Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
North Carolina's Marquise Williams is a player to watch next year.
With spring practice already underway for some college football teams, the countdown to the 2014 season has officially started. There’s still a long way to go before August and the season opener, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which players are ready for a big jump in production.
There’s no question quarterback is the most important position on the field. And the scrutiny on signal-callers is at an all-time high with college football’s playoff set to start in 2014. While some teams like Florida State or Oregon have zero concerns about their starting quarterbacks, other programs are searching for an answer in spring practice.
But there’s also another category for teams to fall into. Teams like Georgia, Missouri and Pittsburgh are technically breaking in a new starter, but there’s not much concern over the quarterback position.
Although names like Missouri’s Maty Mauk, Georgia’s Hutson Mason and Pittsburgh’s Chad Voytik are far from household names, these players could play a key role in determining a division or conference title.
In addition to Mauk, Mason and Voytik, here are a few other quarterbacks that could be breakout stars in 2014.
College Football's Top 10 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2014
Jacob Coker, Alabama
With Jameis Winston entrenched for at least one more year in Tallahassee, Coker took advantage of the graduate transfer rule and left Florida State for Alabama for a chance to win a starting job in the SEC. Although Coker has to compete with a host of options this spring (Blake Sims, David Cornwell, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman), he is considered to be the favorite to start Alabama’s season opener against West Virginia. The junior doesn’t have a ton of experience from his two years in Tallahassee, but there’s also a lot to like about the Alabama native. Coker completed 21 of 41 throws for 295 yards and one touchdown in two seasons with the Seminoles. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds – along with a strong arm – Coker has all of the intangibles coaches want in a quarterback. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the best in the nation at developing quarterbacks, and Coker gave Winston a run for the starting job in the fall. Although Coker doesn’t have a start on the collegiate level, there’s no shortage of talent or potential as he looks to win Alabama’s starting job this preseason.
Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
Bowling Green made one of the offseason’s top hires in Dino Babers, and the Falcons should be the frontrunner to win the MAC in 2014. The former Baylor assistant built one of the top offenses in the FCS ranks last year, as Eastern Illinois averaged 48.2 points per game and averaged 372.4 passing yards per contest. Johnson appears to be the perfect triggerman for Babers’ offense after throwing for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first season as a starter in 2013. The Pennsylvania native also tossed only seven picks in 369 attempts and added 230 yards and five scores on the ground. As long as Johnson quickly adapts to the new offense, he should have a monster season under Babers’ direction.
Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
It’s hard to put too much stock in what happens in bowl games, but it’s also hard to ignore Knight’s performance against Alabama. After throwing just 90 passes during the regular season, Knight hoisted 44 attempts against the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, completing 32 of those for 348 yards and four scores. The performance against Alabama was easily the best of Knight’s 2013 season. However, there were other bright spots for the Texas native throughout the regular season. Knight threw for 171 yards and added 82 on the ground against Kansas State, while he rushed for 123 yards in a 48-10 win against Iowa State. If Knight can build off his bowl performance, he could elevate Oklahoma into contention for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. The Sooners need to reload in the receiving corps, but there’s still talent on the offensive line, and with Blake Bell moving to tight end there’s no question which quarterback will be taking snaps in Norman this fall.
Hutson Mason, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury was a huge blow for Georgia’s offense, but it also created an opportunity for Mason to secure the No. 1 spot heading into spring practice. In relief of Murray against Kentucky, Mason completed 13 of 19 passes for 189 yards and one score. In his first career start, Mason rallied Georgia to a 41-34 overtime win against Georgia Tech by throwing for 299 yards and two touchdowns. Considering the sloppy conditions, the Gator Bowl isn’t the best judge of Mason’s ability, but he did manage to throw for 320 yards in that game. Mason is still largely unproven despite his performances at the end of 2013. However, Georgia’s supporting cast is strong, and Mason has spent the last four years waiting for this chance. With a strong grasp of the offense, Mason should take full advantage of his opportunity to be the Bulldogs’ starter.
Maty Mauk, Missouri
Mauk appears to be the next in a line of successful quarterbacks produced by Missouri. After James Franklin suffered a shoulder injury against Georgia, Mauk’s production helped to keep the Tigers in contention for the SEC East title. In his first start against Florida, the Ohio native threw for 295 yards and one touchdown on 18 completions. Mauk threw for five touchdowns against Kentucky and passed for 163 yards and three scores against Tennessee. Even though his 1,071 yards and 11 passing scores from last year were impressive, the most important number from Mauk’s final stat line was just two interceptions in 133 attempts. Mauk’s completion percentage could use a little work (51.1 percent), but he averaged nearly 16 yards per completion (15.7). He will have a few ups and downs in his first full season as the starter, but all signs point to a breakout year for Mauk.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
After finishing last season on a three-game winning streak, along with the return of 16 starters, Dan Mullen could have the best team of his tenure coming back to Starkville. Prescott is one of the driving forces behind Mississippi State’s hope for a breakout 2014, as the Louisiana native finished the season by throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns in the 44-7 blowout win over Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Prescott showed flashes of promise in SEC play by recording 303 total yards against Texas A&M and led Mississippi State to a comeback win over Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. Prescott still has room to improve, but with Tyler Russell expiring his eligibility, he will spend all preseason working with the No. 1 offense. The junior is a perfect fit for Mullen’s offense and could approach 1,000 rushing yards after leading the Bulldogs with 829 yards on the ground last year.
Chad Voytik, Pittsburgh
Paul Chryst got a glimpse of the future when Tom Savage suffered an injury in the bowl win over Bowling Green. Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t miss a beat with Voytik at the controls, as the Panthers posted 13 points in the second half and punted only once on five drives. Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards against the Falcons and rushed for 24 yards on two attempts. The Tennessee native threw only 11 passes last season, but there’s no question about his talent, ranking as the No. 16 quarterback recruit in the 2012 signing class. As evidenced by his work at Wisconsin, Chryst knows how to develop quarterbacks and make the most out of his talent. Voytik has the talent and intangibles and should flourish under Chryst’s tutelage this season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Voytik’s development that he will be throwing to standout receiver Tyler Boyd and protected by a line that returns four starters.
P.J. Walker, Temple
Temple started 0-6 last year but rallied to win two out of their final six games, including a 41-21 road contest at Memphis in the season finale. A key reason for the turnaround was Walker’s emergence as the team’s starting quarterback. The New Jersey native started the final seven contests and finished the season with 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns, while tossing only eight picks on 250 attempts. Walker also added 332 yards and three scores on the ground. Another positive sign for Temple was Walker’s completion percentage (60.8), as well as a solid 13.7 yards per completion. Even though top receiver Robby Anderson won’t return, Walker is poised to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
Davis Webb, Texas Tech
With Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield transferring, Webb enters spring practice entrenched as Texas Tech’s No. 1 quarterback. With a clear path to the starting job, along with a standout performance in the Holiday Bowl, Webb appears to be on his way to emerging as Texas Tech’s next star quarterback. As a true freshman last year, the Texas native threw for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns on 361 attempts, while tossing only nine picks. Webb completed 62.6 percent of his throws and threw for at least 385 yards in five out of his last six games. The Red Raiders need to replace standout receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro, but Kliff Kingsbury should have this offense performing at a high level once again.
Marquise Williams, North Carolina
The Tar Heels were one of the hottest teams in the ACC by the end of 2013, and Larry Fedora’s team should be a factor in the Coastal Division title picture this fall. Williams was one of the top factors behind the late-season turnaround, taking over starting quarterback duties after Bryn Renner was lost for the year with a shoulder injury. The North Carolina native’s first career start came against Virginia Tech in early October, passing for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-17 road loss. The Tar Heels fared better in Williams’ next start, winning a 45-14 matchup against Virginia, followed by a 34-27 road win at Pittsburgh. Williams was sharp in an easy win over Old Dominion, gashing the Monarchs defense for 469 total yards and four touchdowns. Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s top running back corps, along with a handful of talented weapons at receiver. Williams will face competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, but all signs point to the junior building off a successful finish to the 2013 season.
Other Names to Watch
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Armstrong will have to compete with Johnny Stanton and Zack Darlington for the starting spot, but he showed flashes of promise in his redshirt freshman season, throwing for 966 yards in nine games, including 163 in the bowl win over Georgia.
Drew Barker, Kentucky
True freshman passer is a key piece for Mark Stoops’ rebuilding effort in Lexington. Barker ranked as the No. 119 prospect in the 247Sports Composite this season and will have an opportunity to win the starting job this spring.
Jacoby Brissett, NC State
The Wolfpack struggled on offense last season, but improvement should be noticeable in 2014. With former starters Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell no longer in the picture following a disappointing 2013 campaign under center, Brissett is a welcomed upgrade. He was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and threw for 455 yards in two seasons at Florida.
Will Gardner, Louisville
There’s no doubt Louisville will miss Teddy Bridgewater. But Gardner is an intriguing option for new coach Bobby Petrino. The Georgia native completed 8 of 12 passes for 112 yards in mop-up duty last year and has upside to develop in the Cardinals’ new offense.
Jared Goff, California
Goff had his share of freshman mistakes last year, but he finished 2013 with a respectable stat line – 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns. Under the direction of Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin, Goff should be in for a significant jump in production in 2014.
Terrel Hunt, Syracuse
Hunt averaged only 9.8 yards per attempt last year, but the New York native played his best in Syracuse’s final two games. In the win against Boston College, Hunt threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 90 yards and one score. In the 21-17 victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, Hunt completed 19 of 29 passes for 188 yards and added 74 yards and two scores on the ground. Both games should serve as a sign of progress for the Orange's offense under coordinator George McDonald heading into 2014.
Jaquez Johnson, FAU
Finished first season at FAU with six passing touchdowns over final two games and led the team with 772 rushing yards. Johnson was named as Conference USA’s Newcomer of the Year last season and accounted for 2,648 of FAU’s 4,615 yards in 2013.
Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati
Kiel ranked as the No. 2 quarterback in the 2012 signing class but never played a snap at Notre Dame. The Indiana native threw for 4,831 yards and 61 touchdowns in two seasons at Columbus East High School and was the Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year in 2011. Kiel has all of the physical tools necessary to succeed at Cincinnati, and with Munchie Legaux likely sidelined until this summer, he should have a clear path to the starting job.
Sefo Liufau, Colorado
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and coordinator Brian Lindgren were instrumental in developing San Jose State passer David Fales. Liufau showed promise in limited action last season, finishing the year with 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns on 149 completions. Liufau closed the year by throwing for seven touchdowns and just three interceptions over his final three games.
Wes Lunt, Illinois
Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six scores for Oklahoma State in 2012, and the Illinois native should be a good fit in Bill Cubit’s offense. However, the receiving corps for the Fighting Illini is a concern.
Cyler Miles, Washington
Miles was suspended indefinitely in early February due to an off-the-field incident. If he returns to the team, the sophomore should be a breakout player in the Pac-12. Miles completed 37 of 61 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns last year. He made one start (Oregon State) and led the Huskies to a 69-27 victory over Oregon State.
Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
Mullens was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season and seemed to get better with every snap. He finished 2013 with 1,776 yards and 13 touchdowns but arguably had his best performances in the final two games (MTSU and UAB). In the Golden Eagles’ 62-27 dismantling of UAB, Mullens threw for 370 yards and five scores. The Alabama native will have some extra guidance in 2014, as his high school coach (Chip Lindsey) was hired by Todd Monken as the team’s offensive coordinator.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson ranked as the No. 41 prospect in the 247Sports Composite ranking for the 2014 signing class. He will have to compete with Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly for the starting job, but Watson has upside and talent to emerge as Clemson’s starting quarterback. And enrolling early to get a jumpstart on learning Chad Morris’ offense certainly doesn’t hurt.
Mike White, South Florida
White did not play at all in the first six games but finished 2013 as South Florida’s No. 1 quarterback. The final stat line wasn’t too kind for White (3 TDs, 9 INTs), but the true freshman threw for 311 yards against Houston and nearly led South Florida to a win over UCF. White needs more help from his supporting cast, and the sophomore should benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 passer.