USC, Stanford and South Carolina could all start their backup QB in Week 2. What do we know about them? Plus, Justin Herbert's NFL draft stock and more.

By Joan Niesen
September 04, 2019

We made it through Week 1, even if several quarterbacks and Tennessee and Missouri’s pride didn’t…

From @Tiltingground: With backup QBs starting at schools like USC, South Carolina, Stanford, etc., who is the best backup playing in Week 2? Generally, which team has the best backup in 2019?

I’m going to preface my ramblings here by admitting that I will not actually answer the first of these two questions. None of the backups projected to start in Week 2 have any appreciable experience post-high school, so it’s impossible to say who is best—especially considering the very different offenses each will be asked to run. That said, I can give you a whole bunch of thoughts about each of them!

At Stanford, junior Davis Mills will play if K.J. Costello is indeed ruled out with the head injury he suffered against Northwestern. Mills does have some past experience, but not much of it; before last week, he’d attempted exactly two passes, completing neither of them. When he came in in relief against Northwestern, he went 7-of-14 for 81 yards. Mills was once ranked the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2017 by Rivals and Scout, so he has plenty of upside, but he was never able to take a real stab at the Stanford job until now.

Ryan Hilinski, who’s taking over at South Carolina while Jake Bentley recovers from a foot injury, has the most impressive size of the bunch, at 6’3” and 230 pounds. A true freshman, he’s a pro-style passer who can throw deep balls and has been complimented for his smarts—but taking over for Bentley will be no small feat as South Carolina faces a brutal stretch of games starting Sept. 14, when it hosts Alabama. From there, the Gamecocks go to Missouri, host Kentucky, travel to Georgia and host Florida.

The most intriguing player of the bunch to me is Kedon Slovis, who could be the USC quarterback for the rest of 2019; JT Daniels is out for the year with a knee injury. Slovis enrolled early at USC in the spring but arrived with a low profile: He attended a small high school and had mostly Group of Five offers—but Kurt Warner was his offensive coordinator, and this summer, Slovis leapfrogged three other scholarship quarterbacks to earn the Trojans' backup job. He’ll be a fun name to keep an eye on, given how much he’s impressed coaches in just a few months.

Across the rest of college football, a few more backups intrigue me: Darriel Mack is UCF’s No. 2 guy right now, but he’s injured and will miss at least part of the season. At Wisconsin, blue-chip freshman Graham Mertz is waiting in the wings. I also like Chase Brice at Clemson, though we may not see much of him, and Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma, who seems like the way-too-early best candidate for the 2020 Heisman Trophy at this point. Long-term, I’ll pick Rattler to have the most success of the bunch, at least if Lincoln Riley remains in Norman, but it’s doubtful we’ll see much of him this year. I’m most intrigued about Mack in 2019; if he gets healthy midseason and Brandon Wimbush is inconsistent, he could win the Knights job.

From @MichaelDanford_: Do you think, with LSU’s new spread offense, that it will beat Alabama by double digits or triple digits?

From @boudreaux985: How badly will LSU beat Texas?

It’s a big week for excited LSU fans on Twitter and in mailbag questions—and rightfully so. The Tigers did enough against Georgia Southern (a 55–3 rout) to hold onto their No. 6 spot in the AP Poll, which is the highest LSU has been ranked after Week 1 since 2012, when it was No. 3. Optimism is warranted, not only because of that ranking or the Georgia Southern score, but also due to how the Tigers got there: with a lights-out defense and, more unusually, a productive spread offense.

Now, I’m going to assume that both Michael and Boudreaux, from their Twitter feeds and the nature of their questioning, are rampant Tigers supporters. So I can’t blame them for the glee baked into the framing of their questions, and I’m going to take that with a grain of salt. Yes, LSU’s offense looked better than it has in more than a decade, but Saturday was one game, against a Sun Belt opponent. Let’s not overnight Joe Burrow the Heisman quite yet.

But what Saturday did prove is that LSU deserves to be in the conversation—certainly with Texas, and who knows, maybe with Alabama, too. Going into the season, LSU and Texas were the two top-10 teams I had the most questions about; both of them had enough upside to be ranked so high, but I was worried about worst-case scenarios. Would LSU put together the offense it had been advertising, and could Texas replace the nine starters it lost on defense? So far, it seems like the answer to both those questions might be yes, and I think the LSU-Texas matchup will be a close one. (Sorry, Boudreaux.)

As for Alabama, it seemed unfazed by the hits it has taken to its defensive depth in Week 1 against Duke, when the Blue Devils mustered just a field goal. The Crimson Tide’s offense is dominant, but in Week 1, it’s hard to say that Tua Tagovailoa had too much of an edge over Burrow, who averaged 10.5 yards per attempt and had five touchdown passes. LSU’s offense was its best self—but that still won’t likely be enough to topple Alabama if its defensive depth looks as strong as it did in Week 1. And really, when has Nick Saban’s team not been able to pull up an elite talent to fill a vacancy on that side of the ball? After Saturday’s LSU victory, ESPN updated its FPI, which now gives the Tigers a 5.4% chance of winning out, up from 1.6%. Alabama, by those same calculations, has a 19.4% chance to go undefeated, and the FPI calculations also give the Tide a 69.1% chance to win at home against LSU on Nov. 9.

From @mrmckee: What is it that “scouts” are seeing to claim Justin Herbert is a first-round pick? I just don’t see it. He has no signature win or wins and lost to a true freshman QB in his first game. He’s captain checkdown. What am I missing?

Let’s start here: What, exactly, is the bar a quarterback has to clear to be a first-round pick? Recent drafts have offered no answer to that question. Since 2015, there have been 15 quarterbacks picked in the draft’s first 32 slots: Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota. Some won in college. Some did not but put up huge numbers. Some played for mediocre teams and showed flashes of skills that would translate to the pros.

I’m confident enough right now to claim that Herbert is more talented than half the players on that list. Last year, he passed for 3,151 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt and completing 29 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions. He dropped his touchdown-to-interception ratio from his sophomore year, but he actually dragged down his completion percentage. He went into 2018 with a career 65.3% completion rate, and then last year he completed 59.4% of his passes. In 2019, if he can increase his accuracy—which he certainly did against Auburn, going 28-of-37—that’ll add to the argument for his draft status.

Herbert looks the part, too—which I know will bring plenty of comparisons to Blake Bortles or Blaine Gabbert. But stop that, everyone. That’s mean. Let Herbert finish college and pray the Jaguars don’t draft him.

Come spring, Herbert’s size coupled with his arm strength will be irresistible to many an NFL team. So yes, I do think he’s a first-round talent, barring some sort of implosion or injury this season. But is he a consensus No. 1 pick, or even the best quarterback in his class, as some thought last year before he decided to return to school? That remains to be seen, especially in a stronger class of draft-eligible quarterbacks than a year ago. And as for the idea that Herbert is “captain checkdown,” I have to disagree, or at least to think you’re looking at too small of a sample size—namely last weekend’s game. If anything, I think Herbert has at times trusted his arm strength too much rather than turn to a shorter checkdown, and that contributed last year to his slight dip in accuracy. Against Auburn, yes, he did seem to be tossing screen after checkdown—but Herbert doesn’t call the plays, and to me, it looked like Mario Cristobal was too cowed by Auburn’s defense to actually let his quarterback and his mighty arm loose.

Note: Questions were edited for style and grammar.

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