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College Football's Top 20 Quarterback Debuts of 2016

Jacob Eason

Jacob Eason

Quarterback play is always under the spotlight for all 128 college football teams. Some programs – Clemson (Deshaun Watson) and Ohio State (J.T. Barrett) – entered 2016 with no uncertainty under center. However, there was no shortage of teams opening the year with question marks or the possibility of the quarterback battle extending into the season. Week 1 was the first opportunity for the new signal-callers or quarterbacks to make an impression. Which new starters impressed in Week 1?

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With the influx of new starters across the nation, Athlon set out to rank the debuts for the quarterbacks. An important note: We only considered freshmen in their first game, transfers or quarterbacks that had yet to make a start at their current school for this ranking. Quarterbacks like Kentucky’s Drew Barker, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Toledo’s Logan Woodside already had previous starts and were not considered for this ranking.

College Football's Top 20 QB Debuts of 2016

1. Deondre Francois, Florida State

With Ole Miss loading the box to stop Dalvin Cook and a 28-6 deficit just before halftime, Florida State’s victory hopes resided on Francois and the passing attack. The redshirt freshman was under pressure from the Rebel defensive line all night but remained calm in the pocket and delivered strikes against the secondary to guide the Seminoles to a second-half rally and a 45-34 victory. Francois completed 33 of 52 passes for 419 yards and two scores and also added 59 yards on nine carries to cap the best performance by a freshman in Week 1.

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Related: College Football's Post-Week 1 Top 25

2. Shane Buechele, Texas

Charlie Strong found the right mix this offseason to spark Texas’ offense. The first part of the equation was hiring Sterlin Gilbert as the program’s new coordinator, with the second piece coming at quarterback. While Tyrone Swoopes remains a part of the offense in the 18-wheeler package, Buechele’s ability to stretch the field and quickly get the ball to the Longhorns’ playmakers is the perfect match for Gilbert’s offense. Buechele was impressive (16 of 26 for 280 yards and two touchdowns and 33 rushing yards and one score) in the upset win over Notre Dame.

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3. Jalen Hurts, Alabama

For most of the offseason, most of the signs out of Tuscaloosa seemed to indicate Blake Barnett or Cooper Bateman would emerge as the starter. However, Hurts remained in the mix throughout spring and fall workouts and was the second quarterback in the game for the Crimson Tide offense on Saturday night against USC. The true freshman was impressive and provided a much-needed spark for the Alabama offense, as he threw for 118 yards and two scores and rushed for 32 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. There’s no quarterback controversy in Tuscaloosa now. This is clearly Hurts’ job to lose. 

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4. Davis Webb, California

Jared Goff was one of the nation’s top quarterbacks last year, but California’s offense is in great shape with Webb at the controls. The graduate transfer from Texas Tech guided the Golden Bears to a 51-31 victory over Hawaii on Aug. 26 by completing 38 of 54 throws for 441 yards and four scores.

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5. Mike White, WKU

Brandon Doughty left big shoes to fill, but White is certainly capable of keeping WKU’s offense among the best in the nation. White torched Rice for 517 yards and three scores in a 46-14 victory on Thursday night.

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Related: College Football's Week 1 Awards

6. Jacob Eason, Georgia

Eason didn’t start, but he was impressive in limited action. It’s only a matter of time before Eason supplants Greyson Lambert as the full-time starter after completing 8 of 12 passes for 131 yards and one score against the Tar Heels.

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7. Ryan Burns, Stanford

Burns edged Keller Chryst for the starting nod in fall practice and proceeded to deliver a steady performance in the opener against Kansas State. Burns completed 14 of 18 passes for 156 yards and one score in Friday night’s win.

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8. Kenny Hill, TCU

TCU was tested more than most anticipated against South Dakota State, but Hill was one of the team’s bright spots in the 59-41 victory. The Texas A&M transfer threw for 439 yards and two scores and recorded 45 rushing yards and three touchdowns on seven carries. Hill was the first player at the FBS level since 2013 to throw for 400 yards and two touchdowns and record three rushing scores in a single contest.

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9. Dallas Davis, South Alabama

Davis only had 23 career pass attempts entering 2016, but the sophomore wasn’t fazed going into a tough environment at Mississippi State in Week 1. Davis guided South Alabama to the upset victory, completing 24 of 34 passes for 285 yards and two scores and adding 23 yards on the ground.

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10. Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech

The Hokies had a successful debut under new coach Justin Fuente with a 36-13 victory over Liberty on Saturday. Evans was one of the nation’s top junior college recruits in the 2016 signing class and was picked by Athlon Sports as a breakout candidate this fall. So far, so good. Evans was solid in his debut, throwing for 221 yards and four scores on 20 completions and rushing for 46 yards on seven carries.

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Related: Seven-Step Drop: Truth and Lies from Week 1

11. Dakota Prukop, Oregon

The Ducks’ high-powered offense didn’t miss a beat with a new play-caller (Matt Lubick) and Prukop at the controls for the opener against UC Davis. Prukop completed 21 of 30 throws for 271 yards and three scores. Additionally, Prukop rushed for 36 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries.

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12. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M

Knight is a good fit for new coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense, and the Oklahoma graduate transfer was solid in Texas A&M’s overtime win over UCLA. Knight completed 22 of 42 passes for 239 yards and one score, while adding 31 yards and two touchdowns on nine rushing attempts.

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13. Troy Williams, Utah

The competition level will get tougher, but Utah’s passing game should stretch the field more with Williams at the controls. He completed 20 of 35 throws for 272 yards and two scores and also connected on two passes of 40 yards or more in the 24-0 win over Southern Utah.

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14. Philip Nelson, East Carolina

Nelson saw his first game action since the 2013 season in Saturday’s 52-7 rout over Western Carolina. Nelson spent the first two years (2012-13) of his career as Minnesota’s starter and also had a short stop at Rutgers before landing at East Carolina. Rust wasn’t a problem for Nelson in the opener, completing 28 of 32 passes for 398 yards and five scores.

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Related: College Football's Week 1 Awards

15. Greg Windham, Ohio

Saturday’s Ohio-Texas State game was one of Week 1’s most entertaining games. The two teams combined for 110 points, 54 first downs and 1,176 overall yards. Windham nearly carried Ohio to a victory in double overtime, throwing for 380 yards and four touchdowns on 27 completions. He also rushed for 37 yards on eight carries.

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16. Luke Del Rio, Florida

Florida’s passing attack struggled mightily over the second half of 2015. However, the addition of Del Rio should provide some punch and stability to the passing game for 2016, as he completed 29 of 44 throws for 256 yards and two scores in the opener against UMass.

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17. Ryan Finley, NC State

With Brett Rypien entrenched as Boise State’s starter, Finley transferred to NC State to play under former Bronco assistant (and new NC State play-caller) Eliah Drinkwitz. Finley edged Jalan McClendon for the starting nod and completed 17 of 21 throws for 174 yards and two touchdowns in Thursday night’s win over William & Mary.

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Related: College Football's Post-Week 1 Top 25

18. Daniel Jones, Duke

Jones came to Duke as a walk-on quarterback but has emerged as a rising star for coach David Cutcliffe. He was sharp in his debut, completing 10 of 15 passes for 189 yards and two scores and rushing for 28 yards and two touchdowns in the win over North Carolina Central.

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19. Johnny Stanton, UNLV

Stanton was a huge pickup on the recruiting trail for second-year coach Tony Sanchez. The former Nebraska signal-caller transferred to UNLV after a season at Saddleback Community College and threw for 217 yards and three scores on 10 completions in the opener against Jackson State. 

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20. Trace McSorley, Penn State

Improvement is needed for Penn State’s offense after ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring in each of the last two seasons. It’s only one game, but there are positive signs for new coordinator Joe Moorhead to build on for Week 2 and beyond. McSorley threw for 209 yards and two scores and rushed for 47 yards in Penn State’s 33-13 victory over Kent State.

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Other Notable Debuts

Austin Allen, Arkansas: 20 of 29 for 191 yards and 2 TDs

Kurt Benkert, Virginia: 26 of 34 for 264 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT

Jason Driskel, FAU: 23 of 31 for 287 yards, 2 TDs and 41 rush yards and 1 TD

Riley Ferguson, Memphis: 26 of 40 for 295 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs

Darell Garretson, Oregon State: 25 of 40, 228 yards and 3 TDs

Zack Greenlee, UTEP: 15 of 27 for 229 yards and 3 TDs

Bart Houston, Wisconsin: 19 of 31 for 205 yards and 2 INTs

Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State: 13 of 18 for 190 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT

J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech: 19 of 31 for 212 yards, 10 rushing yards and 1 TD

Wilton Speight, Michigan: 10 of 13 for 145 yards and 3 TDs

Manny Wilkins, Arizona State: 20 of 27 for 180 yards and 89 rushing yards