Breaking down the top QB battles for fall practice
The start of the 2018 college football season is less than 25 days away. With the 2018 season around the corner, all 130 teams will open up fall camp in early August. And with the start of fall practice, the focus will shift to unsettled quarterback battles and teams finding the right answer under center. There’s no shortage of intriguing quarterback battles to watch in fall practice. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State – Athlon’s projected playoff teams – each have some uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position. Jake Fromm is the No. 1 QB for coach Kirby Smart, but true freshman Justin Fields will play. At Ohio State, Dwayne Haskins is the clear starter after Joe Burrow transferred to LSU. However, the battles at Alabama and Clemson will continue deep into fall practice, with both teams looking for more out of their passing game in 2018.
With fall practice underway, Athlon is taking a look at the top 15 quarterback battles for the 2018 season. One caveat to this list: We considered potential battles at Michigan (Shea Patterson), Georgia (Jake Fromm), Oklahoma (Kyler Murray), Ohio State (Dwayne Haskins) and Miami (Malik Rosier) to be settled.
College Football's Top 15 QB Battles to Watch for 2018
Jalen Hurts’ resume is sparkling: A 26–2 record as the starter, including two appearances in the National Championship Game. That, however, doesn’t guarantee anything, and it’s likely that he will relinquish the job to sophomore Tua Tagovailoa. The hero of Alabama’s comeback win over Georgia in the title game, Tagovailoa is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the nation. The Hawaii native showcased his arm strength and accuracy by connecting on 63.6 percent of his throws for 636 yards and 11 scores in a reserve role last fall. Tagovailoa’s ability to stretch the field and open up the passing game is too valuable to have on the sidelines.
Projected Winner: Tagovailoa
In his first season as the starter, Kelly Bryant threw for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns and finished third on the team with 665 rushing yards and 11 scores. Bryant’s average of 247.6 total yards per game ranked seventh in the ACC, but Clemson’s passing attack took a step back from the Deshaun Watson-led 2016 offense. Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2018 signing class, will challenge Bryant for snaps. Bryant is the better runner, but Lawrence is a provides more of a passing threat. Lawrence, who enrolled in the spring, also has the most all-around upside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bryant start the year, but Lawrence finish the 2018 season as the No. 1 quarterback. The freshman’s ability to stretch the field and add big plays to the passing game will only make Clemson a bigger threat to unseat Alabama as the No. 1 team this fall.
Projected Winner: Bryant (at least for the opener)
Fixing an anemic offense that averaged only 22.1 points per game last season is the top priority for new coach Dan Mullen. There is talent at the skill positions, and the offensive line should take a step forward with five returning starters, but the quarterback position features significant question marks. Feleipe Franks completed just 54.6 percent of his throws as a redshirt freshman last fall. However, he’s getting a second chance under the new coaching staff and is likely a slight favorite to win the job. Sophomore Kyle Trask is next in line but has yet to attempt a pass in two seasons in Gainesville and missed 2017 due to injury. Regardless of whether Trask or Franks takes the first snap, true freshman Emory Jones is the long-term answer at this position. He ranked as one of the top dual-threat QBs in the 2018 class and participated in the spring. Mullen should be able to coax some improvement out of this position, with Franks likely to hold off Trask for the starting job. Jones could benefit from the new redshirt rule by playing in four games and preserving a year of eligibility. His development is a key storyline to watch at Florida this fall.
Projected Winner: Franks
Deondre Francois was poised to claim a spot among the ACC’s top quarterbacks in 2017, but a season-ending knee injury against Alabama in the opener derailed Florida State’s offense. True freshman James Blackman assumed the starting job and threw for 2,230 yards and 19 TDs. Francois was limited in the spring, and that allowed Blackman and redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman to get an early edge in new coach Willie Taggart’s offense. After a full year to work as the starter and an offseason to add bulk, Blackman may have a slight advantage over Francois. However, Taggart praised Francois’ off-field development and injury progress at ACC Media Days. Assuming he’s back to full strength, Francois should edge Blackman for the starting job.
Projected Winner: Francois
Coach Bill Snyder hasn’t tipped his hand to the starter for the opener against South Dakota, but Kansas State has to feel confident about its options under center. Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton played extensively after Jesse Ertz was lost due to injury last fall. Both signal-callers performed well in their first look at extended action. Thompson threw for 689 yards and five touchdowns to three picks, while Delton threw for 637 yards and three scores. Both quarterbacks are capable runners, but Delton (500 yards) is more of a threat on the ground than Thompson (267). This battle is likely to go deep into fall practice and could extend into the season. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see K-State to use both quarterbacks throughout the year.
Projected Winner: Thompson
The task of fixing LSU’s passing attack falls to new coordinator Steve Ensminger, who is likely to use more three- and four-receiver looks to spread the field. But in order for that plan to work, Ensminger and coach Ed Orgeron have to find a QB. The answer under center could come in the form of Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow. He announced his intentions to join the team after spring practice and has two years of eligibility remaining. Burrow was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and redshirted in his first year in Columbus. He played in 10 games over the next two seasons, connected on 29 of 39 throws for 287 yards and two touchdowns and added 53 yards and a score on the ground. Myles Brennan connected on 14-of-24 attempts for 182 yards in limited duty as a true freshman in 2017 and is joined by redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse and junior Justin McMillan as candidates to push Burrow. While Brennan, Narcisse and McMillan have more experience within this system from spring practice, Burrow wasn’t brought in to sit on the bench. The junior is an intriguing player to watch this fall.
Projected Winner: Burrow
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2018
It’s likely to be only a matter of time before new Nebraska coach Scott Frost transforms the Cornhuskers into one of the Big Ten’s top offenses. He heads into his 2018 debut in Lincoln with three players locked in a tight competition for the No. 1 spot. Tanner Lee departed early for the NFL and Patrick O’Brien transferred, leaving redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, true freshman Adrian Martinez and walk-on Andrew Bunch to compete for the starting job. Gebbia was recruited by the previous staff to run a pro-style attack, but he does have some mobility. After missing his senior year of high school due to injury, Martinez enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. The California native’s dual-threat ability is the best fit for Frost’s offense and capped his first semester on campus with a strong performance in the spring game.
Projected Winner: Martinez
Most fans expected Brandon Wimbush to have a breakout season, but that didn’t happen, and coach Brian Kelly opened the quarterback competition during the offseason. Wimbush threw for 1,870 yards and 16 touchdowns to six picks and added 803 yards and 14 scores on the ground. While those numbers weren’t bad, Wimbush connected on just 49.5 percent of his passes and needs to play with more overall consistency. Ian Book closed out last season on a high note by throwing for 164 yards and two scores in the bowl win against LSU. He’s firmly in the mix, with true freshman Phil Jurkovec looking to play his way into the conversation this fall. Regardless of who starts, Kelly is looking for more from a passing attack that averaged only 178.9 yards per game in 2017. The guess here is Wimbush’s accuracy improves, and he holds off Book and Jurkovec for the starting job.
Projected Winner: Wimbush
Mason Rudolph closed out his career as one of the most-prolific quarterbacks in Big 12 history. Replacing his overall production and leadership won’t be easy in 2018, but coach Mike Gundy reloads as well as any team in the Big 12 at quarterback. Former walk-on Taylor Cornelius has attempted 24 passes over the last three seasons and exited spring as the favorite to replace Rudolph. While Cornelius has the edge in experience, this battle could extend into the season. Hawaii transfer Dru Brown arrived on campus to compete in spring ball, while true freshman Spencer Sanders has the most upside of any quarterback on the roster. Sophomore Keondre Wudtee is also in the mix. Cornelius seems likely to start the opener. But if Brown quickly picks up the offense, and Sanders develops as expected, his hold on the top spot may not last into the year.
Projected Winner: Cornelius
Tennessee’s offense averaged only 14.1 points in SEC games due in large part to poor quarterback play. New coach Jeremy Pruitt and coordinator Tyson Helton added Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst to compete with sophomores Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride. Guarantano led the team with only 997 passing yards last season and chipped in five overall scores. Chryst, a former four-star recruit, threw for 962 yards and eight TDs in seven games with the Cardinal last year. He seems like a better fit for the new offense in Knoxville. Guarantano finished with a good performance in the spring game and has the necessary talent to put it all together this fall. This is a tough battle to get a read on, but Chryst's overall fit in Helton's scheme is likely the edge.
Projected Winner: Chryst
Texas enters the 2018 season with its best outlook at quarterback since Colt McCoy departed Austin following the 2009 season. Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger have both had their moments as starters and combined for 3,320 passing yards and 18 TDs last season. Buechele has started 19 games over the last two seasons, while Ehlinger emerged as the team’s best QB as a true freshman last year. Both are likely to see time, but Ehlinger’s mobility and playmaking should give him an edge.
Projected Winner: Ehlinger
The switch from a spread attack to a pro-style approach under Jimbo Fisher is likely to produce a few growing pains. However, the Aggies have two intriguing quarterbacks vying for the starting job, and Fisher’s track record at Florida State (three QBs selected in the first round) suggests he will get the most out of this position. Nick Starkel opened 2017 as the starter but missed the next six games due to injury. Starkel returned for the second half of the season and finished on a high note by throwing for 499 yards and four scores against Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl. Kellen Mond started eight contests with Starkel sidelined and accounted for 1,375 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. Mond is more of a runner than Starkel, finishing 2017 with 340 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Starkel is a better fit for Fisher’s pro-style attack, but Mond’s ability to make plays with his legs will make this an interesting battle.
Projected Winner: Starkel
There will be some growing pains, but Chip Kelly has intriguing options at QB in his first year back in the Pac-12. Sophomore Devon Modster played in five games (two starts) last fall, throwing for 671 yards and four scores. He rushed for only 34 yards in the entire season but showed his mobility in high school (almost 700 yards rushing as a junior). Freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, considered to be an ideal fit for Kelly’s offense, and Michigan transfer Wilton Speight are set to join the competition in the summer. Speight is more of a pocket passer, while Thompson-Robinson has the dual-threat ability Kelly utilized effectively at Oregon.
Projected Winner: Modster
Coach Clay Helton doesn’t lack for options to replace Sam Darnold, but there’s little in the way of experience. Sophomore Matt Fink might have an edge since he’s the only QB on the roster who has taken a snap, but redshirt freshman Jack Sears and true freshman JT Daniels both will have a chance to win the job. Daniels is easily the most-talented quarterback on the roster, but he has a bit of a learning curve. The California native reclassified to be a high school senior in 2018, essentially graduating a year early to join the team in time for fall workouts.
Projected Winner: Daniels
The words “quarterback play” and “concerns” are rarely used together when describing a Mike Leach-coached offense. While this position features uncertainty to open fall camp, it’s safe to assume Leach will push the right buttons under center. Former junior college recruits Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley exited spring with a lead in the battle to replace Luke Falk, but Leach added competition with the arrival of East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew. He threw for 3,487 yards and 24 touchdowns in two years with the Pirates and has the quick decision-making skills and accuracy to thrive in Leach’s attack. If Gordon, Tinsley or Minshew fail to claim the starting job, true freshman Cammon Cooper could get an extended look during the season.
Projected Winner: Minshew
Other Quarterback Battles to Watch
Arkansas: Cole Kelley vs. Ty Storey
BYU: Tanner Mangum vs. Joe Critchlow vs. Beau Hoge
FAU: De'Andre Johnson vs. Chris Robison
Kentucky: Terry Wilson vs. Gunnar Hoak
Maryland: Kasim Hill vs. Tyrrell Pigrome
Memphis: Brady White vs. David Moore
Purdue: David Blough vs. Elijah Sindelar
Texas Tech: McLane Carter vs. Jett Duffey vs. Alan Bowman
Troy: Kaleb Barker vs. Sawyer Smith
USF: Brett Kean vs. Blake Barnett vs. Chris Oladokun