Top 10 QB competitions to monitor in 2014 college football spring practice
Not every team is as fortunate as Florida State. Fresh off winning their first national championship since 1999, the Seminoles enter the 2014 season with no doubts about their starting quarterback. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston will use spring practice to further develop a rapport with his receiving corps and shake off any rust from the past few months. Jimbo Fisher can rest easy knowing his offense is in capable hands.
Several other high-profile programs aren’t as lucky. Many enter this spring with a sense of uncertainty at the sport’s most important position. Here’s a look at 10 of the most intriguing quarterback competitions, listed alphabetically, to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
Over three seasons as the Crimson Tide’s starter, AJ McCarron developed into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Nick Saban should give Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who challenged Winston for the Seminoles’ job last fall, every opportunity to replace him. However, Coker is finishing his degree in Tallahassee this semester, so he won’t arrive in Tuscaloosa until this summer. In the meantime, five candidates -- redshirt freshmen Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod, senior Blake Sims, sophomore Alec Morris and true freshman David Cornwell -- will try to impress new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Coker, a Mobile, Ala., native, suffered a torn meniscus in November, but he’s generated plenty of offseason buzz.
Remember Gunner Kiel? The top-rated pro-style passer in the class of 2012 who verbally committed to Indiana, flipped to LSU and eventually signed with Notre Dame? Well, he transferred to Cincinnati last April and sat out the ’13 season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules. Kiel ran the scout team in practice and could earn the starting job this fall. Dual-threat passer Munchie Legaux was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a gruesome left knee injury (he suffered a dislocation and tore all four major ligaments) in the Bearcats’ loss to Illinois on Sept. 7. Legaux has participated in throwing drills, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be ready by the season opener. Juco transfer Jarred Evans is also vying for the starting job.
The good news for LSU’s starting quarterback? He will have one of the best offensive lines in the country, as well as a running back who has already been likened to Adrian Peterson, to work with. The bad news? He’ll have to get up to speed quickly. Sophomore Anthony Jennings engineered a 99-yard, game-winning touchdown drive after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger in the fourth quarter of LSU’s regular-season finale against Arkansas. Yet he struggled in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win over Iowa; he went 7-of-19 with zero touchdowns and one interception. Jennings will need to hold off heralded freshman Brandon Harris, a Bossier City, La., native who enrolled in Baton Rouge in January. Coach Les Miles could also turn to redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig, a more traditional pocket passer.
Recent history suggests that coach Mike Gundy won’t hesitate to start a true freshman quarterback. Gundy named Wes Lunt, who has since transferred to Illinois, the starter at the end of spring practice two years ago. Touted incoming freshman Mason Rudolph, an early enrollee out of Rock Hill, S.C., could challenge junior J.W. Walsh for the starting job this fall. Walsh regressed last season after playing well as a redshirt freshman, but he might be the safer option of the two. Keep in mind, Oklahoma State, which returns just 10 starters, opens against defending national champion Florida State on Aug. 30.
The Volunteers used three quarterbacks (senior Justin Worley, sophomore Joshua Dobbs and redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman) last season. Worley was named the starter coming out of preseason camp and led an upset victory over South Carolina on Oct. 19, but he suffered a thumb injury at Alabama a week later that forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Dobbs took over as the starter and showed glimpses of potential, though the Vols stumbled down the stretch against brutal schedule that included consecutive games against 'Bama, Missouri and Auburn. Peterman completed just four passes and threw two interceptions before injuring his thumb in his lone start, against Florida on Sept. 21. The fan favorite, however, may be a fourth option. Though redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson has yet to attempt a collegiate pass, the Matthews, N.C., native has already captured the imagination of those on Rocky Top.
Senior David Ash was cleared to participate in spring drills after a concussion forced him to miss 10 games last season. Ash will have to beat out sophomore dual-threat passer Tyrone Swoopes, a former four-star recruit who played in five games last fall. This competition could get more interesting if USC transfer Max Wittek chooses to come to Austin (he is reportedly also considering Hawaii and is expected to make a decision in May), and once touted freshman Jerrod Heard arrives on campus this summer. Heard is working with quarterback guru George Whitfield alongside Baylor’s Bryce Petty, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and North Carolina’s Marquise Williams this spring. Ash has the most experience of the bunch, but new coach Charlie Strong could opt to go with one of the Longhorns’ unproven -- and potentially higher-upside -- options.
Whoever wins the Aggies’ starting job will inevitably -- and perhaps unfairly -- draw comparisons to Johnny Manziel. Yet neither senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill nor freshman Kyle Allen should be expected to put up Johnny Football-type numbers this fall. “Is there going to be another Johnny Manziel?" head coach Kevin Sumlin asked SI.com's Andy Staples recently. “No.” While Joeckel has the benefit of experience and Hill is a dual-threat passer, Allen, who enrolled early, might be the most talented of the three. He was the top-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com. Something else to keep in mind? Texas A&M’s offense for the past two seasons was tailored around Manziel. At Houston, Sumlin coached record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, who fit the pro-style mold.
After beating out Wittek -- who has since elected to transfer -- for the starting job last fall, redshirt junior Cody Kessler completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Kessler ended the season on a high note, throwing for 345 yards with four scores in the Trojans’ 45-20 Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State. However, the starting job is far from locked up. Kessler will be pushed by redshirt freshman Max Browne. A former five-star prospect, Browne was recruited by new coach Steve Sarkisian during his tenure at Washington.
Sophomore Cyler Miles played well in limited action behind Keith Price last season, and he was considered the frontrunner to earn the starting spot in 2014. However, Miles was suspended indefinitely in February for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He has not participated in spring practice. That should allow sophomore Jeff Lindquist and redshirt freshman Troy Williams to make an impression on new coach Chris Petersen. Lindquist, who played sparingly last year, was a four-star prospect coming out of Mercer Island (Wash.) High in ’12. Meanwhile, Williams redshirted last year but comes with impressive credentials: He was the top-rated dual-threat quarterback in the class of ’13, according to Rivals.com. If Lindquist and Williams wow Petersen this spring, will Miles be able to make up lost ground if/when he returns to the team?
A shoulder injury suffered during the Badgers’ Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina has forced Joel Stave, who started every game last season, to take limited reps this spring. That opens the door for true freshman D.J. Gillins, a former four-star recruit, and Tanner McEvoy, who competed for the starting spot last year before ultimately switching to safety. Both provide mobility, something Stave largely lacks. Redshirt sophomore Bart Houston, a more traditional pocket passer, should also get a look. Whoever wins the starting job will be tested immediately. Wisconsin faces LSU in its season opener on Aug. 30.