Projecting some of CFB's next stars at quarterback in 2021
The countdown to the 2021 college football season is already underway, as spring practices and position battles for spots on the depth chart for all 130 teams across the nation are already in progress in offseason workouts. As always, one of the biggest storylines of any offseason rests with the quarterback position. This spot is always under the microscope and could be the difference between winning a conference title or national championship or finishing with a disappointing record. The transfer portal has added another element to this position, as it's easier for teams to find starters or depth out of the portal. Recruiting establishes the foundation for any program, but finding and developing quarterbacks is a challenging and essential task for any coach. All four of the teams that made the CFB Playoff in '20 will have a new quarterback this fall, and Alabama's Bryce Young and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei make the list of players on the rise. While the 2021 season is still six months away, it’s never too early to take a look at the returning talent and project some of the players due for a breakout season.
Quarterbacks are the highest-profile and most important position on the field. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 20 quarterbacks on the rise for next season, as well as a handful of names to watch. With spring practice coming up and some of the battles set to be decided, this list will look a tad different by the fall. If possible, we tried to avoid quarterbacks that already earned all-conference honors during their career. Defining what is a "quarterback on the rise" isn't easy, but we tried to pick quarterbacks that had an under-the-radar 2020 season or ones we believe are in for a huge 2021 campaign.
College Football's Top 20 QBs on the Rise for 2021
Brennan Armstrong, Virginia
Bryce Perkins left big shoes to fill after guiding Virginia to the Coastal Division title in 2019. However, Armstrong seemed to get better with each snap and concluded the ’20 season with 2,117 passing yards and 18 touchdowns over nine games. The Ohio native was prolific on the ground, recording 552 yards and five scores on 126 carries. Armstrong posted 130 rushing yards in a win over Boston College and tossed three scores in an upset victory over North Carolina. Only two quarterbacks – Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell – averaged more total yards per game (296.6) than Armstrong did in 2020.
Connor Bazelak, Missouri
Bazelak didn’t begin the 2020 season as the starter, but it didn’t take long for him to claim the top spot on the depth chart. After the Tigers scored just 31 points in the first two games, Bazelak was promoted to starter for the third contest of the season against LSU. He proceeded to torch the Tigers for 406 yards and four scores in a 45-41 upset victory. Bazelak was accurate all season (67.3 percent) but tossed only three touchdowns after the win over LSU. Over 10 appearances, Bazelak threw for 2,366 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt. Talent isn’t in question for the Ohio native, and he should take a step forward with a full offseason work under coach Eli Drinkwitz going into 2021.
Cornelious Brown IV, Georgia State
Georgia State set a new school record by averaging 33.3 points a game last season, and there’s a good chance coach Shawn Elliott’s team improves upon that total with Brown IV at the controls once again in 2021. The Alabama native played in four games during a redshirt year in '19 and took over as the team’s starter last fall. Brown IV threw for 2,278 yards and 17 touchdowns to 10 picks and posted three performances of 300 or more yards. He also added 301 yards and seven scores on the ground. Additionally, Brown IV finished second in the Sun Belt in completions of 40-plus yards (nine) and total offense (257.9) – good numbers for a quarterback in his first year as a starter.
Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
Putting Daniels on this list might be pushing it a bit, but we think he’s in for a monster season in 2021. After starting 11 games as a freshman in ’19, Daniels never had a chance to build on that after Arizona State was limited to just four games last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a true freshman, Daniels threw 17 touchdowns to only two picks and connected on 60.7 percent of his throws for 2,943 yards. While it’s tough to read much into four games, Daniels’ numbers were strong again in ’20. The California native threw for 701 yards and five touchdowns and tossed just one pick over 84 attempts. In two years under center in Temple, Daniels has just three picks over 422 attempts and has also chipped in seven scores on the ground. The combination of second-year play-caller Zak Hill, a group of intriguing playmakers at receiver, and the development of Daniels as a junior should equal big things for Arizona State in ’21.
JT Daniels, Georgia
Just how important was Daniels to Georgia’s offense in 2020? Consider this: The Bulldogs averaged 29 points a game when he wasn’t the starter and 37.3 over his four starts at the end of the year. Additionally, the four best performances from Georgia’s offense in yards per play from 2020 all came when Daniels was under center. The California native finished last year with 1,231 yards and 10 touchdowns to just two picks. Daniels also connected on 67.2 percent of his throws and his 10.3 yards per pass attempt mark would’ve ranked second in the SEC had he qualified for the leaderboard. It’s clear the USC transfer made a huge impact on the offense last season. Daniels now has a full offseason to work with play-caller Todd Monken and throw to an emerging group of receivers. Assuming Daniels picks up where he left off, the junior will rank as one of the SEC’s top signal-callers and push Georgia into national title contention once again.
Max Duggan, TCU
With two full seasons of snaps under his belt, Duggan is poised to take the next step in his development. The Iowa native did not start the opener after recovering from offseason heart surgery but came off the bench to throw three touchdowns in a close 37-34 defeat to Iowa State. Duggan went on to throw for 1,795 yards and 10 touchdowns over 240 attempts – numbers that nearly equaled his ’19 marks (2,077 yards and 15 scores) – in two fewer games. He’s also exceeded 1,000 rushing yards and found the end zone 16 times on the ground in his first 22 games. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham should bring out the best in Duggan this year, as the rising junior has the experience and playmaking ability to rank as one of the Big 12’s top signal-callers in 2021.
Kaleb Eleby, Western Michigan
With Eleby at the controls, Western Michigan has a good chance to return to the MAC title game for the first time since 2016. The Missouri native has started in a limited sample size in two years (2018 and ’20), so the ’21 season will be his first to handle a full 12-game workload. Eleby is plenty capable of directing the Broncos’ attack over that span, as he threw for 1,715 yards and 18 touchdowns to just two picks last season. He also connected on 64.7 percent of his throws and led all MAC quarterbacks by averaging 11.2 yards per attempt. Eleby has also chipped in seven rushing touchdowns during his two years of playing time in Kalamazoo.
Jake Haener, Fresno State
Fresno State’s passing attack showed big improvement under new coach Kalen DeBoer last season. After ranking seventh in the conference in total passing yards, the Bulldogs climbed to first, averaging 356.3 a game. Haener also played a big role in the uptick in performance. The Washington transfer connected on 64.7 percent of his throws for 2,021 yards and 14 touchdowns to just five picks. Haener eclipsed 300 passing yards in four out of Fresno State’s final five games, including a 485-yard performance against Nevada. With Haener and running back Ronnie Rivers in place, the Bulldogs have a chance to surprise in the Mountain West this fall.
Preston Hutchinson, Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan has finished third or higher in the MAC for most passing attempts a game in four out of the last five years. In other words, coach Chris Creighton isn’t afraid to air it out and that should be the case in Ypsilanti again in 2021. Hutchinson has shined in limited time over the last two years and should finally get a chance to handle a full season of snaps this fall. The Ohio native connected on 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,657 yards and 12 touchdowns to just six picks in 2020. Also, Hutchison had at least 11 rushing attempts in all six of Eastern Michigan’s games and reached the end zone on eight carries.
Emory Jones, Florida
Kyle Trask will be missed, but Florida coach Dan Mullen is one of the best at finding and developing quarterbacks in college football. Even though his skill set is different compared to Trask, don’t expect the offense to miss too much of a beat with Jones at the controls. The Georgia native has played in 24 games as a backup the last three years and accumulated 514 rushing yards and six scores over 92 carries. Jones might not match Trask’s passing production, but his numbers in limited work (55 of 86 for 613 yards and seven touchdowns) shows plenty of promise. Mullen will adapt and build the offense around Jones’ strengths, which should give the junior a chance to deliver a breakout year in his first as the starter in Gainesville.
Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
The pairing of a new quarterback (Jurkovec) and first-year coach (Jeff Hafley) resulted in a solid 6-5 season for Boston College in 2020. The expectations will be even higher in ’21, especially as Jurkovec should be more comfortable in year two as the starter. The Notre Dame transfer connected on 61 percent of his passes for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns to just five picks in 10 appearances for the Eagles. Additionally, he scored three times and rushed for 150 yards over 77 rushing attempts in ’20. The ACC has a lot of high-end talents coming back to the quarterback position next fall, but Jurkovec has the skills and supporting cast necessary to challenge for all-conference honors.
Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
Mertz is the most talented high school quarterback to sign with Wisconsin according to the recruiting rankings, and the Kansas native just started to tap into his potential last season. In seven appearances, Mertz threw for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns to five picks and connected on 61.1 percent of his passes. Mertz started the 2020 season on a high note by tossing five scores against Illinois in Wisconsin’s opener, but it was tough for the offense to build on that performance due to a COVID-19 outbreak forcing the team to miss a couple of weeks of games. Additionally, injuries to receivers hindered the Badgers’ passing attack last fall. An offseason of development under coach Paul Chryst should pay dividends for Mertz in 2021.
Michael Pratt, Tulane
The AAC had its share of talented and prolific quarterbacks in place last season, so Pratt’s strong freshman campaign was largely overlooked. That won’t be the case in 2021, as the Florida native should contend for preseason all-conference honors. Pratt didn’t play in the first two games of ’20 but eventually took over the starting nod after the fourth contest. He proceeded to throw for 1,806 yards and 20 touchdowns and added 229 yards and eight scores on the ground. Pratt finished fourth in the AAC with six completions of 40-plus yards and also guided the team to wins in four out of the final six games.
Will Rogers, Mississippi State
The unusual 2020 season made life difficult for new coaches and teams trying to make a switch or overhaul of a scheme. Count Mississippi State in that mix, as coach Mike Leach’s squad had to adapt to the Air Raid with several new pieces vying for playing time. The Bulldogs seemed to get more comfortable as the year progressed, scoring at least 24 points in five out of their last six games after reaching that mark just once in the first five. Rogers replaced K.J. Costello as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback midway through the season and completed nearly 70 percent of his throws (69.1) for 1,976 yards and 11 scores. The Mississippi native acquitted himself well as a true freshman adapting to a new scheme in the nation’s toughest conference. A chance to work under Leach for a full offseason should pay off in 2021.
Ken Seals, Vanderbilt
New coach Clark Lea has a lot of work ahead after Vanderbilt finished 0-9 last fall, but quarterback is one position the new staff won’t have to spend much time worrying about going into 2021. As a true freshman last year, Seals started all nine games for the Commodores and completed 64.6 percent of his throws for 1,928 yards and 12 touchdowns to 10 picks. The Texas native eclipsed 300 yards three times, including 319 versus Florida and 336 against Mississippi State. Seals isn’t a finished product yet, but the 2020 season should provide optimism Vanderbilt has its quarterback for the next couple of years.
Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech
If Georgia Tech is going to breakthrough under coach Geoff Collins, the Yellow Jackets will need a big performance from Sims in 2021. In his first year on campus last fall, Sims showed flashes of his potential with the expected freshman inconsistency. The Florida native started the year by throwing for 277 yards in an upset win over Florida State and passed for 249 against Louisville in early October. Sims finished with 1,881 yards and 13 scores through the air and added 492 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Eliminating the mistakes (13 picks) and improving his completion percentage (54.9) are two keys for Sims to work on in order to take the next step this season.
Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
The sample size was small (four games), but Tagovailoa’s performance in limited time last season has to give Maryland optimism about the outlook for its offense in 2021. The Alabama transfer was held to 94 passing yards and tossed three picks in the opener against Northwestern but rebounded in a big way with five overall scores and 394 passing yards in a 45-44 win against Minnesota the next week. Tagovailoa finished with 1,011 yards and seven passing touchdowns and added 44 rushing yards and two rushing scores last fall – his first in College Park. Maryland has one of the top returning receiving corps in the Big Ten, and coach Mike Locksley knows how to utilize Tagovailoa’s talent after recruiting him to Tuscaloosa and landing the Hawaii native at Maryland.
D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
Clemson’s run of elite signal-callers in college football should continue with Uiagalelei at the controls. With Trevor Lawrence sidelined two games due to the COVID-19 in 2020, Uiagalelei was pressed into duty as a true freshman last fall and showcased why he was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. The California native threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns in a win against Boston College and passed for 439 yards and two scores against Notre Dame in South Bend. Uiagalelei finished his freshman season with 914 passing yards and five touchdowns on 78 completions and added 60 more yards and four scores on the ground.
Bryce Young, Alabama
Mac Jones departed Tuscaloosa after one very successful season as Alabama’s starting quarterback, but as usual, the Crimson Tide are ready for the next star to emerge. Young rated as the No. 2 overall prospect and five-star recruit in the 2020 class and played behind Jones as the backup. The California native’s playing time was limited to less than 200 snaps over nine appearances, but the talent was obvious with 13 completions over 22 attempts for 156 yards and a score. Replacing receiver DeVonta Smith is atop the offseason priority list for coach Nick Saban, but Young should keep this offense near the top of the scoring charts under new play-caller Bill O’Brien.
Bailey Zappe, WKU
Zappe should be one of the top impact transfers in 2021 after a prolific career at Houston Baptist at the FCS level. After nine starts as a freshman in 2017, Zappe took his game to the next level by throwing for 2,822 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore, followed by a monster junior campaign (3,811 yards and 35 scores). Houston Baptist played in only four games during the fall, but Zappe posted 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns in that span and averaged 458.3 passing yards a contest. With his offensive coordinator from Houston Baptist (Zach Kittley) joining the staff at WKU and a couple of key receivers also transferring there, Zappe has all of the pieces in place to be one of the top Group of 5 signal-callers in 2021.
Others to Watch
Holton Ahlers, East Carolina
The Pirates need Ahlers to take a step forward in his development to challenge for a bowl game in 2021.
Hank Bachmeier, Boise State
Bachmeier is talented and capable of putting up a big season. However, he will have to adapt to a new play-caller (Tim Plough) after Bryan Harsin left for Auburn.
Davis Brin, Tulsa
Brin played in only two games last season, but he delivered a memorable performance in a Thursday night win over Tulane, connecting on 18 passes for 266 yards and two scores.
Braxton Burmeister, Virginia Tech
Burmeister showed some promise in his limited playing time, completing 48 of 84 throws for 687 yards and two scores and running for 182 yards and two touchdowns. With Hendon Hooker transferring, Burmeister should be a heavy favorite to take the first snap for the Hokies in 2021.
Jayden de Laura, Washington State
De Laura was suspended from the team due to an off-field incident and has to hold off Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano for the starting nod this fall.
Frank Harris, UTSA
Harris was solid in 2020 and another offseason of development would be a huge boost to UTSA’s hopes of winning Conference USA in ’21.
Malik Hornsby/K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas
Jefferson had an impressive showing a start at Missouri in 2020, but he could be pushed by Hornsby for the starting nod.
Brady McBride, Texas State
McBride had a promising first year in San Marcos (1,925 passing yards and 17 scores), and as a result, the Bobcats improved their scoring average by nearly 10 points (18.4 to 27.7).
Tanner Mordecai/Preston Stone, SMU
Replacing Shane Buechele won’t be easy, but coach Sonny Dykes has two intriguing options in Mordecai – an Oklahoma transfer – and Stone – a touted freshman.
Let’s put a generic placeholder for the winner of Ohio State’s quarterback battle between C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord.
Casey Thompson, Texas
Thompson played well in the second half of Texas’ bowl win over Colorado, but he will have to hold off Hudson Card for the starting nod.
Clayton Tune, Houston
Will Houston’s offense have a breakout year in coach Dana Holgorsen’s third year?
Gunnar Watson, Troy
Watson connected on 70.1 percent of his throws last season but will face competition from Missouri transfer Taylor Powell.
Grant Wells, Marshall
Wells got off to a fast start but struggled in his final three games. Can new coach Charles Huff get Wells back on track in 2021?
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