The list of Power 5 programs that underperformed last season because of subpar quarterback play is long and dismaying. A top-shelf QB can make the difference between a four- or five-win campaign and bowl eligibility, or between a conference championship game appearance and a College Football Playoff berth. A reliable distributor under center simplifies things for offensive coordinators and can paper over weaknesses on that side of the ball.
That helps explain why quarterback recruiting news, for the most part, receives so much more attention than recruiting news at other positions. It’s also why signing a blue-chip passer can make a program’s recruiting cycle a productive one no matter what the rest of the class looks like. With a high-level playmaker in place at the most important position on the field, there’s a good chance you’re going to put up a lot of points no matter who he’s throwing or handing the ball off to.
As is typical, almost all of the most highly regarded signal-callers in the class of 2018 made their college decisions well in advance of National Signing Day on Feb. 7. Centennial (Calif.) High’s Tanner McKee, rated the No. 3 pro-style passer nationally, is the lone holdout among the top 10 overall quarterbacks in the class, according to the 247Sports Composite. But he’s a special case. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, McKee plans to serve a two-year mission before enrolling in college.
McKee, who’s set to announce his choice on signing day, would be a huge pickup for a program without an urgent need at his position. Removing him from the equation, most of the class of 2018’s best QBs who have revealed their college destinations signed during the new, early window last month. You won’t see these guys in action with their college programs until spring ball at the earliest, but signing day offers a good opportunity to dive into why they’re so highly regarded and what should be expected of them next season and beyond.
Below is SI.com’s breakdown of the nation’s top 10 incoming quarterback recruits, as ranked by the 247Sports Composite.
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
247Sports Composite rank: No. 1 overall, No. 1 pro-style QB
Height/weight: 6'6"/208 pounds
High School: Cartersville (Cartersville, Ga.)
Clemson proved this season that it doesn’t need an all-conference quarterback like Deshaun Watson to compete at the sport’s highest level. It won 12 games, completed an ACC three-peat and reached the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year on the strength of a dominant defense and deep running game. Lawrence’s arrival suggests it may not be long before the Tigers are rolling out another Heisman Trophy candidate and future first-round draft pick to run their offense.
Unlike the Georgia-based signal caller that led Clemson to a national championship following the 2016 season (Watson), Lawrence is classified as a pro-style passer. He’s coveted for his size, tight release and arm strength, traits that helped him break Watson’s state passing yards record in October. Yet Lawrence’s recruiting pedigree doesn’t ensure he’ll take the starting job as a true freshman. Last year’s starter, Kelly Bryant, will be back as a senior in 2018, and the Tigers return an underclassman with a distinguished high school CV himself in Hunter Johnson. (Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper recently decided to transfer to Jacksonville State.) Recent history suggests the best course is to pump the breaks on the Lawrence hype train. You’ll recall that last year, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney tabbed Bryant to lead the first-team offense even after Johnson, the No. 2 pro-style QB in the class of 2017 and U.S. Army All-American Bowl MVP, showed well in spring workouts.
Justin Fields, Georgia
247Sports Composite rank: No. 2 overall, No. 1 dual-threat QB
Height/weight: 6'3"/221 pounds
High School: Harrison (Kennesaw, Ga.)
Few players’ recruitments in this class were more dramatic than Fields’s. He decommitted from Penn State last June after initially committing to the Nittany Lions the previous December. Fields wound up making his second pledge, to Georgia, in early October, but with more than two months before the early signing period, there was plenty of time for other schools to try to persuade him to reconsider his choice. Jake Fromm’s success as a true freshman at Georgia added more intrigue: Would Fields really want to join a program whose starter has three years of eligibility remaining?
Fields didn’t waver on his verbal, signing in December, and that decision could set up one of the most compelling quarterback battles across the Power 5 conferences. Fromm proved he’s legit this season by guiding the Bulldogs to an SEC title and the national championship game while laying waste to the notion that he’s a mere game manager, and in most circumstances, that would be enough for a QB to guarantee he’d walk into fall camp without having to worry about securing his place on the depth chart. That may ultimately be true, but if Fields really is the special run-pass dynamo with a Cam Newton-type ceiling that scouting reports suggest he might be, then Fromm is going to need to maintain, if not elevate, the form he flashed last season to avoid being Tua Tagovailoa’d as a sophomore.
JT Daniels, USC
247Sports Composite rank: No. 16 overall, No. 2 pro-style QB
Height/weight: 6'2"/205 pounds
High School: Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
USC received good and bad news on the quarterback front this winter. First, the bad: Sam Darnold announced that he was passing on his last two seasons of college eligibility and entering the NFL draft. A little less than two weeks before that, the good news dropped: Daniels said he was reclassifying from 2019 to 2018. He’ll leave Mater Dei, the same school that produced former Trojans passers Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in recent California history, having set Orange County records in career passing yards (12,014) and passing touchdowns (152), and in 2017 he became the first junior to win MaxPreps’ player of the year award since Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray in 2013. Daniels also may have helped USC reel in the most highly regarded prospect in its Pac-12-best 2018 class, five-star wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who teamed with Daniels at Mater Dei.
Darnold’s departure opens up the door for Daniels to battle to be USC’s No. 1 QB right away. His main competitors are two underclassmen (Matt Fink and Jack Sears) who both ranked outside the top 100 of their respective recruiting classes, and only one of them (Fink) attempted a pass last season. Daniels is young, but based on the would-be-prep-senior’s statistical production and glowing scouting evaluations, he could be the Trojans’ best option this fall.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA
247Sports Composite rank: No. 36 overall, No. 2 dual-threat QB
Height/weight: 6'1.5"/195 pounds
High School: Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, Nev.)
When Thompson-Robinson issued a verbal commitment to UCLA last April, he was regarded as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country despite attempting only 48 passes the previous two seasons while current Ohio State rising sophomore Tate Martell served as Bishop Gorman’s starter. Thompson-Robinson stuck to his pledge even after the Bruins endured another rocky season in the Pac-12, fired former head coach Jim Mora and hired Chip Kelly to replace him. Thompson-Robinson did not sign with the Bruins during the early window, but that wasn’t a major cause for alarm. He hasn’t indicated that he’s vacillating on the idea of becoming the trigger man in Kelly’s high-octane spread system, an intriguing possibility that nonetheless would mark a stark contrast from the Bruins’ three-season stint under outgoing pro-style prototype Josh Rosen.
Thompson-Robinson is set to join the competition to replace the potential top-two draft pick, one that added a new member earlier this month when Washington graduate transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels revealed he was headed to Westwood, where he’ll be eligible immediately. Another signal-caller Thompson-Robinson will need to fend off is Devon Modster, who completed 51 of his 79 passing attempts for 671 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in relief of Rosen as a redshirt freshman last season.
Justin Rogers, TCU
247Sports Composite rank: No. 43 overall, No. 3 dual-threat QB
Height/weight: 6'4"/210 pounds
High School: Parkway (Bossier City, La.)
Kenny Hill threw his final college pass in December during TCU’s thrilling comeback win over Stanford in the Alamo Bowl. Over the course of his two seasons as the starter, the Horned Frogs prepared for Hill’s eventual departure by reeling in two nimble quarterbacks with the potential to shine under co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie: class of 2017 signee Shawn Robinson and Rogers. The latter enrolled at TCU in January after undergoing knee surgery to address a season-ending injury suffered in Parkway’s opener last year and opting against flipping to home-state power LSU. As a junior, he passed for 2,646 yards and 26 touchdowns while tacking on 566 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
If he’s fully recovered by the beginning of spring practice, Rogers should have an opportunity to open his true freshman season as TCU’s starter. First, he’ll need to beat out Robinson, who completed only 13 of his 27 passing attempts as a reserve behind Hill last season but showed up in Fort Worth as one of the top dual-threat QBs in his class. Having worked in TCU’s system for a year already, Robinson will have a head start on Rogers, but assuming there are no major setbacks related to the injury, Rogers should, at minimum, remain in the mix for first-team repetitions heading into fall camp.
Joey Gatewood, Auburn
247Sports Composite rank: No. 49 overall, No. 1 athlete
Height/weight: 6'4"/232 pounds
High School: Bartram Trail (St. Johns, Fla.)
A lot has changed at Auburn since Gatewood first committed to the Tigers in December 2015. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham transferred in from Baylor. Former offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left to take the same position at UConn (and then left there for Southern Methodist). The Tigers won 18 games over two seasons and agreed to a contract extension with head coach Gus Malzahn amid reported interest from Arkansas. Gatewood held firm with the Tigers through all of that, and he enrolled in January as the most highly ranked member of Auburn’s 2018 class after passing for 1,468 yards and 12 touchdowns against one interception plus rushing for 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior at Bartram Trail.
The Cam Newton comparisons started rolling in well before Gatewood signed with Auburn, and Malzahn lent more credence to the Newton hype last month when he described Gatewood as the “closest thing to Cam Newton physically that I’ve seen.” Gatewood may bear a physical resemblance to Newton. Whether or not Gatewood shows up on the Plains ready to break college defenses like Newton did is another matter entirely. In any case, it’ll probably be at least one more season until we find out: Stidham decided he would return to school in 2018 after being named second-team All-SEC last season.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
247Sports Composite rank: No. 63 overall, No. 4 pro-style QB
Height/weight: 6'2"/196 pounds
High School: Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.)
On the surface, it might seem sort of strange that a quarterback from Southern California elected to play college football in the SEC over a Pac-12 program, such as the blueblood one nearby, USC. Well, Corral actually was committed to the Trojans at one point, but he revoked that pledge last June and subsequently made the call for Florida. The Gators’ decisions to fire former head coach Jim McElwain and tab Mississippi State’s Mullen as McElwain’s successor changed things for Corral, who decided to flip to Ole Miss less than a week before the early signing period.
Corral has a chance to instantly seize control of an offense that was one of the SEC’s most productive on a per-play basis last season. Former uber-recruit Shea Patterson has transferred to Michigan, leaving upperclassman Jordan Ta’amu as Corral’s biggest impediment to first-team snaps. Ta’amu, a junior college transfer from Hawaii, kept the Rebels’ offense humming after Patterson went down with a knee injury last season, completing 66.5% of his passes for 1,682 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions over eight games. If Ta’amu can maintain that output, Corral probably won’t unseat him, but if Corral does, he’ll have a second-team All-SEC left tackle protecting his blindside (Greg Little) and one of the conference’s top receiving corps at his disposal (A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, DaMarkus Lodge).
Jarren Williams, Miami
247Sports Composite rank: No. 77 overall, No. 5 pro-style QB
Height/weight: 6'2"/206 pounds
High School: Central Gwinnett (Lawrenceville, Ga.)
When Artur Sitkowski, the No. 18 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018, flipped to Rutgers from Miami in November, it left a glaring hole in the Hurricanes’ otherwise stellar haul. They filled it in early December with someone who talent evaluators seem to believe has more upside than Sitkowski by adding Williams, who’d previously committed to and decommitted from Kentucky two times.
Miami finds itself in the unusual position of staging a quarterback competition even though it returns a senior starter, Malik Rosier, from a team that notched double-digit wins, reached a Power 5 conference championship game and played in a New Year’s Six bowl. Rosier tossed more interceptions than any other ACC quarterback last season, he rated eighth among qualifying quarterbacks in the conference in efficiency rating and he completed only 44% of his passes over the Hurricanes’ three-game losing skid to close the season. If coaches aren’t convinced Rosier can become a more consistent passer in year two as the starter, they can turn to an unproven option like N’Kosi Perry, who redshirted last year after being rated as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite; Cade Weldon, the son of 1991 Heisman Trophy runner-up Casey Weldon; or Williams. One QB Williams won’t have to fend off is Evan Shirreffs, who decided to transfer after attempting seven passes over four games as a reserve last season.
Phil Jurkovec, Notre Dame
247Sports Composite rank: No. 83 overall, No. 4 dual-threat QB
Height/weight: 6'5"/215 pounds
High School: Pine-Richland (Gibsonia, Pa.)
Notre Dame’s quarterback situation is in flux heading into the offseason. First-year starter Brandon Wimbush was benched in favor of Ian Book during the Fighting Irish’s meeting with LSU in the Citrus Bowl last month, and Book proceeded to complete 14 of his 19 passing attempts for 164 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 21–17 win over the Tigers. Wimbush is a powerful runner who ranked 11th among quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing yards last season, but he limited Notre Dame’s passing game, connecting on only 49.5% of his attempts. Book was more accurate than Wimbush last season, albeit over a smaller sample (61.3% on 75 attempts).
With Jurkovec in the fold, the Fighting Irish should feel confident that they have a signal-caller who can burn defenses both with his arm and his legs. As a senior at Pine-Richland last season, Jurkovec completed 72.8% of his throws for 3,969 yards with 39 touchdowns against six interceptions, and rushed for 1,211 yards with 24 touchdowns at a 9.2 yards-per-carry clip, according to MaxPreps. Jurkovec will need to leapfrog Wimbush, Book and Avery Davis, the No. 8 dual-threat QB in the class of 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite, to get on the field with the first team as a true freshman, but the absence of a clear-cut starter should help his chances.
Emory Jones, Florida
247Sports Composite rank: No. 85 overall, No. 5 dual-threat QB
Height/weight: 6'2.5"/195 pounds
High School: Heard County (Franklin, Ga.)
Had Dan Mullen failed to bring in Jones last month after settling into his new job as Florida’s head coach, he would have been staring down the prospect of entering his inaugural season in Gainesville with an unremarkable crop of players at a position that has produced far more headaches than highlights for the Gators since Tim Tebow left campus. Jones had been committed to Ohio State since July 2016, but he ultimately decided to rescind that pledge in favor of signing with Florida in December. The cupboard isn’t totally bare here: Mullen inherited multiple other quarterbacks from the previous regime, but Jones is the QB he hand-picked to run his system after previously offering Jones his first scholarship back when Mullen was at Mississippi State.
Although there are three other Peach State-based passers in the class of 2018 who are ranked higher than Jones (Lawrence, Fields and Williams), he may have a better shot at instant playing time than all of them. Feleipe Franks is the only signal caller who attempted a pass for Florida last season that will be back in 2018, and his performance over 11 games as a redshirt freshman (1,438 yards with a 54.6% completion rate, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions) didn’t do much to assuage skepticism about the Gators’ quarterback situation at the outset of the Mullen era. Mullen’s history as a quarterback developer should inspire optimism about Jones’s capacity to bloom into a capable starter.