Predicting which QBs will have a breakout year this fall
College football returns plenty of stars at the quarterback position for 2019, but there's another wave of players ready to emerge with a breakout year. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Georgia's Jake Fromm, Texas' Sam Ehlinger and Oregon's Justin Herbert are just a few of the big names returning this fall, while Nebraska's Adrian Martinez and Ohio State's Justin Fields could join the list of top 10 quarterbacks with a big year. Both Martinez and Fields make Athlon's list of top breakout quarterbacks for 2019, with Florida State's James Blackman, Ole Miss' Matt Corral, Texas Tech's Alan Bowman, Iowa State's Brock Purdy and Syracuse's Tommy DeVito headlining the next tier.
With fall practice around the corner, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the breakout candidates for 2019. 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 2019? Athlon has compiled 25 names to watch, along with a few others to consider.
College Football's Top 25 Breakout QBs for 2019
25. Isaiah Green, Marshall
Marshall is Athlon’s pick to win Conference USA’s East Division in 2019, and in order for coach Doc Holliday’s team to reach that goal, Green has to take a step forward in his development. The signs are certainly there for the sophomore quarterback, as he paced the Marshall attack last season with 2,459 passing yards and 15 touchdowns to 10 interceptions over 10 games in 2018 on his way to sharing Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year award. Green also chipped in 116 yards and one score over 45 carries. The Georgia native completed at least 60 percent of his throws in three out of his last five contests and ended the year with a solid effort (17-for-25 for 221 yards) in the bowl victory over USF.
24. Sean Chambers, Wyoming
Wyoming’s offense struggled to get on track in the post-Josh Allen era last fall. The Cowboys averaged only 20.7 points a game and did not score more than 30 points in a contest until the ninth (Oct. 26) game of 2018. However, the final stretch of the season provided optimism for coach Craig Bohl’s offense. Chambers played in four out of the team’s final five games, running for 100 or more yards in matchups against Utah State, Colorado State and San Jose State. He only attempted 25 passes in those games but connected on 15 for 266 yards and three scores. Chambers’ season was cut short by a leg injury against Air Force on Nov. 17 but utilized the four-game redshirt rule to preserve a year of eligibility. Chambers has room to grow as a passer, but his running ability should help spark Wyoming’s attack this fall.
23. Donald Hammond III, Air Force
Air Force has missed on a bowl in back-to-back years, but there’s a good chance that streak ends in 2019. Hammond’s emergence in 2018 is a big reason why the Falcons are poised to earn a winning record this fall. The Georgia native played in nine games and went 3-2 as Air Force’s starter last season. Hammond’s 6-foot-2 frame helped him power for nine rushing scores (most on the team) and 374 yards over 84 carries. He also connected on 38 of 72 throws for 623 yards and five touchdowns to two picks.
22. Woody Barrett, Kent State
Second-year coach Sean Lewis has Kent State trending in the right direction. The former Syracuse assistant helped the Golden Flashes improve their scoring average from 12.8 points a game in 2017 to 23.9 last fall. Another step forward is likely for ’19, especially with Barrett having another offseason to work under Lewis. The former Auburn and junior college product started all 12 games for Kent State last fall. Barrett completed 58.7 percent of his passes and threw for 2,339 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 503 yards and seven scores in his first year with the Golden Flashes. A push for all-conference honors is within reach in 2019.
21. Holton Ahlers, East Carolina
East Carolina made one of the offseason’s top coaching moves by hiring Mike Houston away from James Madison. Under Houston’s watch, the Dukes ranked in the top 20 in the FCS in scoring every year from 2016-18. Ahlers flashed potential in 10 appearances for the Pirates last fall and should benefit from the arrival of Houston and his staff. Ahlers completed only 48.3 percent of his passes but threw for 1,785 yards and 12 touchdowns to only three picks. Additionally, Ahlers led the East Carolina offense with 592 rushing yards and six scores. Assuming Ahlers takes a step forward, the Pirates have a shot to be the most-improved team in the AAC this fall.
20. Kaleb Barker, Troy
Barker was on his way to a breakout 2018 campaign, but a knee injury in early October derailed his season. Prior to the injury, Barker was finding his rhythm as Troy’s No. 1 quarterback. He completed 73 percent of his passes for 1,013 yards and 10 touchdowns to just two picks. He completed 14 of 21 throws in the Trojans’ road win at Nebraska and gashed ULM for 273 yards and two touchdowns on 23 completions. The Alabama native also ran for 261 yards and three scores over 57 carries and posted a 100-yard effort (111) versus Georgia State. New coach Chip Lindsey indicated at Sun Belt Media Day that Barker is 100 percent and back to full strength for the 2019 season. That’s good news for a Troy team capable of winning the Sun Belt East Division this fall, and Barker’s prospects of delivering a breakout year after a promising stint last season.
19. Elijah Sindelar, Purdue
David Blough closed out his career with a solid 2018 season (3,705 yards and 25 TDs), but coach Jeff Brohm won’t have to look far for his replacement. Sindelar played in 12 games (with eight starts) for the Boilermakers in 2017. Despite suffering a torn ACL late in the year, Sindelar still passed for 2,099 yards and 18 touchdowns to seven picks. The Kentucky native finished the 2017 season by torching Arizona for 396 yards and four touchdowns in the Foster Farms Bowl. Sindelar played in the first two games of 2018 and threw for 283 yards and two touchdowns over 26 completions. Due to tendinitis in the knee from the ACL injury, Sindelar used a redshirt year last fall. If healthy, he’s poised to put up big numbers in Brohm’s high-powered attack this season.
18. Mike Glass III, Eastern Michigan
Eastern Michigan leaned on its defense last season to earn the program’s second bowl trip under coach Chris Creighton. With the Eagles replacing a handful of key contributors on that side of the ball, Creighton’s offense will have to pick up a little more of the slack in 2019. Glass started his collegiate career at Southwestern College and used a redshirt in 2017. The Missouri native played in eight games (with three starts) and threw for 1,024 yards and nine scores over 72 completions. Glass was dynamic on the ground, averaging 5.8 yards per rush on 71 carries (412 yards) and recording six touchdowns.
17. Justin McMillan, Tulane
McMillan started his career at LSU but decided to transfer last August. He didn’t have to look far for his next stop, as McMillan remained in the Pelican State and landed at Tulane prior to the start of the season. Despite his late arrival, McMillan took over the starting job for the final six contests. He was instrumental in helping the Green Wave reach bowl eligibility for the first time under coach Willie Fritz, as the Texas native connected on a two-point play with less than two minutes to go to beat Navy 29-28 and clinch victory No. 6. McMillan showed promise as a passer (1,304 yards and 10 TDs to only four picks) and chipped in 238 yards and five scores on the ground. New play-caller Will Hall should help Tulane’s passing game improve, and McMillan will benefit from a full offseason to work with his supporting cast.
16. Spencer Sanders, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has a pretty good track record when it comes to replacing or finding a new starting quarterback. Sanders looks like Gundy’s next star pupil after the Texas native spent 2018 learning the ropes as a redshirt behind Taylor Cornelius. Sanders ranked as a four-star prospect and one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the 2018 signing class after a prolific career at Ryan High School. He has to beat Dru Brown for the top spot, but assuming Sanders does, he should thrive under Gundy and new play-caller Sean Gleeson.
15. Sean Clifford, Penn State
Penn State’s quarterback battle took a bit of an unexpected twist when Tommy Stevens decided to transfer at the end of spring practice. Stevens’ decision opens the door for Clifford to become the No. 1 quarterback, and the sophomore has big shoes to fill in replacing Trace McSorley. The Ohio native played in four games as McSorley’s backup last season and connected on five of seven throws for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Clifford has displayed a strong arm in his limited time, and as indicated by coach James Franklin at Big Ten Media Days, the sophomore has worked to improve his athleticism and speed to fit what is required by the quarterback in Penn State’s offense.
14. Joe Burrow, LSU
Burrow’s 2018 totals – 2,984 yards and 16 TDs to five picks – are even more impressive when you consider he didn’t arrive in Baton Rouge until the summer. The Ohio State transfer also chipped in 399 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground and finished the year on a high note with huge performances against Texas A&M and UCF. Only one LSU quarterback (Zach Mettenberger) has registered more than 20 TD passes in a season since 2009, but Burrow is poised to break that mark in ’19. Behind new passing game coordinator Joe Brady and play-caller Steve Ensminger, the Tigers are promising to utilize more spread and tempo looks this fall. Burrow is the perfect quarterback to make this offense go and another offseason in Baton Rouge will only help his familiarity with the supporting cast.
13. Mitchell Guadagni, Toledo
Injuries derailed Guadagni’s 2018 campaign after a promising start. After throwing for 265 yards and three scores in his first career start in the opener against FCS opponent VMI, Guadagni threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns versus Miami in the Glass Bowl. He followed up that performance with a four-touchdown effort against Nevada but was injured in the Sept. 29 contest against Fresno State and did not play versus Bowling Green on Oct. 6. Guadagni returned to action on Oct. 13 against Eastern Michigan but was lost for the year due to a shoulder injury on Oct. 25. He finished the year with 13 touchdowns and 1,053 yards on 69 completions. The Ohio native tossed only three picks and added 428 yards and three scores on the ground. Toledo has a strong track record of producing standouts at the quarterback position. Guadagni could be the next All-MAC signal-caller for the Rockets.
12. Zach Wilson, BYU
Provided he is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, Wilson should have a breakout year in his first full season as BYU’s No. 1 quarterback. The Utah native played in nine overall contests (with seven starts) and finished his true freshman year with 1,578 yards and 12 touchdowns to only three picks. Wilson completed all 18 passes for 317 yards and four scores in a 49-18 rout of Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Despite playing less than a full year, Wilson hit on six passes of 40 or more yards and boasted a 65.9 completion percentage. Both of those totals are good signs as BYU looks to take another step forward on offense in 2019.
11. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA
Chip Kelly’s first season at UCLA resulted in a 3-9 record, but the Bruins played better over the second half of the year. That momentum should carry into ’19, especially with eight starters back on offense, including Thompson-Robinson. The Las Vegas native played in 10 games (with seven starts) as a true freshman last fall. Thompson-Robinson threw for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns to four interceptions over 194 attempts and added 68 rushing yards on 50 carries. The former four-star recruit will benefit from an offseason to work under Kelly and should thrive in his first full year as UCLA’s No. 1 quarterback.
10. Hunter Johnson, Northwestern
Last year’s starter Clayton Thorson led Northwestern to a Big Ten West Division title, but the Wildcats aren’t sweating too much about a change at quarterback this fall. Johnson – a former five-star recruit – is eligible after sitting out last fall as a transfer from Clemson. In seven games as a backup to Kelly Bryant with the Tigers in 2017, Johnson completed 21 of 27 throws for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson has excellent arm strength and displayed good accuracy in limited playing time at the FBS level and in high school. Those attributes should help Northwestern spark its downfield passing attack after the offense managed only six completions of 40 or more yards in 2018.
9. Tyler Johnston III, UAB
The reigning Conference USA champs have a lot to replace on both sides of the ball, but with Bill Clark at the helm, this program won’t slip too far in the standings. In addition to Clark’s leadership, the Blazers could improve on offense after averaging 29.9 points a game last fall. That’s due to Johnston’s continued development, as the Alabama native closed out 2018 by torching Northern Illinois for 373 yards and four TD passes in a 37-13 rout in the Boca Raton Bowl. Johnston also threw for 306 yards against Texas A&M and finished the season with 1,323 passing yards and 11 scores. He also added 359 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
8. Matt Corral, Ole Miss
The Rebels have to replace quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and the team’s top three receivers from 2018. However, the combination of new play-caller Rich Rodriguez and Corral’s development should minimize the drop-off in 2019. Corral was regarded as a four-star prospect in the 2018 signing class and showcased his potential in a four-game stint last year. The California native completed 16 of 22 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 yards and two scores on the ground.
7. JT Daniels, USC
The 2019 season will be a critical one for Clay Helton’s future at USC, but a revamped staff should help this team rebound to a bowl. Helton hired Graham Harrell from North Texas to call the plays this year, and the former Texas Tech quarterback plans to install a variation of the Air Raid offense. The Trojans plan to take full advantage of their skill talent outside, which puts a lot of pressure on Daniels to deliver. The California native graduated high school a year early and started 11 games as a true freshman. As expected, there were plenty of ups and downs, but Daniels threw for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, Daniels finished on a high note by posting season highs in passing yards (349) and completion percentage (72.5) against Notre Dame. He also led all Pac-12 quarterbacks with 13 completions of 40 or more yards. Harrell’s arrival should help Daniels take a step forward in his development this fall.
6. James Blackman, Florida State
Florida State’s offense averaged only 21.9 points a game in coach Willie Taggart’s first year, but there’s optimism for improvement this fall. New play-caller Kendal Briles has a track record of success from stops at Baylor, FAU and Houston, and his up-tempo spread attack should be a good fit for Blackman’s talent. As a true freshman in 2017, Blackman was pressed into a starting role after Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Alabama. He ended his freshman campaign with 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns and completed 58.2 percent of his throws. With Francois back in the lineup for 2018, Blackman utilized a redshirt year to gain weight (169 pounds as a freshman to 195 this offseason). However, he saw action in four games, including a start in a 47-28 road loss to NC State. Blackman threw for 421 yards and four scores and guided the offense to 6.5 yards a play in that game – one of the best outputs of the 2018 season for Florida State. With Francois off the team, Blackman should hold off Alex Hornibrook for the starting job and push for All-ACC honors under Briles’ play-calling.
5. Tommy DeVito, Syracuse
Eric Dungey leaves big shoes to fill in Syracuse, but DeVito is ready to take over coach Dino Babers’ high-powered offense. The New Jersey native ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2017 signing class and used a redshirt year in his first fall on campus. DeVito worked as Dungey’s backup last season and saw playing time over eight contests. He completed 44 throws for 525 yards and four touchdowns and added a rushing score. DeVito doesn’t have Dungey’s mobility, but he’s more of a traditional pocket passer that Babers has used (and thrived with) at previous stops.
4. Alan Bowman, Texas Tech
Solving or addressing the quarterback position is often a focal point for most new coaches, but that’s not the case for Matt Wells at Texas Tech. The former Utah State head coach is stepping into one of the best quarterbacks situations for any first-year coach this fall. Bowman showed flashes of his potential as a true freshman last fall by throwing for 2,638 yards and 17 touchdowns over eight appearances. He torched Houston for 605 yards (a Big 12 freshman record) and five touchdowns on Sept. 15 and threw for 397 in a road win at Oklahoma State. Bowman missed four games due to injury, including the final three due to a partially collapsed lung suffered against Oklahoma on Nov. 3. Wells and play-caller David Yost will tweak a few things on offense, but Bowman should push for All-Big 12 honors with a full season of starts in 2019.
3. Brock Purdy, Iowa State
Purdy burst onto the college football scene with a huge performance against Oklahoma State, guiding Iowa State to a 48-42 road win after throwing for 318 yards and four scores. Purdy continued to progress throughout his true freshman campaign and ended the year with 2,250 passing yards and 16 scores to just seven picks. He also connected on 66.4 percent of his passes (third among Big 12 quarterbacks) and averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt (second in the conference). As evidenced by his 308 rushing yards and five touchdown runs, Purdy has plenty of mobility to make a few plays with his legs every game. Iowa State will miss standout receiver Hakeem Butler, but Purdy is poised to take a step forward in his development, especially with a full offseason to work under head coach Matt Campbell and offensive coordinator Tom Manning.
2. Justin Fields, Ohio State
Dwayne Haskins emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation under Ryan Day’s watch, and it’s safe to assume the first-year coach will have that type of impact on Fields this fall. Fields ranked as a five-star recruit in the 2018 signing class and played in 12 games as a backup to Jake Fromm. The Georgia native was productive in limited playing time, throwing for 328 yards and four touchdowns on 27 completions and running for 266 yards and four scores on just 42 carries. With Fromm entrenched as the starter, Fields left Athens for Columbus and a chance to start with Haskins off to the NFL. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Fields, and he’s got one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Big Ten calling the plays for him in 2019. While Fields might be a bit raw in some areas, all signs suggest a breakout year for the sophomore.
1. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
Martinez had a solid debut for the Cornhuskers last year, but we think the sophomore goes from good to great and contends for a spot among the top 10 quarterbacks in college football this season. As a true freshman last fall, Martinez helped Nebraska finish 4-2 in its last six games and finished the year with 2,617 yards and 17 passing scores to eight picks. The California native completed a healthy percent (64.6) of his attempts, ranked second on the team with 629 rushing yards and eight scores and tied for third among Big Ten quarterbacks with 18 completions of 30 or more yards. Martinez will also benefit from a full offseason to develop under coach Scott Frost and is a big reason why Nebraska will contend for the Big Ten West Division title this year.
Others to Watch: Kaleb Barker, Troy; Josh Adkins, New Mexico State; Jamie Newman/Sam Hartman, Wake Forest; Gresch Jensen, Texas State; Chase Cord, Boise State; Zach Smith, Tulsa; Malik Henry, Nevada