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. And if you need any evidence, take a look at last year's CFB Playoff contenders. Alabama (Jalen Hurts), Washington (Jake Browning) and Penn State (Trace McSorley) each had a breakout player under center. While quarterback play is essential to every team, 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.
With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2017. The first installment in the offseason breakout player series begins with the most important position – quarterback play. Of course, determining what player fits the breakout tag isn’t easy. In order to limit the choices and develop a criteria, Athlon Sports decided to include quarterbacks with less than 15 career starts for this list.
Who are the next breakout stars at quarterback for 2017? Athlon has compiled 25 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
CFB's Top 25 Breakout Quarterbacks for 2017
Just Missed: N'Kosi Perry, Miami; Blake Barnett, Arizona State; De'Andre Johnson, FAU; Quinten Dormady/Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee; Malik Zaire, Florida
25. Luke Skipper, Tulsa
Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery heads into his third season with uncertainty at quarterback for the first time in his short tenure. After two prolific years with Dane Evans under center, the Golden Hurricane finished spring with a three-man battle for the No. 1 spot. Skipper exited spring ball with a lead over Chad President and Will Hefley, while true freshman Seth Boomer joining the mix this fall. Assuming Skipper holds onto the job, he will have the keys to a high-powered offense. Tulsa returns one of the American Athletic Conference’s top backfields, the league’s best offensive line and a receiving corps that features Justin Hobbs (50 catches) and Keenen Johnson (30 grabs) at receiver. With Evans at the controls, the Golden Hurricane averaged 42.5 points per game last year. Skipper may not meet that total, but the former three-star recruit has potential to post a breakout season behind the play-calling and coaching of Montgomery.
24. Damian Williams, Texas State
Second-year coach Everett Withers may have found the right signal-caller to get his #PartyInTheEndzone attack off the ground in 2017. Texas State experienced its share of growing pains last fall and averaged only 18.6 points a game. But the Bobcats return seven starters on offense for 2017, including standout center Aaron Brewer and the team’s top three statistical wide receivers from last season. Williams is a graduate transfer from Mississippi State with one season of eligibility remaining. The senior worked as Dak Prescott’s backup in Starkville from 2013-14, took a redshirt year in 2015 and spent 2016 as a backup to rising star Nick Fitzgerald. Williams has only one career start but has showed promise in limited action. Over 17 career appearances, Williams has passed for 706 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 274 yards and two scores. The senior should thrive with a full 12-game slate to start in the Bobcats’ up-tempo attack.
23. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
Coach Paul Chryst isn’t going to change Wisconsin’s formula for success. The Badgers are going to pound away with the ground attack and lean on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses to return to Indianapolis for the conference title in December. However, Chryst could open up the pass a little more with Hornibrook entrenched as the starter. The Pennsylvania native started nine games as a redshirt freshman last year, throwing for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns. Hornibrook completed 58.6 percent of his throws and posted his best yardage performance (214) against Ohio State’s standout defense. The lefty is primed to take a step forward in his first full season as Wisconsin’s No. 1 quarterback.
22. Ben Hicks, SMU
SMU appears to be ready for a breakout season under coach Chad Morris. The Mustangs improved their win total by three games from 2015 to 2016 and return 14 starters this fall. The strength of the team is the receiving corps, which includes All-American Courtland Sutton (76 catches). Hicks took over the starting job after an injury to starter Matt Davis last year and started the final 11 games for Morris. In 12 overall appearances, Hicks threw for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns. Additionally, Hicks ended the year by throwing for over 300 yards against USF and Navy. He has to hold off Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavy and junior college recruit D.J. Gillins, but Hicks is poised for a huge year at the controls of an explosive offense.
21. Armani Rogers, UNLV
Tony Sanchez’s rebuilding effort in Las Vegas is on track entering his third season. The Rebels finished 4-8 last year, defeated Mountain Division champion Wyoming and lost two games by six points or less. And with Rogers ready to take over under center, UNLV could push for a bowl trip in 2017. The redshirt freshman ranked as the No. 2 Mountain West recruit by the 247Sports Composite in 2016 and is a physically impressive prospect at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. In addition to a strong arm, Rogers will be a playmaker for coordinator Barney Cotton on the ground. High expectations surround Rogers, but the freshman from Los Angeles seems to be up to the task in his first year as the starter.
20. Jonathan Banks, Tulane
Tulane finished 4-8 in coach Willie Fritz’s debut last year, but the Green Wave wasn’t too far from a bowl trip. After all, Fritz’s team lost four games by 10 points or less, including a 21-14 matchup against West Division champion Navy. Defense was the strength of Tulane’s 2016 team and should be one of the best in the American Athletic Conference with eight returning starters. However, Fritz’s team should have more help from the offense with Banks at the controls. The junior college recruit posted 1,953 total yards and 16 overall scores at Independence Community College in 2016, and his mobility should be a good fit for Tulane’s run-spread attack. Banks started his collegiate career at Contra Costa College in 2014 and used a redshirt year at Kansas State in 2015.
19. Zach Abey, Navy
Navy’s quarterback depth chart was hampered by injuries last year, starting with Tago Smith suffering a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Fordham. With Smith sidelined, the Midshipmen turned to Will Worth. As a senior last fall, Worth led the team with 1,397 passing yards and eight scores and paced all Midshipmen rushers with 1,198 yards and 25 touchdowns. Worth was lost for the year in the American Athletic Conference title game against Temple and missed the final two contests. Abey had a difficult assignment with his first start against Army on Dec. 10, but he rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns and added 89 yards through the air. In his second career start (Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl), Abey showed better command of the offense and finished with 114 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and 159 and one score through the air. With a full offseason to work as the top quarterback, Abey should take a step forward in his development and keep Navy near the top of the AAC in 2017.
18. Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente is one of the nation’s best coaches when it comes to finding and developing starting quarterbacks. While Fuente was at TCU, he was instrumental in the development of Andy Dalton and Casey Pachall and transformed Paxton Lynch into a first-round pick at Memphis. Fuente’s magic continued last season in his debut at Virginia Tech, as Jerod Evans averaged 314.1 total yards per game in his first year from the junior college ranks. With Evans departing Blacksburg for the NFL, Fuente has a three-man battle to replace Evans this offseason. True freshman Hendon Hooker and junior college recruit A.J. Bush are vying with redshirt freshman Josh Jackson for the starting nod. Jackson likely has an edge over the other two quarterbacks since he spent 2016 as a redshirt learning the offense. The Michigan native is a dual-threat option and ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2016 signing class. Even though Jackson is inexperienced, Fuente’s track record suggests the winner of the quarterback battle will have a productive (and breakout) 2017 season.
17. Jacob Park, Iowa State
Iowa State’s final record was only 3-9 in coach Matt Campbell’s debut last year, but this team seemed to get better with each snap and closed out November by winning two out of the final three games. A key cog in the late-season surge was Park’s ascension into the starting lineup. Park started the final five games and posted a 2-3 record as the starter. However, two of those losses – Kansas State and Oklahoma – came by 10 points or less. Park threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 appearances last year and chipped in 59 rushing yards and one score. The junior is entrenched as the starter and now has a full offseason to work with the No. 1 offense and develop under Campbell and coordinator Tom Manning. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Park’s chances of a breakout year that he will be throwing to one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps.
16. Dru Brown, Hawaii
Hawaii showed marked improvement on offense in coach Nick Rolovich’s first season. The Rainbow Warriors averaged 17.6 points a game and 4.85 yards per play in 2015 but increased those totals to 5.99 per play and 28.3 a game last year. Look for Hawaii to continue its upward swing on offense this fall, especially with Brown entrenched as the team’s starter at quarterback. The California native started the final 10 games for Rolovich and ended the year with 2,488 passing yards and 19 touchdown scores. He also added 306 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Brown was at his best over the final two games of 2016, torching UMass and MTSU for a combined nine touchdown passes and 585 yards.
15. Kyle Allen, Houston
After spending two years at Texas A&M in College Station, Allen relocated to Houston for his final two seasons of eligibility. The Arizona native was a five-star recruit out of high school and replaced Kenny Hill as the team’s starter for the final five games of 2014. Allen finished his freshman season with 1,028 passing yards and 16 scores and threw for 2,210 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2015. After a redshirt year in 2016, Allen has a chance to hit the reset button and finish his career on a high note under new coach Major Applewhite at Houston. With one of the American Athletic Conference’s top receiving corps at his disposal, Allen should piece together his best season and keep the Cougars in the mix to win the conference title.
14. Daniel Jones, Duke
David Cutcliffe is no stranger to developing standouts at quarterback. And after one season as Duke’s No. 1 quarterback, Jones appears to be the next star pupil for Cutcliffe. The Charlotte native wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school and considered Princeton before choosing to head to Durham. After a redshirt year in 2015 and an injury to starter Thomas Sirk, Jones assumed the top spot on the depth chart. As expected, Jones had his share of ups and downs last fall but still finished with 2,836 yards and 16 touchdown passes. Jones tossed three touchdowns in a road win over Notre Dame and threw for 240 yards in an upset over rival North Carolina. Jones also possesses good mobility, as he recorded 486 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Look for Jones to be even better in his second year as the starter.
13. Jacob Eason, Georgia
Despite some offseason rumblings of a quarterback battle in Athens, all signs point to Eason taking the first snap for Georgia in its opener against Appalachian State. The Washington native started 12 of the Bulldogs’ 13 contests last year and threw for 2,430 yards and 16 scores. Eason was a five-star prospect out of high school and showcased his potential with a 346-yard performance against Vanderbilt and by completing 20 of 31 passes for 208 yards in a 13-7 win over Auburn. Eason should be better and more comfortable with the offense in his second season as the starter. However, he needs more help from the supporting cast, which opens the season with question marks up front and at receiver.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2017
12. Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech
Despite losing a first-round pick at quarterback and one of the Big 12’s top receivers (Jonathan Giles) from an offense that averaged 43.7 points a game in 2016, Texas Tech is still going to light up the scoreboard this fall. And it’s no secret the Red Raiders need to score 35-45 points a week to protect or overcome a rebuilding defense. Shimonek has the makings of the next star gunslinger for coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Iowa transfer has six career appearances with Texas Tech and completed 38 of 58 passes for 464 yards and six touchdowns last year. Shimonek doesn’t have a start under his belt and will be tested right away with games against Arizona State, Houston and Oklahoma State in September. It’s only a small sample size, but Shimonek has been impressive and has the arm strength and accuracy to thrive in Kingsbury’s pass-first offense.
11. Shane Buechele, Texas
After finishing near the bottom of the Big 12 in scoring in 2015, Texas took a step forward last fall, averaging over 30 points a game for the first time since 2012. New coach Tom Herman inherits a group replacing standout running back D’Onta Foreman, but the offense is poised for more improvement with Buechele at the controls. As a true freshman in 2016, Buechele started all 12 games for the Longhorns and threw for 2,958 yards and 21 scores. Texas’ receiving corps was a work in progress last fall, but Buechele still managed to eclipse 60 percent (60.4) in completion percentage and connected on 16 throws for 40 yards or more. Under the watchful eye of Herman, look for Buechele to develop into an all-conference contender at quarterback in 2017.
10. Arion Worthman, Air Force
Air Force got a glimpse of Worthman’s talent in 2016, as the Illinois native was pressed into action after starter Nate Romine suffered an ankle injury against Fresno State. Worthman went on to start the final five games, including a win over Boise State and a bowl victory against South Alabama. For his final stat line last fall, Worthman rushed for 674 yards and six scores on just 130 attempts and completed 23 of 39 throws for 546 yards and four touchdowns. Worthman went 5-0 as Air Force’s No. 1 quarterback and was a difference maker for the ground game. The Falcons are losing a chunk of talent from last year’s team and return just seven overall starters. However, any transition period will be minimized by the emergence of Worthman.
9. Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio)
Miami was one of the nation’s most-improved teams from Week 1 to the bowl scene during the 2016 season. After an 0-6 start, the RedHawks rallied to win six in a row before a one-point loss to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Ragland’s return to the lineup was a big reason why Miami was able to make a second-half surge and begin 2017 as the favorite in the MAC East. Ragland missed the first six games due to a knee injury but showed little rust in his return to the lineup. The Cincinnati native threw for 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns (with just one pick) and added 202 yards and two scores on the ground. Additionally, Ragland completed 64.2 percent of his throws and finished the year by connecting on over 70 percent of his passes in games against Ball State and Mississippi State. With Ragland under center for the full season, Miami should win the MAC East for the first time since 2010.
8. J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Skip Holtz’s offense has ranked inside of the top three in Conference USA scoring for three consecutive seasons. Even with some significant losses at receiver, don’t expect the Bulldogs to suffer too big of a drop in production. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Holtz at receiver, and Smith is poised to emerge as one of Conference USA’s top quarterbacks in 2017. The Mississippi native redshirted in his first season on campus in 2015 and started the first game of 2016 in place of Ryan Higgins against Arkansas. Smith completed 19 of 31 passes for 212 yards and added one rushing score in a 21-20 loss in Fayetteville. He played in a backup role for the remainder of 2016 and finished the year with 412 passing yards and two touchdowns. While Smith is more of a dual-threat option than Higgins, the overall performance of the high-powered Louisiana Tech offense isn’t going to change too much.
7. Steven Montez, Colorado
Sefo Liufau was a key cog in Colorado’s Pac-12 South title last season, but even though he’s expired his eligibility, the offense isn’t going to miss a beat. Coach Mike MacIntyre’s group returns nine starters on this side of the ball, including one of the nation’s top receiving corps, standout running back Phillip Lindsay and four starters up front. Additionally, MacIntyre and co-coordinators Darrin Chiaverini and Brian Lindgren got a glimpse of the future when Montez filled in for Liufau due to injuries in 2016. In 10 overall appearances (and three starts), Montez threw for 1,078 yards and nine touchdowns. The Texas native torched Oregon for 333 yards and three scores in a 41-38 victory in Eugene. Additionally, Montez showcased his mobility by contributing 231 yards and one score on just 52 carries. With a full offseason to work as the starter, Montez will be more comfortable and even better in his second year of playing time at the controls in Boulder.
6. Justin Herbert, Oregon
The Ducks finished 2016 with an uncharacteristic 4-8 record and just two wins in Pac-12 play. While the losing mark was the first for the program since 2004, the offense was still among the best in the Pac-12. Oregon ranked fourth in the conference with an average of 35.4 points a game and also posted 6.6 yards per play. New coach Willie Taggart inherits a group that returns seven starters and is similar to the personnel he developed at USF in a spread, up-tempo attack. Additionally, Taggart has extra help with the return of running back Royce Freeman and offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby from injury. Herbert is another reason for the Ducks to be optimistic about a quick rebound in 2017. The Oregon native played in nine games (with seven starts) and finished 2016 with 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air. Herbert also added 161 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Taggart’s previous experience with quarterbacks and on the offensive side of the ball should only help to fuel Herbert’s development in 2017. While the Pac-12 is crowded at the top in terms of quarterback talent, Herbert should rank among the league’s best by the end of 2017.
5. Jake Bentley, South Carolina
Bentley’s rise to the starting job happened to coincide with South Carolina’s late-season improvement and run to a six-win mark and bowl trip in coach Will Muschamp’s first year. But that wasn’t the only interesting storyline surrounding Bentley last fall. The Alabama native enrolled a year early, surpassing his senior year of high school for a tour through the SEC. Additionally, Bentley appeared to be ticketed for a redshirt season after not playing through the first six games. Muschamp inserted Bentley into the lineup on Oct. 22 against UMass, and the true freshman threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns against the Minutemen in a 34-28 victory. Over South Carolina’s final seven games, Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine touchdowns and went 2-1 in starts versus SEC opponents. Bentley was also lethal with his accuracy, completing 65.8 percent of his passes, including 74.4 on 43 attempts against USF in the Birmingham Bowl.
4. Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
Until a knee injury suffered in November by Chad Kelly, Patterson was not expected to play for Ole Miss in 2016. The Louisiana native ranked as a five-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 signing class and started for the Rebels over the final three games. In that small three-game window, Patterson showcased his potential. He completed 72 of 132 throws for 880 yards and six touchdowns and added 169 yards on the ground. Patterson’s best performance came on the road at Texas A&M, as he guided the Rebels to a 29-28 victory by accounting for 402 total yards. With one of the SEC’s top receiving corps at his disposal, along with the addition of new coordinator Phil Longo, look for Patterson to emerge as one of the league’s top signal-callers in his sophomore campaign.
3. Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame
DeShone Kizer left for the NFL, and Malik Zaire transferred to start at Florida this season, but there’s not much concern at quarterback in South Bend for 2017. Wimbush ranked as a four-star recruit and the No. 46 overall prospect in the 2015 signing class and worked as the backup to Kizer after Malik Zaire was lost for the season due to a leg injury. In two appearances as a true freshman in 2015, Wimbush showcased his talent in limited work. The New Jersey native gashed UMass for 92 rushing yards and a touchdown and completed three of five passes for 17 yards. Wimbush used a redshirt year in 2016 and is now poised to take over the starting job. New coordinator Chip Long takes over the controls on offense after guiding Memphis to an average of 38.8 points per game last season. Wimbush’s dual-threat ability and the strong supporting cast in place should equal a breakout season and deliver Notre Dame a winning record after a last year’s disappointing 4-8 mark.
2. Will Grier, West Virginia
Coach Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia program have momentum coming off a 10-win season, which was the Mountaineers’ highest victory mark since joining the Big 12 in 2012. Holgorsen and his staff have holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but the offense isn’t going to suffer too much on the stat sheet, largely due to the arrival of Grier. The North Carolina native redshirted in his first year (2014) at Florida before playing in six games (with five starts) the following season. During his six-game stint with the Gators, Grier threw for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also led Florida to huge SEC victories against Tennessee and Ole Miss and was 5-0 as the team’s starter. Grier was suspended for the remainder of the 2016 season after the Oct. 10 game against Missouri and transferred to West Virginia. Not only is Grier accurate (65.8 percent at Florida), but his arm strength should help the Mountaineers stretch the field via the pass more in 2017.
1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stidham is the missing piece for Auburn’s offense and could be the SEC’s top quarterback by the end of the 2017 season. The Tigers led the SEC in rushing (271.3 ypg) but tied for the fewest touchdown tosses (four) in league-only games last year. Stidham gives coach Gus Malzahn and coordinator Chip Lindsey a difference-maker at the position, as the Texas native possesses a powerful, accurate arm and is also mobile enough to be a factor on the ground. Stidham spent one season at Baylor, throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 scores in 10 games in the 2015 campaign. He left Waco last summer and spent 2016 as a student at McLennan Community College. Stidham ranked as the No. 39 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2015 signing class.