Spring practice is the first on-field step towards the 2022 college football season, and for most programs, the competition for quarterback battles gets underway in March. Several high-profile teams feature a competition under center this spring, including playoff contenders in Texas A&M, Clemson, Michigan and Notre Dame. Elsewhere, Nebraska has an intriguing battle on its hands as coach Scott Frost enters a make-or-break year, and Cincinnati looks to replace Desmond Ridder and return to the playoff. Competitions at Auburn, Florida and LSU provide plenty of intrigue around the SEC.
Which battles are the key to watch in spring practice? Athlon Sports examines the top ones to watch:
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles for 2022
Candidates: Robby Ashford, Zach Calzada, Dematrius Davis, TJ Finley, Holden Geriner
Bo Nix’s transfer left a wide-open void under center for coach Bryan Harsin. Finley (LSU transfer) started the final three games with Nix out due to injury and completed 53 of 95 passes for 552 yards and four scores in an 0-3 stretch that included losses to Alabama and a bowl defeat to Houston. Calzada started 10 games at Texas A&M in ’21 and threw for 2,185 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also leading the program to a huge upset over Alabama in early October. A pair of freshmen in Davis (redshirt) and Geriner (true) are talented players with upside, but both players have ground to make up against more experienced options.
Projected Winner: Calzada
Candidates: Ben Bryant vs. Evan Prater
It’s no secret Desmond Ridder will be missed at Cincinnati in ’22. He was instrumental to the Bearcats’ 33-5 record over the last three years and trip to the CFB Playoff for the ’21 season. Although coach Luke Fickell has to replace one of the top players in school history, the cupboard is far from bare. Prater – the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 signing class – recorded more than 9,000 total yards and just over 140 overall touchdowns in a prolific career at Wyoming High School in Ohio. After playing just one game in ’20, Prater worked as Ridder’s backup last fall and completed five of 11 passes for 38 yards and ran for 105 yards and two scores. He will have competition from Bryant, who started his career at Cincinnati and transferred to Eastern Michigan after being stuck behind Ridder. Bryant threw for 3,121 yards and 14 scores with the Eagles and ranked second in the MAC in completions of 40-plus yards (10).
Projected Winner: Prater
Candidates: Cade Klubnik vs. DJ Uiagalelei
After finishing in the top three of the ACC in scoring offense every year from 2015-20, Clemson regressed significantly last fall. This unit mustered 26.3 points a game, struggled to generate big plays, and averaged only 5.2 yards a snap. High expectations surrounded Uiagalelei after ranking as a five-star recruit in the ’20 class and showing promise in two starts against Boston College and Notre Dame. However, Uiagalelei struggled last fall, completing 55.6 percent of his throws for 2,246 yards and nine scores. The blame doesn’t fall solely on Uiagalelei’s shoulders, however. Clemson’s offensive line had a poor ’21 season, and the receiving corps wasn’t up to its usual performance. Uiagalelei is a heavy favorite to retain the starting job, but the arrival of Klubnik, a five-star freshman, has added pressure.
Projected Winner: Uiagalelei
Candidates: Emory Jones, Jack Miller III, Anthony Richardson
Offense hasn’t necessarily been an issue for the Gators in recent years, but this unit slipped on the stat sheet (26.4 points a game in SEC play) and struggled with turnovers lost (21) last fall. Better quarterback play would solve some of those issues for new coach Billy Napier, and three candidates are set to battle in spring ball for the job. Jones contemplated a jump to the transfer portal but remained in Gainesville. The Georgia native accounted for 3,492 total yards and 23 overall scores last year but lost time to Richardson as the season progressed. The sample size is small (64 attempts and 51 carries), but Richardson averaged 8.1 yards per play and gave the offense more big-play potential. The Florida native isn’t a finished product, but Napier’s arrival should help his development. Miller – an Ohio State transfer and four-star prospect in the ’21 signing class – joined the mix this spring.
Projected Winner: Richardson
Candidates: Joey Labas, Alex Padilla, Spencer Petras
As evidenced last season, the Hawkeyes don’t need a prolific passing game to win the Big Ten’s West Division. A standout (and opportunistic) defense, combined with a few timely plays on offense, was good enough to get to 10-4 last fall and might be enough to claim the division crown again. However, relying on turnovers isn’t a sustainable formula, and Iowa’s offense could relieve some of the pressure on its defense by upping its production (4.5 yards per play in Big Ten games last year). Petras (11 starts) threw for 1,880 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, while Padilla (three starters) contributed 636 yards and two scores through the air. Both quarterbacks had moments of production, but the two players combined to complete 55 percent of their throws and tossed 11 picks. Also, Iowa’s offense generated only eight plays of 30-plus yards in ’21. Padilla and Petras are back in the mix, with Labas, a redshirt freshman, a wild-card name to watch.
Projected Winner: Petras
Candidates: Myles Brennan, Jayden Daniels, Garrett Nussmeier, Walker Howard
All signs pointed to Brennan taking the first snap in ’22, but the March addition of Daniels as a transfer from Arizona State clouded this battle. Daniels has to prove he can be more consistent with his arm, but the rushing ability (710 yards in ‘21) isn’t in doubt and could be a huge asset for an offense with major question marks in the trenches. Before suffering a season-ending injury in the third game of ’20, Brennan threw for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns in three starts in ’20. He also missed all of last year due to injury. Howard (the No. 41 prospect in the ’22 signing class) is the future for new coach Brian Kelly.
Projected Winner: Daniels
Candidates: Cade McNamara vs. J.J. McCarthy
Michigan technically has a quarterback battle on its hands, but coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t going to change much from the ’21 formula that saw both McNamara and McCarthy receive significant snaps. McNamara led the team with 2,576 passing yards and 15 touchdowns to six picks, with McCarthy adding 516 yards and five scores through the air. Rushing and big-play ability are the biggest assets for McCarthy. As a true freshman last year, he ran for 124 yards on 27 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt (compared to 7.9 for McNamara). McCarthy won’t throw in the spring as he nurses a shoulder injury, but he’s on track to return by the fall. Will McCarthy cut into McNamara’s playing time? Or will the split in playing time look a lot like ’21?
Projected Winner: McNamara
Candidates: Heinrich Haarberg, Chubba Purdy, Logan Smothers, Casey Thompson
With Nebraska coach Scott Frost facing a make-or-break year in ’22, it’s not an ideal time to make major changes on offense. However, Frost hopes the addition of veteran play-caller Mark Whipple and an overhauled group of assistants is the right mix to bring more consistency to an offense that ranked second in the Big Ten in yards per play but averaged only 27.9 points a contest. With Adrian Martinez transferring to Kansas State, Frost added two signal-callers in the portal in Purdy (Florida State) and Thompson (Texas) to push Smothers (one start in ’21) for the job. Thompson should be the front-runner after leading the Big 12 in touchdown passes (24) and throwing for 2,113 yards in Austin last year. The Oklahoma native battled a hand injury in ’21, and a full recovery should help his overall level of play this fall.
Projected Winner: Thompson
Candidates: Jacolby Criswell vs. Drake Maye
Sorting out the quarterback battle between Maye and Criswell to replace Sam Howell is the first step for North Carolina to keep its offense near the top of the ACC in ’22. Criswell completed 13 of 21 throws for 179 yards and a score last season, but the bulk of his action (19 attempts) came against FCS Wofford. Maye – the No. 56 prospect in the ’21 signing class – received snaps in four games to preserve his redshirt year and completed seven of 10 passes for 89 yards and a score. Although Criswell has been the backup the last two years, Maye should exit spring as the front-runner.
Projected Winner: Maye
Candidates: Tyler Buchner vs. Drew Pyne
Buchner is a heavy favorite to take the first snap for Notre Dame in ’22, but the talented sophomore won’t be handed the job. The California native played in 10 games in his first season on campus and threw for 298 yards and three scores and added 336 yards and three scores on the ground. Buchner did not attempt more than 14 passes in a game last season, but the talent level (No. 11 QB in the ’21 signing class) was obvious in limited snaps. Pyne is Buchner’s top competition for the job, bringing 33 career pass attempts to the mix. The Connecticut native saw extensive time in the loss to Cincinnati in ’21, completing nine of 22 throws for 143 yards and a score. Buchner isn’t a finished product, but he should edge ahead of Pyne for the starting nod.
Projected Winner: Buchner
Candidates: Luke Altmyer and Jaxson Dart
A significant rebuilding effort is underway this spring in Oxford for coach Lane Kiffin. Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby departed for Oklahoma, quarterback Matt Corral hopes to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft, the team’s top three running backs are gone, and key receivers Dontario Drummond, Jahcour Pearson and Braylon Sanders also departed. However, Kiffin added several potential impact contributors from the transfer portal, including Dart from USC. The Utah native ranked as the No. 10 quarterback recruit in the ’21 signing class and played in six games with the Trojans last fall. During that stint, Dart threw for 1,353 yards and nine touchdowns and added 43 yards and a score on the ground. Altmyer worked as Corral’s backup last season and completed 20 of 37 throws for 192 yards and a score. Dart has the edge in raw talent and is a good fit for Kiffin’s scheme. Replicating Corral’s production is unlikely, but the Rebels should be productive once again on offense with Dart under center.
Projected Winner: Dart
Candidates: Bo Nix and Ty Thompson
The Ducks could turn to a transfer for the second year in a row, as Nix (Auburn) was brought in to compete with Thompson this offseason. Nix had an up-and-down career with the Tigers but was on pace for his best season before an injury sidelined him for the team’s final three contests. New coach Dan Lanning faced off against Nix while he was the defensive signal-caller at Georgia, and new play-caller Kenny Dillingham worked at Auburn in ’19. Familiarity and experience give Nix an inside track for the starting job, but this spring is an important one for Thompson’s development. The Arizona native ranked as the No. 40 overall prospect in the ’21 signing class and played in three games last season, completing seven of 15 throws for 87 yards. Thompson is the future, but Nix is better-suited for the now.
Projected Winner: Nix
Candidates: Davis Beville, Nick Patti and Kedon Slovis
Kenny Pickett’s play and overall production will be impossible for Pitt to replace in ’22. The Panthers have a new play-caller (Frank Cignetti), but the winner of the quarterback battle between Patti, Beville and Slovis (USC transfer) inherits the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner (Jordan Addison) and all five starters along the offensive line. Patti worked as Pickett’s backup last season, completing 14 of 19 throws for 161 yards in nine games. Beville saw the bulk of his action in the Peach Bowl after Patti was lost due to injury and finished ’21 with 207 passing yards on 17 completions. Slovis spent the last three seasons at USC, highlighted by a standout freshman campaign (3,502 yards and 30 TDs). However, Slovis hasn’t matched that level of play over the last two years. His yards per attempt and completion percentage have decreased, while interceptions (nine as a freshman) have been on the rise (15 since ’20). If Slovis can regain his freshman form, he’s probably the pick to start the opener.
Projected Winner: Slovis
Candidates: Hudson Card, Quinn Ewers, Maalik Murphy
Solving this position would go a long ways in coach Steve Sarkisian’s quest to get Texas back to the top of the Big 12. Card and Casey Thompson (transferred to Nebraska) shared the job last season and combined for 29 touchdowns to 10 interceptions but big plays and overall consistency were lacking. Although Card returns and Murphy (a four-star prospect in the ’22 class) is promising, Ewers is the front-runner. After reclassifying to the ’21 class and spending a year at Ohio State, the former five-star prospect transferred back home to Texas. Ewers played only a couple of snaps in Columbus, but his talent level and potential should help take this offense up a notch in ’22.
Projected Winner: Ewers
Candidates: Max Johnson, Haynes King, Conner Weigman
Finding the right answer here could equal a trip to the CFB Playoff for the Aggies in '22. No pressure Jimbo. However, Fisher's quarterback room is in better shape than it was at the end of last year, and any of the three options appear to be a capable pilot for this attack. King won the starting job last fall but suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 against Colorado. Prior to the injury, King connected on 22 of 35 throws for 300 yards and two scores and ran for 24 yards. Johnson arrives in College Station after two years at SEC West rival LSU. The son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson, Max threw for 2,814 yards and 27 touchdowns in 12 games in '21. And if Johnson and King are on the sidelines, it means Weigman - a five-star prospect in the '22 signing class - made a quick impression.
Projected Winner: Johnson
Candidates: Sam Huard, Dylan Morris, Michael Penix Jr.
From FBS stints at Indiana and Fresno State, new coach Kalen DeBoer has a track record of developing productive offenses. That’s good news in Seattle, as Washington struggled mightily on this side of the ball, averaging a paltry 21 points a game in Pac-12 contests last year. The Huskies have more talent than the ’21 production would suggest, and DeBoer brought in Penix (Indiana transfer) to compete with Morris and Huard under center. Penix played under DeBoer in ’19 and posted career highs in completion percentage (68.8) and yards par attempt (8.7). When healthy, Penix can rank in the upper half of Pac-12 quarterbacks, but injuries have ended his year early in four straight seasons. Huard – a five-star prospect in the ’21 signing class – is the future here, while Morris (18 TDs, 15 INTs the last two years) hopes to retain his starting spot this spring.
Projected Winner: Penix
Monitor This Spring
The Bears return two proven quarterbacks in Gerry Bohanon and Blake Shapen. Is there a battle here or is Bohanon the clear starter?
Sean Clifford had an up-and-down ’21 season, and the Nittany Lions need more from their quarterback to have any chance to win the Big Ten East next fall. True freshman Drew Allar’s development is worth monitoring, and redshirt freshman Christian Veilleux also is in the mix.
The Next Tier
Jayden Daniels’ transfer adds a wide-open quarterback battle on top of an unsettled roster and coaching situation in Tempe. Alabama transfer Paul Tyson could be the early front-runner, with Finn Collins, Trenton Bourguet, Daylin McLemore and Bennett Meredith also in the mix.
The Golden Bears will miss Chase Garbers, and this spring features a wide-open battle between Purdue transfer Jack Plummer and Zach Johnson.
Brady Cook is the front-runner to start after a solid performance in the Armed Forces Bowl. Tyler Macon is also in the mix, but incoming freshman Sam Horn is the wild card. Missouri could also pursue a transfer addition.
San Diego State
Brady Hoke’s team should be stout on defense once again but more consistency on offense is needed to win the Mountain West. Promising redshirt freshman Will Haskell is expected to be pushed by Virginia Tech transfer Braxton Burmeister for the job.
New coach Sonny Dykes has two proven (and talented options) vying for the starting job in Chandler Morris and Max Duggan.
Donovan Smith impressed late in the ’21 season, but a new scheme under coordinator Zach Kittley, along with the return of Oregon transfer Tyler Shough from injury, has clouded this position in Lubbock.
True freshman Mikey Keene was solid (1,730 passing yards and 17 TDs) after taking over once Dillon Gabriel was lost for the year due to injury. Keene enters spring as the front-runner, but Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee is the player to watch.
New coach Brent Pry brought in two transfers (Grant Wells of Marshall and Jason Brown from South Carolina) to battle Connor Blumrick and Tahj Bullock for the starting job.
True freshman Nicco Marchiol will battle Garrett Greene and Will Crowder to start after Jarret Doege transferred to WKU. A transfer addition is also a possibility.
Other Battles to Watch
Colorado – Brendon Lewis vs. JT Shrout
Duke – Luca Diamont vs. Riley Leonard vs. Jordan Moore
Illinois – Tommy DeVito vs. Artur Sitkowski
Indiana – Connor Bazelak vs. Donaven McCulley vs. Jack Tuttle
Georgia Tech – Jeff Sims vs. Zach Gibson
Liberty – Johnathan Bennett vs. Kaidon Salter
Louisiana – Zeon Chriss vs. Chandler Fields vs. Lance LeGendre vs. Ben Wooldridge
Marshall – Henry Colombi vs. Chase Harrison vs. Cole Pennington
Rutgers – Gavin Wimsatt vs. Noah Vedral
Vanderbilt – Ken Seals vs. Mike Wright
WKU – Jarret Doege vs. Chance McDonald vs. Darius Ocean vs. Austin Reed vs. Caden Veltkamp vs. Drew Zaubi
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