Clemson, Michigan, Alabama quarterback battle leaders - Sports Illustrated

Handicapping the Five Most Fascinating Quarterback Battles as Spring Practice Wraps

Many of the offseason's most intriguing quarterback battles are set to drag on into fall camp. Who has made a big statement in spring ball? Plus, Washington's new deal with Adidas, definitive power ballad rankings and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
Publish date:

When true freshman Trevor Lawrence uncorked a 51-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins during Clemson’s spring game on Saturday, ESPN’s Tom Luginbill—stationed behind the offense alongside Tigers coach Dabo Swinney—looked at Swinney and said, “Oh, that’s all you needed.”

In other words, Lawrence shining in the spring game coupled with the angst generated by starter Kelly Bryant’s play in the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama will only increase the drumbeat for Clemson coaches to supplant Bryant with a younger quarterback who might have a higher ceiling. Swinney understood the subtext better than anyone. His response?

Bring it on.

Clemson has turned into a national power this decade in part because no starting job is sacred. The Tigers have four potential 2019 first-rounders on their defensive line, but if a freshman is better, that freshman would play. Quarterback isn’t going to be any different, and Swinney wants all four of his signal-callers (Bryant, Lawrence, sophomore Hunter Johnson and redshirt freshman Chase Brice) to feel as if they’re competing for the job every day between now and preseason camp. The job is Bryant’s at the moment, but that could change by September.

Clemson’s quarterback situation took center stage on a Saturday full of spring games, but it isn’t the only fascinating one playing out this spring and into the summer. Today, we’ll examine the most interesting quarterback races playing out across the country and attempt to handicap them.

We’ll start in upstate South Carolina…


The quarterbacks: Senior Kelly Bryant, freshman Trevor Lawrence, sophomore Hunter Johnson, redshirt freshman Chase Brice.
The incumbent: Bryant.
The decision: Does Swinney stick with Bryant or hand the job to a younger quarterback with less command of the offense but more upside?

The fact that Saturday’s spring game was the only time we saw Clemson’s quarterbacks probably alters the public perception of the race relative to the mood inside Clemson’s football building. Shortly after Lawrence took the field, fans saw this.

Then, almost immediately afterward, they saw Bryant miss open receivers on two plays in the same series. There were days this spring when Bryant outplayed the others, but the public didn’t see that. All we saw was the freshman looking like the better choice.

What makes Clemson’s situation so interesting is that Johnson and Brice also played well in a setup that was as close to an actual game as a spring game gets. At some point, decisions will have to be made by the quarterbacks who finish No. 3 and No. 4, and some program might find a 2019 starter in the transfer market.

Meanwhile, how will 2014 influence Swinney’s thinking? That year, the Tigers started Cole Stoudt for the first three games of the season even though freshman Deshaun Watson was a human on Clemson’s roster. Had Watson started even one game earlier, Clemson would have won at Florida State and probably would have won the ACC. Bryant clearly won the competition last year against Johnson and Zerrick Cooper, but what if the result is closer this year? Would the youngster get the nod? We’ll have to wait until preseason practice to find out.


The quarterbacks: Junior Jalen Hurts, sophomore Tua Tagovailoa.
The incumbent: Hurts (except for that last half).
The decision: Do the Crimson Tide continue starting Hurts, or will Tagovailoa follow up his heroics in the national title game by winning the job?

The news on Saturday that Tagovailoa aggravated the hand injury he suffered in Alabama’s first spring practice and may not play in the spring game means there probably won’t be any sort of resolution until preseason camp. That’s probably fine with Nick Saban, who would like to keep both quarterbacks on the roster but who also knows that might be impossible.

The race can stretch into camp because either quarterback would have to sit out the 2018 season if he transfers. So the players could go a few weeks in August and if one has obviously nailed down the starting job, the other can leave and still be eligible to start at his new school in the 2019 season opener. The assumption based on the last game we saw Alabama play is that Tagovailoa will win the competition. But let’s entertain some rational thought courtesy of the angel and the devil on Saban’s shoulders.

Point: It was only one half, and while Tagovailoa was brilliant at times, he also made several critical mistakes. (The game’s penultimate play, for example.)

Counterpoint: It may have only been one half, but that half was the second half of the freaking national championship game. And yes, taking a 16-yard sack on the first play of overtime was suboptimal, but did you see that second play?

There is a scenario in which both players could remain on Alabama’s roster, though: The Braxton Miller protocol. Based on what we’ve seen, Hurts might not be a good enough thrower to play quarterback in the NFL. But he’s almost certainly a good enough athlete to play something in the NFL. That isn’t the case for Tagovailoa, who would make the NFL as a quarterback or not at all. Might Alabama coaches convince Hurts that he could start his path to his eventual pro position at Alabama as Ohio State coaches did for Miller before the 2015 season? Miller, following multiple shoulder surgeries, wasn’t going to be an NFL quarterback, but he had graduated and could have started for one more year as a college quarterback somewhere else. Instead, Urban Meyer and his staff talked Miller into moving to receiver and catching passes from Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. The plan worked for everyone involved. Barrett was a dynamic receiver, and he wound up playing that position in the NFL. Hurts is in a different position, though. He doesn’t have Miller’s injury history, and with two more years as a college starter, he conceivably could develop into a quarterback NFL coaches might covet.

It’s unlikely either quarterback’s camp allows this decision to get dragged into the season. We should know who wins sometime in August.

SI TV on Amazon channels

Florida State

The quarterbacks: Redshirt junior Deondre Francois, sophomore James Blackman, redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman.
The incumbent: Francois. Or is it Blackman?
The decision: As long as nothing else off the field changes the math, Taggart can’t make a decision until he sees a healthy Francois running the offense. But he plans to choose a starter a week or two before the Labor Day season opener against Virginia Tech. Taggart subscribes to the “If you’ve got two quarterbacks, you’ve got no quarterback” theory, so he doesn’t want the competition to drag into the season.​

I wrote about why you shouldn’t assume that a healthy Francois will automatically win the starting job on Thursday before the news broke that Francois had entered a diversion program after being charged with marijuana possession (a misdemeanor) following an investigation in which Tallahassee police apparently surveilled Francois for two months.

Now it seems more obvious than ever that this is an open job. First-year coach Willie Taggart let Blackman and Hockman battle during the spring game, but the real competition for this job should come in August when Francois (knee) is healthy enough to practice at full speed. But Taggart was adamant last week that off-field factors such as leadership and reliability will play a role in his choice. After the spring game, he told reporters what he told Francois. “Deondre and I, we talked,” Taggart said. “And like I told you guys, we’re going to handle it internally, but we talked. He understands his responsibility as a student-athlete here. He understands my expectation of what I’m looking for, especially when it comes to our quarterback. He’s got to be smart about who he’s around and what he’s around, and make good decisions. I advise him to just make sure he’s around his teammates all the time.”

Ohio State

The quarterbacks: Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins, redshirt junior Joe Burrow, redshirt freshman Tate Martell.
The incumbent: None.
The decision: Coach Urban Meyer must decide between Haskins and Burrow, but he doesn’t have as much time as some of his fellow coaches to make that decision.

Burrow is on track to graduate in May, so he’ll want an answer in time to choose a new school if he doesn’t win the competition. He’s going to get one. In an interview Saturday with ESPN’s Marty Smith, Meyer said as much. “I think I owe him an answer, and our staff owes him an answer,” Meyer said. “I don’t know what it is right now.”

Meyer will meet with offensive coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson this week in an attempt to determine that answer. He’ll also meet with the players. He’d like all of his quarterbacks to stay, but it seems unlikely that Burrow will if he isn’t a clear-cut winner. Given the fact that Haskins helped Ohio State to a win against Michigan after J.T. Barrett went down and the fact that Haskins looked like the Buckeyes’ most dynamic QB during the spring game, it might be difficult to keep Burrow.

“I came here to play. I didn’t come here to sit on the bench for four years, and I know I’m a pretty darn good quarterback,” Burrow told reporters. “And I want to play somewhere.”

If Burrow doesn’t win the job, he could be highly sought-after on the graduate transfer market. If only there were a program run by a former Meyer lieutenant who runs a similar offense and probably could use another option in the race to choose a 2018 starter. Hey, how did this footage of Florida’s spring game wind up here?

Meanwhile, no matter who wins the starting job in Columbus, the Buckeyes could have a situation Meyer finds familiar. Martell is an electric runner, and Meyer is one of the few coaches who has managed to operate a successful two-quarterback system. He did it at Florida in 2006 with senior Chris Leak (throwing) and freshman Tim Tebow (running) and the Gators won a national title. If the Buckeyes were to combine a big-armed starter with an occasional jolt from Martell, that could force opposing defensive coordinators to prepare for a lot when facing Ohio State.


The quarterbacks: Redshirt sophomore Brandon Peters, junior Shea Patterson, redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, freshman Joe Milton.
The incumbent: Peters (sort of).
The decision: We’ll know what the NCAA decides on Patterson when that happens, but that may be the only definitive news we get until the Wolverines face Notre Dame in the season opener.​

The Wolverines’ spring game got wiped out by bad weather, meaning Jim Harbaugh didn’t have to show any of his cards this spring. This competition will remain a mystery—at least until the NCAA rules on whether Patterson can play this season.

The assumption is Ole Miss transfer Patterson will win the job if he wins a waiver from the NCAA that allows him to play right away. He claims he was misled by former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze about the amount of potential NCAA trouble Ole Miss faced before joining the Rebels in January 2016. (Patterson’s older brother was already on the Ole Miss staff at the time.) Patterson’s attorney has released Freeze’s text messages to Patterson, while Ole Miss has challenged Patterson’s version of the events in an attempt to keep the NCAA from setting a precedent that might allow more Ole Miss players to leave and play immediately. (Though it seems the players currently at Ole Miss are happy there and excited to play for coach Matt Luke.) The decision will come down soon, and at that point we’ll at least know who will be competing for the starting job in Ann Arbor.

A word of warning, though: If Patterson is granted immediate eligibility, Michigan fans would be wise not to assume he is the program’s savior. That is too much pressure to pile on Patterson, who is undeniably good but not necessarily an instant Heisman Trophy contender. Had he stayed at Ole Miss, he’d have found himself locked in a tight competition with Jordan Ta’amu, and Ta’amu—who now is the unquestioned starter at Ole Miss—might have beaten out Patterson. No matter who wins the job, Michigan won’t succeed on offense unless the blocking gets better and the Wolverines can establish a run game that allows their play-action pass game to flourish.

A Random Ranking

These rankings are at their best when they are as random as possible, and that’s why I’m so excited about this installment. It began when I received this question:

I have not ranked those songs, and today is the day to rectify that oversight. But there are a few things we need to clear up. First, exactly what is a power ballad?

Initially, I thought I’d require an electric guitar, but that seems too restrictive. After some back-and-forth with the readers on Twitter, we decided on this:

Not every hair band song is a power ballad, but only a hair band can make a power ballad. What we’re looking for is a slower-than-usual tempo song by a certain kind of band that dominated music from the mid-1980s until Nirvana released Nevermind and effectively ended the genre’s popularity overnight.

This led to one more question for reasons that will become obvious when you see the ranking. Is Guns N’ Roses too good to be considered a hair band? GNR came up on the hair band circuit in Los Angeles in the mid-’80s, but its impact was far more lasting than contemporaries such as Mötley Crüe and L.A. Guns. So do I leave GNR out for producing too much quality, or do I classify them as the best of the category? Read on for your answer.

On another note, this particular time period was the Power Ballad Golden Age. (Though the year range does eliminate Mötley Crüe’s best work in this subgenre.) It also encompasses the entirety of my middle school years. This is when I was most susceptible to music of dubious quality. This list probably could have been a top 40 and I still would have faced some tough choices.

Also, I absolutely made a Spotify playlist and cranked it.

1. “November Rain”, Guns N’ Roses

2. “High Enough”, Damn Yankees

3. “I Remember You”, Skid Row

4.Heaven”, Warrant

5. “To Be With You”, Mr. Big

6. “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”, Cinderella

7. “More Than Words Can Say”, Alias

8. “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”, Poison

9. “Love Song”, Tesla

10. “Living In Sin”, Bon Jovi

11. “Fly To The Angels”, Slaughter

12. “Love Kills”, Vinnie Vincent Invasion

13. “More Than Words”, Extreme

14. “Love Bites”, Def Leppard

15. “Wind Of Change”, Scorpions

Three and Out

1. Washington announced an apparel switch from Nike to Adidas last week, and Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen is already tempering expectations about what the Huskies’ new football uniforms will look like when the 10-year, $120 million deal kicks in.

“I’m going to go on record right now: Not everybody’s going to love them,” Cohen said on a conference call with local reporters, according to Adam Jude of The Seattle Times. “But [tradition] will be the spirit behind our decision-making when we go into that process.”

What a ringing endorsement.

Adidas could have avoided this type of reaction by choosing not to make such ugly uniforms for its teams in recent years. The company has done quite well in everything else lately. The shoes from its Boost line feel like walking on clouds and are more comfortable than any sneaker on the market. We also know Adidas is willing to, um, go the extra mile for its schools in basketball. So why does Adidas choose to saddle its featured schools with hideousness like the cummerbund basketball shorts or chain mail football jerseys?

Last year’s throwback variation at Nebraska suggests the message might finally have gotten through in three-stripe land. Just because you pay schools to wear your uniforms is no excuse to make them so unattractive. In fact, you’ll probably sell more jerseys to fans if they aren’t ugly. So remember that, Adidas designers, as you go to work with the Huskies.

2. The NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a rule change that will allow any kickoff caught inside the 25-yard line to be fair caught and ruled a touchback (thus allowing the offense to start its drive on the 25). I explained a few weeks ago why this half measure won’t produce the result the Football Oversight Committee wants. There are a few better solutions, but those who run the game aren’t ready to go that far yet.

3. One of the best things about spring games is when a team can create a lasting memory. Rutgers did that for five-year-old Mordecai Carthy.

What’s Eating Andy?

Texas offensive line coach and occasional Punt, Pass & Pork food sherpa Herb Hand visited Austin’s Franklin Barbecue for the first time this past weekend. Let’s live vicariously through him for a moment.

What’s Andy Eating?

Nothing. Well, not nothing. But an awful lot of lettuce and very few simple carbohydrates. Just as I did this time last year, I stepped on the scale and realized that spending a college football/basketball season eating some of the nation’s most decadent delights isn’t the healthiest way to live. I weighed 277 pounds, and that’s far too much.

I know I’m going to lose weight now. I’ve always exercised plenty. My problem is eating too much. I tend to get my intake under control when work slows down and I don’t travel as often. That’s why I always lose weight this time of year. In 2017, I dropped about 25 pounds and went into the football season weighing 250. But it’s all back, and I can’t keep riding that yo-yo. I need to drop at least 30 pounds, and I need to keep it off.

My biological father had his first heart attack at 40. I’ll be 40 later this year. I’ve been seeing a cardiologist since age 30 to make sure my cholesterol is under control (it is), and I’ve avoided some of the pitfalls (smoking, avoiding vegetables, not exercising) that cause most early heart attacks. But my genes are what they are. I can’t keep carrying this much weight around without running into a serious problem.

So I’m going to alter this section a little going forward. You’ll still see most of the delights you’re used to seeing. If you’ve read this space for a while, you know it’s unrealistic for me to morph into a complete health nut. I will eat barbecue. I will eat burgers. I will eat pizza. I will eat pie. What I need to learn is portion control. I don’t need the entire rack of ribs. I don’t need the one-pound burger. I don’t need the entire pizza. I don’t need the entire pie.

So along with the high-calorie stuff, you’ll also occasionally see a healthy option. I know a lot of you struggle with the same issues I do. So perhaps we can help one another. I’ll toss in a few healthy (but still tasty) recommendations, and when you find something delicious and healthy, you send it to me on Twitter at @Andy_Staples. Let’s all become underwear models together!