus a deep running back corps.
Shawn Robinson completed only 13 of his 27 passing attempts in relief of Hill last season, but he was rated sixth among dual-threat passers in the class of ’17, according to the 247Sports Composite. Incoming passer Justin Rogers, the No. 3 dual-threat QB in the class of ’18, enrolled at TCU in time to participate in spring workouts, though he underwent surgery last year after suffering a knee injury in the opener of his senior season at Parkway (La.) High.
Contenders: Keller Chryst, graduate transfer; Jarrett Guarantano, redshirt sophomore; Will McBride, sophomore; JT Shrout, true freshman
Senior Quinten Dormady’s announcement in January that he would transfer away from Tennessee opened the door for Jarrett Guarantano to become the first quarterback to helm new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton’s pro-style system. Guarantano’s only returning competitor, Will McBride, appeared in just two games last season and completed only 17 of his 40 passing attempts with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions.
JT Shrout, whom the Volunteers flipped from Cal and signed during the early window, received a three-star grade coming out of Hart (Calif.) High, and though he’s not expected to join the Volunteers until June, Shrout is the first quarterback Tennessee signed since hiring Jeremy Pruitt as its head coach last December, as well as the only one in its 2018 recruiting class. What’s more, Yahoo! Sports detailed last July how recruiting services may have undervalued Shrout. “It’s become clear that Shrout could go down as the country’s most underrated quarterback prospect,” Yahoo! Sports wrote. Chryst was supplanted by Stanford underclassman K.J. Costello last season, but maybe Pruitt and Helton will prefer handing the keys to a veteran with a more extensive body of work than any other Volunteers QB.
Contenders: Shane Buechele, junior; Sam Ehlinger, sophomore
Don’t bet on Texas head coach Tom Herman naming a starter at the end of spring workouts. He didn’t commit to Shane Buechele as his No. 1 at the end of last spring after Buechele started all 12 games and set a program freshman record with 2,958 passing yards the previous season, and Buechele and Sam Ehlinger each started at least six games as the Longhorns stumbled to a ninth-place finish in the Big 12 in yards per play and a 98th-place finish in the nation in Football Outsiders’ Passing S&P + metric. Buechele (64.32% completion percentage on 213 attempts) was a more accurate thrower than Ehlinger (57.45% completion percentage on 275 attempts) in 2017, but Ehlinger was more productive than Buechele on the ground, leading the Longhorns with 385 rushing yards. Herman ultimately may wind up toggling between the two signal-callers whether or not both of them can stay healthy after dealing with injuries last season.
Contenders: Connor Blumrick, redshirt freshman; James Foster, true freshman; Kellen Mond, sophomore; Nick Starkel, sophomore
It would have been tough for Nick Starkel to strengthen his grip on the top spot on the depth chart in a loss more than he did in Texas A&M’s Dec. 29 meeting with Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl, when he completed 42 of his 63 attempts for 499 yards with four touchdowns and only one interception. Yet new head coach Jimbo Fisher may prefer one of the other passers on the roster to Starkel, including highly regarded class of 2018 signee Foster.
Kellen Mond, one of the most esteemed dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2017 class, hinted at his high ceiling over eight starts last season, but he clearly isn’t a finished product, and he was recruited to College Station by former Aggies (and current Arizona) head coach Kevin Sumlin. Connor Blumrick, a 6'5", 210-pound former three-star prospect, redshirted in 2017 after sitting out most of his senior season at Pearland (Tex.) High with an ankle injury. The number of options at QB, and the youth of those options, suggest a transfer may be in the offing.
Contenders: Austin Burton, redshirt freshman; K.J. Carta-Samuels, graduate transfer; Devon Modster, redshirt sophomore; Matt Lynch, redshirt sophomore; Dorian Thompson-Robinson, true freshman
Josh Rosen made the expected move to jump to the pros after his junior season, but he leaves behind a crowded quarterback room for new head coach Chip Kelly, one that added a member in mid-February when the Bruins announced they were bringing in Washington graduate transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels. Carta-Samuels’s three seasons playing behind Huskies starter Jake Browning, during which Carta-Samuels recorded 310 yards and three touchdowns with one interception on 27-of-47 passing, give him an experience edge over Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Yet the Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High product, who the 247Sports Composite ranked ahead of all class of 2018 dual-threat quarterbacks save Fields, seems like the type of mobile playmaker Kelly can win with from the jump. A trio of returnees—Austin Burton, Matt Lynch and Devon Modster, who started UCLA’s 18-point loss to Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl on Dec. 26—also could factor into the competition to pilot Kelly’s spread scheme.
Contenders: JT Daniels, true freshman; Matt Fink, redshirt sophomore; Jack Sears, redshirt freshman
One late-December announcement warped the complexion of the Trojans’ quarterback derby: JT Daniels revealed in a video posted to his Twitter account that he would reclassify to 2018 from ’19. Daniels won’t be available for spring workouts, but there doesn’t seem to be much standing between him and the starting job.
Unless the Trojans tap the graduate transfer market for a more seasoned signal-caller before the fall, only one (Matt Fink) of Daniels’s two challengers (Fink and Jack Sears) will have attempted a pass against a college defense, and neither of them were nearly as coveted as recruits as Daniels is. Ranked behind only Lawrence and Fields among class of 2018 quarterbacks in the 247Sports Composite, Daniels was named the Gatorade national player of the year for 2017–18 after setting Orange County records in career passing touchdowns (152) and yards (12,014) at the same high school (Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif.) that produced former USC standout QBs Matt Barkley and Matt Leinart.