It’s no secret quarterback play is an integral part of every college football team and its hopes of winning a national title, contending for a conference championship or simply making a bowl. However, this position is also the most difficult one to judge, rank or evaluate. With the uncertainty and difficulty in evaluating this position, it should come as no surprise that a handful of names emerge as breakout stars during every college football season.
Who are the next breakout stars at quarterback for 2016? Athlon has compiled 25 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 25 Breakout QBs for 2016
Just Missed: Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State; Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt; Alec Morris, North Texas; Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
25. Garrett Smith, ULM
New coach Matt Viator has plenty of holes to fill in his first year on the job. The Warhawks return nine starters, including just two on defense. While the defense will require some major renovating, ULM has pieces to work with on offense. Smith had a promising debut last season, throwing for 2,033 yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 appearances. He also added 250 yards and two scores on the ground. With a deep group of receivers in place, along with the addition of new coordinator Matt Kubik, Smith is poised to build off his freshman campaign in 2016.
24. Johnny Stanton, UNLV
UNLV only improved its win total by one game from 2014 to 2015, but the Rebels took a step forward in coach Tony Sanchez’s first year. And with 16 returning starters in place for 2016, there’s optimism for UNLV to make a push for a bowl this fall. Sanchez has recruited well, which includes a big commitment from Stanton in the 2016 signing class. The former Nebraska quarterback spent 2015 at Saddleback Community College and finished the year by passing for 3,471 yards and 27 scores and adding 747 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Stanton ranked as a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite and could be the Mountain West’s top newcomer for 2016.
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23. Tago Smith, Navy
Replacing Keenan Reynolds isn’t going to be easy. However, as coach Ken Niumatalolo has done throughout his tenure, the Midshipmen will simply reload and push for eight or nine-win season. Smith is slated to replace Reynolds, and the Georgia native has fared well in limited action. The senior has played in 18 career games and completed 12 of 17 throws for 245 yards and four scores. Additionally, Smith has rushed for 294 yards and five touchdowns. He may not be as dynamic or as valuable as Reynolds, but Smith should be a solid starter for the Midshipmen.
22. Trace McSorley, Penn State
After two subpar years on offense, James Franklin hit the reset button this offseason. Joe Moorhead was hired as the team’s new coordinator, and former Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover is tasked with improving a struggling offensive line. Moorhead is one of the Big Ten’s top assistant hires for 2016 and has to groom a new starter at quarterback with Christian Hackenberg off to the NFL. McSorley played well in limited action last season, completing 20 of 40 passes for 185 yards and two scores. Most of his playing time came against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl after Hackenberg was lost due to injury. In that contest, McSorley completed 14 of 27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns and rallied the Nittany Lions from a 24-3 deficit to a 24-17 game late in the fourth quarter. McSorley is still largely an unknown, but the new offense should be more quarterback friendly and there’s no shortage of talent at the skill positions.
21. Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
New coach Justin Fuente certainly has an eye for quarterback talent and developing players at this position. Under Fuente’s watch, Andy Dalton blossomed into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks at TCU, while Memphis’ Paxton Lynch was a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Could Evans be Fuente’s next star under center? The Texas native ranked as a four-star junior college recruit in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and heads to Blacksburg after throwing for 3,164 yards and 38 scores last season.
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20. Kenny Potter, San Jose State
Potter was a key pickup on the recruiting trail last year for coach Ron Caragher and was one of the driving forces behind San Jose State’s first bowl appearance in three seasons. As expected with any first-year starter, Potter had his share of ups and downs. However, Potter still finished the season with 1,984 yards and 15 passing scores and added 415 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The California native also posted back-to-back 300-yard performances in late November and earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors. With a full season to get acclimated to the FBS level, Potter is due for a breakout year this fall.
19. Riley Neal, Ball State
New coach Mike Neu arrives in Muncie after spending the last two seasons in New Orleans working with Drew Brees as the Saints quarterback coach. Neu has a lot of work to do, as he inherits a team that finished 3-9 last fall. However, Neu has plenty of promising pieces to work with on offense, starting with Neal under center. As a true freshman in 2015, Neal threw for 2,276 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 399 yards and two scores on the ground. Neal should easily surpass those totals under Neu’s watch and with a full season of starts.
18. Shane Buechele, Texas
Buechele isn’t guaranteed the starting job over Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard, but the true freshman made a strong impression in spring practice and heads into fall as the favorite to win the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. In the final spring scrimmage, Buechele led the way for the Longhorns’ offense, completing 22 of 41 passes for 299 yards and two scores. The Arlington native ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 190 recruit nationally in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite. Buechele should be a good fit for new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo attack.
17. Max Browne, USC
Browne still has to hold off redshirt freshman Sam Darnold for the starting job, but the junior left spring with a slight edge in the battle to replace Cody Kessler. Browne is a former five-star prospect and ranked as the No. 11 overall recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite. The Washington native has only played in nine games through two seasons and completed 11 of 19 throws for 143 yards in that span. Helping Browne’s transition into the starting role is the Pac-12’s top offensive line, standout receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones.
16. Keller Chryst, Stanford
Kevin Hogan wasn’t flashy, but he was a huge reason why Stanford claimed three out of the last four Pac-12 Championships. While it’s no secret Hogan will be missed, the Cardinal aren’t hurting for talent or options at quarterback. Chryst left spring with a slight edge over Ryan Burns for the starting nod, and the former four-star recruit worked as Hogan’s backup in four games last year, completing 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and one score. With running back Christian McCaffrey returning, Stanford’s offense will run through its ground attack this fall. However, Chryst has a chance to blossom into a solid starter in his first full year under center for coach David Shaw.
15. Brandon Silvers, Troy
Second-year coach Neal Brown has Troy trending in the right direction, and the Trojans should contend for bowl and a spot among the league’s top teams in 2016. Silvers is a big reason for the optimism at Troy after throwing for 2,378 yards and 20 scores in 11 games last year. Additionally, Silvers posted three games of at least four passing touchdowns and finished the 2015 campaign by torching UL Lafayette for 320 yards in the season finale.
14. Mike White, WKU
WKU’s high-powered offense is looking for a new signal-caller after Brandon Doughty finished his eligibility with a huge senior season. White is the frontrunner to replace Doughty, and the South Florida transfer showed promise in limited action during his stint with the Bulls. In 11 appearances for USF in 2014, White threw for 1,639 yards and eight scores and connected on 12 passes of 30 yards or more. With a standout receiving corps and offensive line, as well as the opportunity to work with Jeff Brohm – one of the nation’s top coaches on the rise – White should keep the Hilltoppers’ attack performing at a high level.
13. Austin Allen, Arkansas
The Razorbacks quietly led the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring offense (34.4 ppg) last year. The hire of Dan Enos as the program’s offensive coordinator paid huge dividends, and his arrival helped transform Brandon Allen into one of the league’s top quarterbacks. Can Enos work the same type of magic in 2016? The second-year coordinator has plenty of talented candidates on the depth chart to consider, but Brandon’s brother – Austin Allen – is the frontrunner. The Fayetteville native has played in eight games over the last two seasons and completed 9 of 19 throws for 188 yards in that span. Allen has a lot to prove in his first year as the starter. However, the Razorbacks have one of the SEC’s top coordinators in Enos, as well as a deep group of options at receiver.
12. Dakota Prukop, Oregon
Whether it’s Prukop or redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen guiding the Ducks’ offense, it’s a safe bet to assume Oregon will once again rank near the top of the Pac-12 in scoring. After Vernon Adams emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks last season, the Ducks hope to strike gold with another FCS transfer under center. Prukop earned first-team All-America honors by the Associated Press in 2015 after accounting for 39 total scores and 3,822 yards for Montana State. The senior may not be the dynamic option through the air that Adams was, but he will be more of a factor on the ground.
11. Kenny Hill, TCU
Pencil in the winner of TCU’s quarterback battle here. Hill is the favorite, but sophomore Foster Sawyer isn’t far behind. Hill inherited big shoes to fill at Texas A&M after Johnny Manziel’s early departure to the NFL and started the first eight games of 2014. In that eight-game stint, Hill threw for 2,649 yards and 23 scores, while rushing for 156 yards on 52 carries. Hill lost his starting job to Kyle Allen in 2014, but the Southlake, Texas native has a chance to rebound in a big way in Fort Worth. Co-coordinator Doug Meacham has transformed TCU’s offense into one of the best in the Big 12, and Hill’s transition into the starting role is eased by a cast of talented skill players.
10. Kent Myers, Utah State
Injuries pressed Myers into starting duty as a true freshman in 2014 and once again last fall. And in both years, Myers more than held his own and showcased the potential to be one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks. After season-ending injuries to Darell Garrettson and Chuckie Keeton in 2014, Myers threw for 866 yards and five scores and added 305 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Myers had an opportunity for extended action last season and led Utah State with 1,593 yards and 16 passing scores, while adding 357 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Myers enters 2016 as the unquestioned starter and should be one of the leaders for a Utah State offense returning nine starters.
9. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
Syracuse has ranked near the bottom of the ACC in scoring offense in each of the last three seasons, but help is on the way for 2016. Dino Babers is regarded as one of the nation’s top offensive-minded coaches and arrives at Syracuse after a successful two-year stint at Bowling Green. Under Babers’ direction, the Falcons averaged 42.2 points a game and ranked fifth nationally in passing offense in 2015. Dungey showed promise as a true freshman last fall, throwing for 1,298 yards and 11 scores. The Oregon native also showed an ability to make plays on the ground (351 yards and four rushing touchdowns) but needs to do a better job of avoiding contact after missing four games due to injury. Transitioning to Babers’ offense will take some time for Syracuse’s personnel, but Dungey should get better over the course of the season.
8. Chase Litton, Marshall
Litton supplanted Michael Birdsong as Marshall’s starting quarterback early in the 2015 season and never looked back. The Tampa native finished his true freshman campaign with 2,605 passing yards and 23 scores. Additionally, he tossed only eight interceptions and completed 60.1 percent of his passes. Litton closed the year with a solid performance (23 of 34 for 218 yards) against a stout UConn defense in the St. Petersburg Bowl and also threw for 486 yards in a 34-10 victory over Charlotte. Litton will only get better with more snaps and could lead Marshall back to the Conference USA title game in 2016.
7. Deondre Francois, Florida State
2015 was a rare down year for quarterback play at Florida State under coach Jimbo Fisher. However, this position has two promising freshmen – Francois and Malik Henry – and senior Sean Maguire returns after starting six games last year. Maguire missed spring practice as he recovered from an ankle injury suffered in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, allowing Francois and Henry to gain valuable reps as the No. 1 quarterback. Maguire is expected to return to full strength by the opener, but Francois is expected to unseat the senior for the starting nod. Francois was a four-star prospect in the 2015 signing class and was regarded as the No. 64 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite. Assuming Francois wins the starting job, he won’t have much time to ease into the No. 1 role with an opener versus Ole Miss on tap.
6. Brett Rypien, Boise State
Quarterback play is an annual strength for Boise State, but Rypien has the potential to be the program’s best passer since Kellen Moore. Although Rypien was the top recruit for the Broncos in the 2015 signing class, Ryan Finley opened the year as the starter. However, Finley was lost for the season with an ankle injury in the third game of 2015, giving the starting job to Rypien. The true freshman never looked back, throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 scores. He also completed 63.6 percent of his passes and earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors. Look for Rypien to emerge as the Mountain West’s No. 1 quarterback this fall.
Podcast: SEC Media Days Jam Session
Related: Mountain West 2016 Predictions
5. Jacob Eason, Georgia
Greyson Lambert may open the 2016 season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, but the guess here is Eason ends the year at the top of the depth chart. The Washington native ranked as the No. 2 quarterback and the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2016 signing class by the 247Sports Composite. In his senior year at Lake Stevens High School, Eason threw for 3,585 yards and tossed 43 touchdowns to only six interceptions. The 6-foot-5, 211-pound passer has all of the tools to thrive in the SEC and emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks over the next few seasons.
4. Davis Webb, California
With one season of eligibility remaining, and Patrick Mahomes entrenched as Texas Tech’s starter, Webb decided to leave Lubbock for an opportunity to start for his senior year. The Texas native originally committed to Colorado but changed his mind and landed at California in May. Webb’s decision to transfer to Berkeley alleviates some of the concern for coach Sonny Dykes at quarterback. After all, the Golden Bears lost Jared Goff – the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft – and had a group of inexperienced candidates vying for the starting job. Webb has plenty of experience (14 career starts) and played in a similar offense to California’s Bear Raid attack while at Texas Tech. In three seasons with the Red Raiders, Webb threw for 5,557 yards and 46 scores and completed over 60 percent of his passes from 2013-14. The Golden Bears have an overhauled receiving corps in place for 2016, but Webb has the physical tools and skill-set to rank as one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks this fall.
3. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Despite losing Marquise Williams – the ACC’s second-team all-conference signal-caller last year – there’s not much concern about quarterback play in Chapel Hill. Trubisky has played well in limited action and inherits a loaded group of skill players and four returning starters on one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. Trubisky played in nine games last fall and completed 40 of 47 throws for 555 yards and six scores. He also showcased his mobility with 101 rushing yards and three touchdowns. And in 12 appearances in 2014, Trubisky completed 42 of 78 passes for 459 yards and five scores. While he doesn’t have a start in his career, all signs point to Trubisky thriving in his first season as the No. 1 quarterback for coach Larry Fedora.
2. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is known for his high-powered offenses and success with traditional drop-back quarterbacks. However, adapting to new schemes and talent is nothing new to Petrino, which makes the marriage of Jackson’s dual-threat ability with the Petrino scheme an intriguing storyline to the 2016 season. Jackson’s dynamic playmaking skills were on display last season, as he threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and led the team with 960 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. While Jackson is still developing as a passer, Petrino and his staff have a full offseason to build an offense and a gameplan around his strengths. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the ACC, especially after Louisville finished 2015 by winning six out of its last seven games.
1. Jake Browning, Washington
Washington’s young offense took its share of lumps in 2015, but the Huskies are poised for a huge breakout in 2016. Browning was the prized recruit in coach Chris Petersen’s 2015 signing class and won the starting job prior to the opener against Boise State. Browning missed one game due to injury but still finished his freshman year with solid numbers. He completed 233 of 369 passes for 2,955 yards and 16 scores. Additionally, Browning’s 63.1 completion percentage ranked third nationally among freshman quarterbacks. Browning’s supporting cast is also expected to take a step forward, as the Huskies regain a valuable deep threat in junior John Ross (missed 2015 due to a knee injury). Browning’s continued growth and development is a big reason why Washington can win the Pac-12 this fall.