Predicting which QBs will have a breakout year this fall
With Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson and a handful of other standouts departing after the 2017 season, college football lost several of its stars at the quarterback position. While this position is replacing some big names, there's no shortage of rising stars or breakout candidates to watch in 2018. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa ended the 2017 season by throwing the game-winning touchdown in overtime to beat Georgia for the national championship. He's primed for a big year if he can hold off Jalen Hurts for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. In addition to Tagovailoa, Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Michigan's Shea Patterson are just a few rising stars to watch this season.
With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2018. 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. Each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
Who are the next breakout stars at quarterback for 2018? Athlon has compiled 25 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 25 Breakout QBs for 2018
25. Jordan Love, Utah State
With 16 returning starters, optimism is running high for Utah State this season. Love is a key cog in the Aggies’ hopes to earn the program’s first winning season since 2014 and challenge for second in the Mountain Division behind Boise State. After a redshirt year in 2016, Love worked as a backup through the first seven games of ’17. Coach Matt Wells and coordinator David Yost turned the offense over to Love for the final six contests, and the California native threw six touchdowns to just two picks in that span. Love ended the year with 1,631 passing yards to eight scores and six interceptions but also added 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Love will have plenty of help from his supporting cast in 2018. Utah State’s offensive line ranks among the best in the Mountain West, and the receiving corps features three players who caught at least 25 passes last season, along with USC graduate transfer Jalen Greene.
24. K.J. Costello, Stanford
Stanford’s recipe for success on offense isn’t going to change in 2018. The Cardinal possess one of the nation’s top offensive lines, and running back Bryce Love is poised for another run at the Heisman Trophy. But with Stanford’s defense rebuilding, coach David Shaw may need a few more points out of his offense in order to repeat as the Pac-12 North champion. Costello – a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class – edged Keller Chryst for the starting job during the 2017 campaign and threw for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdowns to just four picks. Costello won’t have to throw 40 times every week, but with defenses looking to stop Love, the sophomore will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his development this fall.
23. JT Daniels, USC
Sam Darnold’s departure to the NFL leaves a significant void under center for USC. Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears battled for the No. 1 spot in the spring, but the competition will begin once again in the fall. Daniels – a five-star recruit in the 2018 signing class – is slated to join the mix after graduating high school a year early in order to battle for the starting job. The California native threw for 4,123 yards and 52 touchdowns to just four interceptions as a high school junior. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Daniels, but he will have to make a quick adjustment to the college level and doesn’t have a senior year of high school experience. While Daniels is making a big adjustment, look for him to emerge as the starter and deliver an effective freshman campaign for coach Clay Helton.
22. Jarret Doege, Bowling Green
Bowling Green averaged 35 points over its final four contests, providing some optimism for coach Mike Jinks after a 6-18 start to his tenure. A big reason for the late-season improvement on offense was the emergence of Doege. He was the first true freshman to start under center for the Falcons since 1982, throwing for 1,381 yards and 12 touchdowns. Doege – the brother of former Texas Tech signal-caller Seth Doege – also completed 63.8 percent of his passes and tossed just three picks on 188 attempts.
21. Kato Nelson, Akron
Nelson spent most of the 2017 season as a backup to starter Thomas Woodson. However, after Woodson was suspended in early November, Nelson assumed the starting job and came up big for the Zips. After making his first career start versus Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 7, Nelson engineered an upset win over Ohio (37-34) on Oct. 14, which gave Akron the edge to win the MAC East title. Nelson threw for 989 yards and eight touchdowns and showcased his rushing ability by adding 198 yards and one score on 95 attempts. The Florida native is a dangerous dual-threat option for coach Terry Bowden. And with just 140 career pass attempts, Nelson is only going to get better with more playing time this fall.
20. Armani Rogers, UNLV
UNLV just missed out on a bowl game last season, but coach Tony Sanchez has this program trending in the right direction entering 2018. The Rebels averaged 28.8 points a game in 2017 and that number is likely to rise this fall with the return of seven starters on offense. Rogers is one of those seven starters and enters his sophomore year just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. In 10 contests in 2017, Rogers threw for 1,471 yards and six touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 780 rushing yards and eight scores. Rogers has room to improve as a passer but will be a dangerous playmaker with the ball in his hands this fall.
19. Kasim Hill, Maryland
Maryland’s quarterback room was hit hard by injuries last season. Starter Tyrrell Pigrome suffered a season-ending injury in the opener versus Texas, while Hill was lost for the year due to a torn ACL on Sept. 23 against UCF. Hill was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2017 signing class, so his injury was a big setback to Maryland’s offense already without its starter. Pigrome is set to return in 2018, but Hill – assuming he’s 100 percent – is the quarterback with the most upside on the roster. In limited action last year, Hill threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and added 60 yards and a score on the ground. New coordinator Matt Canada is likely to build Maryland’s offense around a solid line and deep stable of running backs. Hill won’t be asked to carry the offense with his arm, but the upside and talent is in place to deliver a breakout year in his first full season as a starter.
18. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
New coach Scott Frost had success with a freshman quarterback in 2016 at UCF, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he handed the keys to the offense to Martinez this fall. The 2018 recruit is competing with redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia for the starting job, with the battle expected to extend deep into fall camp. Regardless of who starts, it’s a safe bet the winner puts up big numbers in Frost’s high-powered attack. Martinez did not play as a high school senior due to injury but performed well in the spring game by completing 10 of 13 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. He also led the Red team with 60 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Martinez ranked as a four-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite and has the right skill set to be a future star in Nebraska’s offense.
17. Shawn Robinson, TCU
Kenny Hill finished his eligibility last season, but there’s not much concern in Fort Worth about the quarterback position. That’s due to the continued development of Robinson, who ranked as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2016 signing class. He was forced to make one start (Texas Tech) due to an injury to Hill last season and completed 6 of 17 throws for 85 yards and a score and rushed for 84 yards on 10 attempts. Robinson’s first year on campus ended with just 159 rushing yards and 184 passing yards through the air. Robinson’s didn’t play a lot last season, but the limited snaps showcased his dual-threat ability. With a full set of practices to work as the starter in the spring and fall, Robinson should keep TCU’s offense performing at a high level in 2018.
16. Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Pitt’s 5-7 record in 2017 marked the first time the program didn’t go to a bowl game under coach Pat Narduzzi. However, the final month of the season provided optimism for 2018, as Pickett emerged over the final two games to solidify himself atop the depth chart. After attempting just 14 passes prior to November, Pickett nearly led the Panthers to an upset win against Virginia Tech, connecting on 15 throws for 242 yards. A week later, Pickett guided Pitt to a 24-14 victory over undefeated Miami. The New Jersey native completed 18 of 29 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown and added 60 yards and two scores on the ground versus the Hurricanes. Pickett doesn’t have a huge sample size of results, but the limited work in 2017 was impressive.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2018
15. Ty Gangi, Nevada
Nevada’s offense seemed to find its groove over the second half of 2017, averaging over 300 passing yards in Mountain West games and scoring at least 35 points in four out of the last seven contests. Gangi’s emergence was a big reason why the Wolf Pack led the league in passing offense (conference-only matchups) and enters 2018 as one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks. Gangi started 10 of Nevada’s 12 contests last fall and threw for 2,746 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also completed 61 percent of his passes and threw eight scores over the Wolf Pack’s last three contests. Gangi and the Nevada offense showed significant progress from Week 1 until the end of the 2017 season. With one of the league’s top receiving corps at his disposal, and a full offseason to work as the unquestioned starter, Gangi should easily eclipse 3,000 passing yards and 30 scores this fall.
14. Tyler Huntley, Utah
Huntley unseated returning starter Troy Williams for the top spot on the Utah depth chart and accounted for 294.8 total yards a contest last fall. That total ranked third among Pac-12 players in 2017 and also came with Huntley sidelined for three contests. Huntley has room to grow as a passer but still finished with 2,411 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall. Additionally, the Florida native accounted for 537 yards and six scores on the ground. With another offseason to work under coordinator Troy Taylor, Huntley should show progress as a passer, while maintaining his dual-threat ability for the Utes. The junior should rank among the Pac-12’s top passers in 2018.
13. Caleb Evans, ULM
Thanks to a high-powered offense and third-year coach Matt Viator, ULM has a good shot to earn its first bowl trip since 2012. The Warhawks ranked second in the Sun Belt in scoring (33.9 ppg) and yards per play (6.4) last fall. Evans was a big reason why ULM’s offense improved its scoring average by 10 points a game from 2016 to '17. The Texas native threw for 17 touchdowns and 2,868 yards and completed 61.3 percent of his throws. He also hurt defenses with his legs, accounting for 579 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Evans took a significant step forward in his development last season and is poised for another one in 2018.
12. D’Eriq King, Houston
Dynamic might be the best (and easiest) way to sum up King’s ability. The Texas native ranked as one of the top athletes in the 2015 signing class and played in 10 games that year, largely as a receiver (29 catches) or as an option on returns. King returned to the receiver position after missing the first two games of 2017 due to injury. However, he wasn’t on the outside for long. Coach Major Applewhite moved King back under center for the final five contests. During that stretch, King led Houston to an upset win at USF and defeated Navy 24-14. He finished 2017 with 1,260 passing yards and seven scores and 379 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. King’s mobility and athleticism should be a good fit for the Cougars’ offense under new coordinator Kendal Briles.
11. Jawon Pass, Louisville
Lamar Jackson leaves big shoes to fill at Louisville, but it’s safe to assume Bobby Petrino will keep the offense performing at a high level. Additionally, Pass has the talent and intangibles to rank as Petrino’s next star pupil for the Cardinals. Pass ranked as the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback by the 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year in his first season on campus. As a backup to Jackson in 2017, Pass played in six games and completed 23 of 33 throws for 238 yards and two scores. The Georgia native also added 62 yards on 13 carries. Pass will be tested right away with an opener against Alabama, but the sophomore should fill the void left behind by Jackson.
10. Charlie Brewer, Baylor
Brewer was one of the bright spots from coach Matt Rhule’s first year in Waco. After not playing in the first four games, Brewer received snaps as a backup over the next four contests and started the last four games of 2017. During that stint as the starter, Brewer threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns against TCU and also torched Texas Tech for 417 yards and three scores. The Austin native ended his first year on campus with 1,562 yards and 11 touchdown passes. Brewer isn’t going to put up huge rushing totals, but as evidenced by last year’s numbers (166 yards on 65 carries), he can move around in the pocket and make plays as needed. Baylor has a good group of playmakers in place, and if Brewer takes the next step in his development, this offense should lead the program to a bowl trip in Rhule’s second year at the helm.
9. Sam Ehlinger, Texas
The quarterback position has been a revolving door for Texas since Colt McCoy left Austin in 2009. Over the last eight years, only one quarterback (David Ash) has led the offense in passing yards in back-to-back seasons. However, that’s likely to change in 2018. Ehlinger edged Shane Buechele (1,915 to 1,405) in passing yardage and led the offense with 11 passing scores last year. Additionally, Ehlinger finished the season with the team lead in rushing (381 yards) and averaged 255.1 total yards a contest. The Austin native has to officially hold off Buechele for the starting job, but his mobility and all-around playmaking ability should propel the sophomore into the ranks of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2018.
8. Jonathan Banks, Tulane
Most of the preseason attention in the AAC West Division has focused on Houston, Memphis and Navy, but don’t overlook Tulane in 2018. The Green Wave took a step forward in coach Willie Fritz’s second year and should earn a bowl trip this fall. A big reason for that improvement is due to the arrival of Banks. After a year at Independence Community College, Banks started 11 games for Fritz’s offense and helped this unit improve its yards per play to 5.8 – up from 4.8 the previous fall. The Texas native threw for 1,797 yards and 12 touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 592 rushing yards and seven scores. With another offseason to work under Fritz’s offense, Banks should be more comfortable (and dynamic) in his second year as the starter.
7. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo
Jackson appeared to be on his way to a breakout season in 2017 but was forced to miss four games due to injury. Despite missing a chunk of action, Jackson still finished the year with 2,096 passing yards and 12 touchdowns. Additionally, Jackson’s return in late October helped to lead Buffalo to a 3-1 finish over its final four games. During that stretch, he tossed only two picks to nine touchdowns. The Michigan native added 197 yards and four scores on the ground over 47 carries last fall. Jackson’s big-time arm should allow him to connect on plenty of downfield throws with Athlon Sports’ All-American receiver Anthony Johnson.
6. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has a good problem on his hands. The Tigers already have one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in Kelly Bryant, but Lawrence is simply too good to keep on the sidelines. The Georgia native ranked as the No. 1 recruit by the 247Sports Composite and impressed in the spring game by completing 11 of 16 throws for 122 yards and a touchdown. While Bryant has the edge in experience and mobility, Lawrence’s big-time arm would help Clemson’s offense stretch the field more with its passing attack. Even if he doesn’t start the first game, we think Lawrence ends up as Clemson’s No. 1 quarterback early in the 2018 season.
5. Malcolm Perry, Navy
Perry spent most of the 2017 season as a slotback but returned to his original position of quarterback late in the year. The Tennessee native started three out of the final five contests under center and rushed for 282 yards and four scores in a win over SMU. He tallied 250 rushing yards against Army and closed out the year by posting 114 and two touchdowns versus Virginia in the Military Bowl. Combined with his snaps at slotback, Perry finished 2017 with 1,182 rushing yards and 11 scores. He should push for all-conference honors in his first year as the full-time starter for coach Ken Niumatalolo.
4. Shea Patterson, Michigan
After scratching the surface of his potential in a three-game stint as the starter for Ole Miss in 2016, Patterson appeared primed for a breakout 2017 season. However, in addition to an unexpected coaching change, Patterson suffered a season-ending knee injury against LSU and was forced to miss the final five contests. Prior to the injury, Patterson threw for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns to just nine picks. Additionally, Patterson connected on 63.8 percent of his throws – up from 54.5 in 2016. Patterson was granted immediate eligibility after transferring from Ole Miss to Michigan and provides an instant upgrade under center for coach Jim Harbaugh’s team. The junior’s mobility will be an asset for an offensive line that’s still developing, while the growth of receivers Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones should help to fuel a much-improved offense in Ann Arbor.
3. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
The 2018 season will be Murray’s only year at the controls of Oklahoma’s high-powered offense. The Oakland A’s selected Murray in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft but signed off on him taking snaps with the Sooners this fall. The Texas native inherits big shoes to fill in 2018, as he is tasked with replacing Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. While the junior is still developing as a passer, there’s no question his athleticism and mobility will add a different dimension to Lincoln Riley’s offense. Murray started his career at Texas A&M and threw for 686 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 335 rushing yards as a true freshman. After sitting out the 2016 season due to transfer rules, Murray played in seven contests (with one start) for the Sooners in 2017. In that limited action, he threw for 359 yards on 18 completions for three touchdowns and added 142 yards on the ground.
2. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
Ohio State’s quarterback battle received some early clarity following spring practice. Joe Burrow left as a transfer to LSU, giving Haskins the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. It’s likely Haskins would have won the job even if Burrow decided to stick around in Columbus, but the sophomore now has a full complement of practices to work as the starter in the fall. Haskins was one of the top pro-style quarterback recruits for the 2016 signing class and redshirted in his first year on campus. He played in eight games last fall, including a stint in the second half of Ohio State’s road win over Michigan after J.T. Barrett was lost due to injury. Haskins is a better passer than Barrett and showcased his arm by connecting on 40 of 57 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns in 2017.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Alabama is set to open fall practice with an open battle at quarterback between Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, but it would be a major surprise if the Hawaii native isn’t the starter for the opener. Tagovailoa arrived in Tuscaloosa as a five-star recruit and played well in limited action during the regular season. After the Crimson Tide’s offense struggled to get on track against Georgia in the national championship, coach Nick Saban decided to hand the keys to the offense to Tagovailoa. Against one of the best defenses in the nation last fall, Tagovailoa connected on 14 of 24 throws for 166 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. The Hawaii native’s performance was critical to Alabama’s comeback, as Tagovailoa connected with receiver DeVonta Smith on a 41-yard touchdown strike to win it in overtime. Assuming Tagovailoa holds off Hurts, his first official start will be the opener versus Louisville. Even though Tagovailoa doesn’t have a start under his belt, the physical talent and supporting cast is in place to make a run at All-American honors.
Just Missed: Cephus Johnson, South Alabama; Woody Barrett, Kent State; Steven Williams, Old Dominion; Brady White/David Moore, Memphis; Chris Robison/De'Andre Johnson, FAU; Alex Thomson, Marshall; Marcus Childers, Northern Illinois; Luke Skipper, Tulsa; Kaleb Barker, Troy; Joe Burrow, LSU