Quarterback is the toughest position to play at any level. And regardless of team or conference affiliation, college football quarterbacks are always under the spotlight to produce. Good quarterback play or improvement at the position could be the difference between winning a national title or finishing outside of the playoff mix.
Even though quarterbacks are always under the spotlight, there’s always a few names that fly under the radar every preseason. 2016 is no different, as names like Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph earn a spot on Athlon’s list of underrated quarterbacks and signal-callers that deserve more attention this fall.
College Football’s Top 20 Underrated QBs for 2016
Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
There’s no doubt Armstrong has to be more careful with the ball after tossing 16 interceptions last season. However, the senior enters 2016 as the Big Ten’s leader among active players in career total offense (7,998) and total touchdowns (69). He should take a step forward in the second year under coordinator Danny Langsdorf and coach Mike Riley.
Matt Davis, SMU
Second-year coach Chad Morris is one of college football’s top offensive minds and it won’t be long until the Mustangs show marked improvement in the win column. Lost in SMU’s 2-10 campaign last fall was a solid season from Davis. The former Texas A&M quarterback played in all 12 games and ranked fifth in the American Athletic Conference by averaging 252 total yards per game. Davis should continue to progress under the watchful eye of Morris this fall.
Dane Evans, Tulsa
Evans was one of the big winners from last year’s coaching carousel, as the Texas native thrived under the watch of new coach Philip Montgomery. The Golden Hurricane’s spread attack averaged 37.2 points a game and ranked 11th nationally in passing offense. Evans threw for 4,332 yards (second-most in school history) and 25 scores (a career high) last fall and led all quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference by averaging 8.9 yards per attempt.
Quinton Flowers, USF
Most of the preseason attention among quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference is devoted (and rightfully so) to Houston’s Greg Ward. However, Flowers pieced together a standout 2015 season and is an emerging star on the national level. Coach Willie Taggart implemented the “Gulf Coast Offense” to spark an attack that averaged only 17.2 points a game in 2014. The change in scheme and tempo benefitted Flowers, as he averaged 252.4 total yards per game last fall. Flowers threw for 22 scores and added 12 touchdowns on the ground, while just missing 1,000 rushing yards (991). Flowers should take the next step and develop into a better passer in 2016.
Drew Hare, Northern Illinois
Hare made this list last season, and the senior is a good candidate for this honor once again after his 2015 campaign was cut short by an Achilles injury. Prior to the season-ending ailment in early November, Hare threw for 1,962 yards and 14 scores and rushed for 252 yards and one touchdown. The senior has accounted for 5,657 yards and 44 scores over the last three seasons and should benefit from the arrival of Mike Uremovich as the team’s new play-caller.
Justin Holman, UCF
With the arrival of new coach Scott Frost and different schemes on both sides of the ball, all starting positions are up for grabs in fall practice. Freshman McKenzie Milton and senior Nick Patti are pushing Holman for the starting nod, but the Georgia native should claim the top spot. Assuming Holman starts, he will be at the control of a high-powered, no-huddle scheme. Last year was a lost season for Holman, as injuries and youth in the supporting cast prevented the offense from finding its footing. However, Holman was well on his way to a spot among the American Athletic’s top quarterbacks after a prolific 2014 campaign (2,952 passing yards and 23 scores and 189 rushing yards). A big rebound year could be in order for the senior.
Jared Johnson, UTSA
Johnson has yet to play a down at the FBS level, but the Sam Houston State graduate transfer could end up as one of the top newcomers in the Group of 5 ranks this season. In three seasons with the Bearkats, Johnson threw for 5,352 yards and 39 scores and also rushed for 1,601 yards and 11 touchdowns. Johnson was also voted as the Southland Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year last season. New coach Frank Wilson is known as an ace recruiter, and his ability to attract talent is already paying off for UTSA. Johnson has a strong track record of success at the FCS level and should provide some punch to an offense that averaged only 22.6 points a game last fall.
Trevor Knight, Texas A&M
Knight never managed to build off his huge performance in the 2014 Sugar Bowl (348 yards and four scores), but he still finished his career in Norman with 3,424 passing yards and 33 overall scores. Additionally, in a year where the SEC has few proven quarterbacks, the Texas native could challenge for all-conference honors at the controls of Texas A&M’s high-powered offense. Knight should be a good fit for new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s scheme, while his leadership is an asset for a team that struggled to get consistent play from its quarterbacks last year.
Matt Linehan, Idaho
Linehan’s development is one of the main reasons why Idaho could challenge for a bowl bid in 2016. After throwing for 2,534 yards and 11 touchdowns to 18 interceptions in 2014, Linehan showed marked improvement last fall. Linehan threw for 2,992 yards and 16 scores in 2015 and completed 63.4 percent of his throws (best among Sun Belt quarterbacks). Additionally, Linehan cut his interceptions to 11 on 391 attempts.
Wes Lunt, Illinois
New coach Lovie Smith has plenty of question marks to address from a team that returns only nine starters after a 5-7 mark last year. However, the Fighting Illini have pieces to build around on offense, starting with quarterback Wes Lunt. The senior battled injuries in 2014 and finished the year with 1,763 yards and 14 scores. Lunt started all 12 games in 2015 and threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns. If Lunt stays healthy, he should easily have his best season in Champaign and push for a spot among the Big Ten’s top five quarterbacks.
Tanner Mangum, BYU
Mangum is battling senior Taysom Hill for the starting job, and there’s no guarantee the sophomore will end up as the No. 1 quarterback for new coach Kalani Sitake. Regardless of who starts under center, the Cougars have two proven options to rely on in 2016. Mangum was pressed into duty after Hill suffered a season-ending foot injury against Nebraska in the opener and threw for 3,377 yards and 23 scores. That’s not bad for a quarterback seeing his first extended action since his 2011 season in high school.
Alex McGough, FIU
The Golden Panthers are hoping for a breakthrough season in Ron Turner’s fourth year at the helm, and McGough is one of the biggest reasons for optimism. The Tampa native has started 23 games since stepping onto campus in 2014 and is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including tight end Jonnu Smith and receiver Thomas Owens. As a freshman in 2014, McGough threw for 1,680 yards and 14 scores but increased those totals to 2,722 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. He also completed 64 percent of his passes and added three rushing scores.
Nate Peterman, Pitt
Finding a new go-to receiver after the departure of Tyler Boyd to the NFL won’t be easy, but Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi has to like the pieces in place on offense. The Panthers have one of the nation’s best backfields and return one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. Additionally, there’s stability at quarterback with the return of Peterman. In his first year on campus, Peterman supplanted Chad Voytik (a returning starter) as the team’s No. 1 quarterback and threw for 2,287 yards and 20 scores. Peterman also posted a solid 61.5 completion percentage and tossed only one interception in ACC contests.
Kenny Potter, San Jose State
Potter’s arrival at San Jose State provided a much-needed spark for an offense that generated only 19.3 points a game in 2014. After two years at Long Beach City College, Potter landed in San Jose and spent the offseason locked into a tight battle with Joe Gray for the starting nod. Potter eventually emerged as the Spartans No. 1 option under center and started in 10 contests last fall. The California native threw for 1,984 yards and 15 scores, while adding 415 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Potter’s emergence and continued development through the second half of 2015 was a big reason why San Jose State earned the program’s first bowl bid since 2012.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
The Big 12 features a top-heavy group of quarterbacks for 2016. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes and Baylor’s Seth Russell have garnered most of the offseason attention, with Rudolph largely overlooked. That should change in 2016, as Rudolph is poised for his best season in Stillwater. Rudolph threw for 3,770 yards (second-most among Big 12 quarterbacks) and tossed 21 scores in 2015. He also tied for second among Big 12 passers with 16 passing plays of 40 yards or more.
Podcast: QB Extravaganza
Cooper Rush, Central Michigan
Injuries took a toll on Central Michigan’s ground game last season, which essentially turned the Chippewa offense into a one-dimensional attack. However, the lack of a ground game wasn’t a problem for Rush, as he quietly turned in another stellar season in Mount Pleasant. Rush threw for 3,848 yards, added 25 scores through the air and connected on 10 passes of 40 yards or more.
Thomas Sirk, Duke
Sirk suffered a torn Achilles in offseason workouts but is on track in his recovery and should be ready to go in September. Coach David Cutcliffe is one of the nation’s best quarterback gurus, so it should be no surprise Sirk quickly emerged as a steady signal-caller for the Blue Devils in 2015. In his first year as the starter, Sirk threw for 2,625 yards and 16 scores and led the offense with 803 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. With Sirk recovering from the Achilles injury, he may see less production on the ground but increase his passing yards and scores in 2016.
Anu Solomon, Arizona
Solomon is another quarterback being overlooked in 2016 after dealing with an injury-filled 2015 season. The emergence of Solomon was a big reason why Arizona won the Pac-12 South in 2014, as the Las Vegas native threw for 3,793 yards and 28 scores while adding 291 yards and two touchdowns. However, Solomon was sidelined with concussion issues last year and missed two games. Despite the health concerns, Solomon still finished with a solid all-around season. He threw for 2,667 yards and 20 scores and added 198 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
A year after winning the ACC’s Coastal Division, Georgia Tech slipped to 3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play. Some bad luck and roster turnover hindered the repeat hopes of coach Paul Johnson’s team, while the offense struggled to find the right mix of playmakers around Thomas. The Alabama native earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2014 but his numbers slipped on the ground and through the air last fall. Even though Thomas is one of the ACC’s top signal-callers, Georgia Tech needs a few playmakers to emerge around him to take away some of the pressure. That should be accomplished in 2016 with the emergence of Marcus Marshall and Clinton Lynch at running back, allowing Thomas to return closer to his 2014 form (1,086 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and 1,719 passing yards and 18 scores).
Phillip Walker, Temple
Walker is already Temple’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (52), total offense (8,237) and completions (601) and should close out his career with the school record in passing yards. The New Jersey native has 33 career starts and has made steady progress as a passer over the last three seasons. Look for Walker to have his best all-around season for the Owls in 2016.