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College Football's Top 20 Breakout Quarterbacks for 2021

DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers Football

D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson Tigers Football

College football is losing a handful of stars at the quarterback position for 2021, but there's another wave of players ready to emerge with a breakout year. Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei and Alabama's Bryce Young top the list of breakout candidates this fall, with both players likely to contend for the Heisman Trophy in their first year as the starter. Ohio State's C.J. Stroud is expected to have a standout season replacing Justin Fields, while Emory Jones (Florida), Max Johnson (LSU), Max Duggan (TCU), and Jake Haener (Fresno State) are other names that fit the breakout profile.

With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2021. In this installment, the breakout player series begins with the most important position – quarterback play. Of course, determining what player fits the breakout tag isn’t easy. Each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.

Who are the next breakout stars at quarterback for 2021? Athlon has compiled 20 names to watch, along with a few others to consider. 

College Football's Top 20 Breakout Quarterbacks for 2021

20. Preston Hutchinson, Eastern Michigan
Hutchinson showed promise in 2019 with a strong performance against Western Michigan, and the ’20 season provided another glimpse into his potential with a solid six-game stint. The Ohio native threw for at least 240 yards in every game, including 365 versus Central Michigan and 315 against fellow in-state rival Western Michigan. Hutchinson ended the year with 1,657 passing yards and 12 touchdowns to just six picks. His yards per attempt (8.4) tied for 23rd nationally, while his four completions of 60-plus yards tied for sixth nationally among quarterbacks.

19. Bailey Zappe, WKU
Prolific is the easiest way to sum up Zappe’s career, as he heads to WKU for a final season of eligibility. The FCS Houston Baptist transfer torched teams for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns in a four-game stint in 2020 and threw for 3,811 yards and 35 scores the previous year. Zappe will be surrounded by familiar faces in Bowling Green, as his coordinator from HBU (Zach Kittley) and receivers Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff are also with the Hilltoppers. The senior has a chance to be the top quarterback in Conference USA this season.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

18. Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech
As expected with any true freshman quarterback, Sims had his share of ups and downs during the 2020 season. However, the potential and long-term upside was obvious. The Jacksonville native led Georgia Tech to a win at Florida State in the opener and delivered steady performances in victories over Louisville and Duke, which lifted his season totals to 1,881 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air and 492 yards and four scores on the ground. Sims should take another step forward in his development this season.

17. Brennan Armstrong, Virginia
Armstrong was tasked with the difficult assignment of replacing Bryce Perkins last season. However, the Ohio native seemed to get better with each snap, as Virginia scored at least 31 points in four of the last five games after reaching that total just once in the team’s first five contests. Armstrong threw for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns and added another 552 yards and five scores on the ground. His 296.6 total yards a game ranked third among ACC quarterbacks, while his 61.3 rushing yards per contest led the Virginia offense.

16. Cornelious Brown IV, Georgia State
“Quad” saw limited playing time as a backup in 2019 but took over the starting job last season and quickly earned a place among the Sun Belt’s top quarterbacks. The Alabama native showcased his big-time arm with nine completions of 40-plus yards, while connecting on 58.6 percent of his throws for 2,278 yards and 17 touchdowns. Brown also chipped in 301 yards and seven scores on the ground last year, which helped him rank second among Sun Belt quarterbacks in total offense (257.9 ypg).

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2021

15. Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Missouri averaged only 26.7 points a game in coach Eli Drinkwitz’s debut, but the offense in Columbia should take a big step forward in Year 2. Bazelak’s development is likely to be a main factor in that improvement, as the Ohio native returns after throwing for 2,366 yards and seven scores, while completing 67 percent of his throws over 10 games. Bazelak tossed only seven touchdowns, so more game-to-game consistency is needed. However, that should come with more experience.

14. Michael Pratt, Tulane
Pratt was one of the top true freshmen quarterbacks last season, and his play helped Tulane’s offense score at least 31 points in eight out of the team’s last 10 games. In 10 contests for the Green Wave, the Florida native completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 1,806 yards and 20 touchdowns to eight picks, while adding 229 yards and eight scores on the ground. Pratt can improve his accuracy (55.1) and cut down on the interceptions, but there’s a lot to like about his first season under coach Willie Fritz. New play-caller Chip Long should help Pratt push for all-conference honors this year.

13. Max Duggan, TCU
Duggan finished 2020 with just 10 touchdown passes and 1,795 yards, but considering he missed time leading up to the opener due to heart surgery, along with the other limitations of practice time last year, the gains from September to December provide promise for ’21. The Iowa native threw for 265 yards and ran for 104 in a Dec. 5 win against Oklahoma State and connected on 10 of 13 passes for 160 yards and a score in an easy win against Louisiana Tech the following Saturday. Duggan led the team in rushing with 526 yards and reached the end zone 10 times on the ground. An improving supporting cast should only help Duggan’s development this fall.

Related: College Football's Top 25 Breakout Running Backs for 2021

12. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
Maryland (and Tagovailoa) got off to a rough start with a 43-3 defeat to Northwestern in last year’s season opener. But the Terrapins – with Tagovailoa’s performance certainly a big reason why – rebounded the rest of the way to finish 2-2 over the final four contests. Tagovailoa passed for only 94 yards in the opener but rebounded to torch Minnesota for 394 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 282 yards and three scores in the win over Penn State. Tua’s brother finished 2020 with 1,011 passing yards and seven scores and ran for two more touchdowns on the ground. With one of the Big Ten’s top receiving corps at his disposal, look for Tagovailoa to build on last year’s showing with a strong 2021.

11. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s offense never had an opportunity to get on track due to a two-week shutdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak and injuries to Mertz and receivers last season. Things should operate more smoothly in 2021, especially with coach Paul Chryst back to calling plays, and Mertz and his receivers back to full strength in the health department. The Kansas native is arguably the most talented quarterback to sign with the Badgers out of high school, and his potential was showcased in the opener by throwing for 248 yards and five scores versus Illinois. Over the abbreviated ’20 slate, Mertz threw for 1,238 yards (61.1 percent completion rate) and nine touchdowns to five picks.

10. Max Johnson, LSU
With Myles Brennan out indefinitely, Johnson will take the reins of LSU’s offense. The son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson, Max played well as a true freshman in 2020, which included leading the Tigers to a win over Florida in Gainesville and a victory against Ole Miss in the regular-season finale. Johnson ended the year with 1,069 yards and eight touchdowns to just one pick and added 119 yards and two scores on the ground. LSU hopes its ’21 offense looks a lot like the prolific ’19 version, and Johnson’s development is a big reason why this unit should take a step forward this fall.

9. Jake Haener, Fresno State
Fresno State ranked second in the Mountain West by averaging 32.8 points a game last season, but the offense is poised to be even better in 2021. Second-year coach Kalen DeBoer has a full offseason to deploy his offense, and Haener should benefit from extra practice time to work with a talented group of receivers and one of the nation’s top running backs in Ronnie Rivers. After transferring in from Washington, Haener torched opposing Mountain West defenses for 2,021 yards and 14 touchdowns to five picks last fall. He led all Mountain West quarterbacks by averaging 8.7 yards per attempt and ranked second in rating (153.43) and completion percentage (64.7).

Related: College Football's Top 25 Breakout Wide Receivers for 2021

8. Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
The Eagles exceeded expectations in coach Jeff Hafley’s debut last season, and with a favorable schedule and proven quarterback in place, this team could surprise again in 2021. After spending two years at Notre Dame, Jurkovec transferred to Boston College for an opportunity to start right away. Despite the unusual offseason at a new program, Jurkovec quickly emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC. The Pennsylvania native went on to throw for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns to just five picks and added 150 yards and three scores on the ground. Jurkovec nearly led Boston College to an upset win over Clemson and fell just short of upset bids against North Carolina and Notre Dame. The future is bright for Jurkovec in Chestnut Hill.

7. Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan
Among returning signal-callers, Eleby had the highest quarterback rating in 2020 (195.1) after a prolific six-game run for Western Michigan. The Missouri native had previous starting experience from ’18 but was even better last year, torching opposing defenses in the MAC for 1,715 yards and 18 touchdowns to just two picks. Eleby averaged a robust 11.2 yards per attempt and connected on 64.7 percent of his throws. Kent State’s Dustin Crum is the MAC’s No. 1 quarterback going into ’21, but look for Eleby to make plenty of noise this fall.

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6. Emory Jones, Florida
Florida coach Dan Mullen has a strong track record of developing quarterbacks, and Jones should be his next star pupil. The Georgia native has patiently waited for his turn as the starter, working for the last three years as a backup, including the last two under Kyle Trask. Jones’ skill set is different than Trask, as he possesses a strong arm but more ability to move around with his legs. In three seasons, he’s completed 64 percent of his throws (55 of 86) for 613 yards and seven touchdowns, and added 514 yards and six scores on the ground.

Related: Ranking the SEC Quarterbacks for 2021

5. Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
Arizona State’s four-game 2020 season didn’t provide many opportunities for Daniels to showcase any improvement from an impressive freshman campaign but look for that to change in ’21. The California native has passed for 3,644 yards and 22 touchdowns to just three picks over 422 career attempts. Also, Daniels has rushed for 578 yards and seven scores since arriving in Tempe. The Sun Devils need Daniels to reach his potential if this program wants to win the Pac-12 South this fall. All signs suggest the junior is headed for a huge ’21 season.

4. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Justin Fields is gone, but Ohio State coach Ryan Day probably isn’t wasting too much time worrying about his quarterbacks this year. Stroud is expected to win a battle that features fellow redshirt freshman Jack Miller III, true freshman Kyle McCord and the recently reclassified Quinn Ewers (a five-star prospect). Stroud played in only eight snaps as Fields’ backup last fall, but all signs point to a breakout debut in Day’s prolific offense, along with the best receiving corps in college football at his disposal.

Related: Ranking the Big Ten QBs for 2021

3. JT Daniels, Georgia
The impact of Daniels’ right arm was evident on Georgia’s offense late in the 2020 season. With Daniels in the starting lineup for the last four games, the Bulldogs averaged 37.3 a contest, compared to 29 with Stetson Bennett or D’Wan Mathis at the helm. The USC transfer possesses the arm to push the ball downfield (10.3 yards per attempt) and finished with 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns over 80 completions. A full offseason to work under coordinator Todd Monken, along with a deep collection of talented playmakers, should allow Daniels to push for a spot among the top quarterbacks in college football.

2. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Replacing the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft isn’t supposed to be easy, but that’s exactly the scenario set to play out at Clemson this year. Uiagalelei was a five-star prospect coming out of high school in the 2020 class and was expected to work as the backup to Lawrence all last season. However, Lawrence missed two games due to COVID-19, which pressed Uiagalelei into the starting role. All the California native did was shine in those matchups, as he threw for 419 yards and two scores versus Notre Dame and led Clemson to a win over Boston College with three overall touchdowns and 342 passing yards.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

1. Bryce Young, Alabama
Despite having to replace quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, a couple of key starters on the line, and coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Alabama’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2021. That’s largely due to Young’s development, as the former five-star prospect is poised for a breakout year as the new signal-caller of the Crimson Tide’s high-powered attack.

Others to Watch

Carter Bradley, Toledo
Toledo has a strong track record of producing good quarterbacks in the MAC. Is Bradley – the son of NFL assistant Gus Bradley – ready to take the next step?

Davis Brin, Tulsa
Brin’s performance against Tulane in a comeback win (18 of 28 for 266 yards and two scores) could be a sign of things to come in 2021.

Hudson Card/Casey Thompson, Texas
It’s safe to assume the winner of this battle will produce under new coach Steve Sarkisian.

Jayden de Laura, Washington State
De Laura was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season and showed hints of his potential in Washington State’s Run-and-Shoot offense.

Jaren Hall, BYU
Hall appears to be the favorite to replace Zach Wilson under center in Provo. The Utah native missed 2020 due to injury but threw for 420 yards and a touchdown and ran for 139 yards and three scores in limited action in ’19.

KJ Jefferson, Arkansas
Jefferson nearly led Arkansas to an upset over Missouri last season, throwing for 274 yards and three touchdowns on 18 completions and adding 32 yards and a score on the ground.

Devin Leary, NC State
Leary was off to a promising start (890 yards and eight touchdowns) before a season-ending leg injury sidelined him for NC State’s final seven contests.

Tanner Mordecai/Preston Stone, SMU
The winner of this battle inherits a deep collection of skill players and should post huge numbers under coach Sonny Dykes.

Will Rogers, Mississippi State
Rogers is expected to hold off a couple of challengers for the starting job in Starkville. As the quarterback in a Mike Leach-coached offense, Rogers (and his development) should be intriguing to watch in 2021.

Kurtis Rourke, Ohio
The brother of former Ohio standout Nathan Rourke, flashed promising potential for the Bobcats in three games last year, completing 68.2 percent of passes for 386 yards and three scores.

Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
Seals was pressed into a difficult situation as a true freshman last season but held up well with 1,928 yards and 12 touchdowns. How far can the Texas native improve under new play-caller David Raih?

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