The countdown to the 2017 college football season is already underway, as spring practices and position battles for spots on the depth chart for all 130 teams across the nation are already in progress in offseason workouts. And one of the biggest storylines of any offseason rests with the quarterback position. Last season, Louisville's Lamar Jackson emerged as a breakout candidate in the spring to one of the nation's top quarterbacks and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Quarterback play is always under the microscope and could be the difference between winning a conference title or national championship or finishing with a disappointing record. Recruiting establishes the foundation for any program, but finding and developing quarterbacks is a challenging and essential task for any coach. While the 2017 season is still five months away, it’s never too early to take a look at the returning talent and project some of the players due for a breakout season.
Quarterbacks are the highest-profile and most-important position on the field. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 25 quarterbacks on the rise for next season, as well as a handful of names to watch. With spring practice coming up and some of the battles set to be decided, this list will look a tad different by the fall. If possible, we tried to avoid quarterbacks that already earned all-conference honors during their career. Defining what is a "quarterback on the rise" isn't easy, but we tried to pick quarterbacks that had an under-the-radar 2016 season or ones we believe are in for a huge 2017 campaign.
College Football's Top 25 QBs on the Rise for 2017
Kyle Allen, Houston
Dynamic quarterback Greg Ward expired his eligibility after the Las Vegas Bowl, but new coach Major Applewhite has some promising options battling to take over in 2017. Allen is eligible after sitting out the 2016 season as a transfer from Texas A&M and is slated to take on Kyle Postma for the starting job this offseason. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Houston should have one of the American Athletic Conference’s top receiving duos, as Linell Bonner (98 catches) and Steven Dunbar (53) return. Allen ranked as a five-star prospect in the 2014 signing class and threw for 3,532 yards and 33 scores during his two years with the Aggies.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina
After a unique path to the starting job last season, Bentley is firmly entrenched as South Carolina’s No. 1 quarterback entering spring workouts and is a big reason for optimism under second-year coach Will Muschamp. Bentley graduated high school following his junior year and enrolled over the summer to compete for the starting job with the Gamecocks. After not playing through the first six games, Bentley appeared to be in line for a redshirt year. However, Bentley was inserted as South Carolina’s No. 1 quarterback in late October and led the Gamecocks to a 4-3 record over the final seven games. During that span, Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine scores and completed 65.8 percent of his throws. With a full offseason to work under play-caller Kurt Roper, Bentley should take a significant step forward in his development for 2017.
David Blough, Purdue
With J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), Trace McSorley (Penn State), Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska) and Wilton Speight (Michigan) garnering most of the attention among Big Ten quarterbacks, Blough’s 2016 season was largely overlooked. However, Blough led all Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 279.3 yards per game and finished last year with 3,352 yards and 25 scores. The junior certainly has room to improve after tossing 21 picks and posting a completion percentage of 57.1. However, new coach Jeff Brohm developed some of the nation’s best offenses over the last three seasons at WKU, which included huge seasons by Mike White (4,363 yards and 37 scores) and Brandon Doughty (5,055 yards and 48 scores). Purdue’s receiving corps needs some work with the top four statistical receivers from 2016 departing West Lafayette. But with Brohm (and Blough) at the controls, the Boilermakers are going to put up their share of points and yards in 2017.
Dru Brown, Hawaii
The Rainbow Warriors improved their win total by four games in coach Nick Rolovich’s first season and capped the year with a victory over MTSU in the Hawaii Bowl. A big reason for the seven-win season and late-season surge? Brown’s development as the team’s starting quarterback. The junior college product finished with 2,488 passing yards and 19 touchdown passes, with nine of those coming over Hawaii’s last two contests. Brown also showed he was more than a pocket passer by adding 306 yards and one score on the ground. He should be one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Kelly Bryant/Zerrick Cooper/Hunter Johnson, Clemson
Make no mistake: Deshaun Watson leaves big shoes to fill at Clemson. Simply replacing Watson with another Heisman Trophy contender and quarterback capable of keeping the Tigers in the hunt to win it all isn’t going to be easy. However, coach Dabo Swinney has recruited well at this position, with three talented options slated to battle for the starting job this spring. Bryant has completed 13 of 18 passes for 75 yards and one score in reserve work over the last two years, while Cooper (a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing used a redshirt season last fall. Johnson – the No. 30 overall prospect by the 247Sports Composite in the 2017 class – enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Clemson should be in good shape under center.
Eric Dungey, Syracuse
As expected under new coach Dino Babers, Dungey was poised for a huge statistical season in 2016. Dungey was a good fit for Babers’ spread, no-huddle attack and threw for 2,679 yards and 15 scores through Syracuse’s first nine games. However, Dungey’s season ended due to an injury suffered against Clemson on Nov. 5. Top receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (94 grabs) has expired his eligibility, but Dungey’s return to full strength and the lineup should keep Syracuse in the mix for a bowl.
Jacob Eason, Georgia
Eason was mentioned in this space last season and even bigger things are expected from him in 2017. The Washington native is a key cog in coach Kirby Smart’s plan to elevate Georgia into the national title mix and showcased his skills in an impressive stint as a true freshman last fall. Eason played in all 13 games and finished 2016 with 2,430 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. He should benefit from a full offseason of work with the No. 1 offense but also needs more help from his receiving corps and offensive line to challenge for All-SEC honors in 2017.
Jesse Ertz, Kansas State
After a 2015 season filled with bad luck, Ertz returned to the starting lineup in 2016 and emerged as the catalyst for coach Bill Snyder’s offense. Ertz opened 2015 as the No. 1 quarterback but suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first game of the year. However, Ertz showed no ill-effects from the injury last season, as he guided Kansas State to a 9-4 record and led the team with 1,012 rushing yards and 12 scores. Ertz also added 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns through the air, which included 195 in the Texas Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The senior isn’t going to post huge totals through the air, but his ability to churn out 80-90 rushing yards a game and keep the offense performing at a high level is more than enough to push for a spot on the All-Big 12 team this December.
Riley Ferguson, Memphis
Paxton Lynch’s early departure to the NFL left a significant void under center for coach Mike Norvell last season, but the Tigers quickly rallied around Ferguson. The former Tennessee quarterback threw for 3,698 yards and 32 scores and finished the year ranked third among American Athletic Conference passers with a 63.2 completion percentage. Ferguson’s return should have Memphis in contention for the AAC’s West Division title this fall, and he also has one of the nation’s top returning receivers at his disposal in Anthony Miller (95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 scores in 2016).
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Replacing arguably the best player in school history (Dak Prescott) left big shoes for Fitzgerald to fill last offseason. One year later, Fitzgerald is poised to earn a spot among the SEC’s top quarterbacks in 2017. The Georgia native started all 13 games for coach Dan Mullen and guided Mississippi State to wins in four out of its final six contests, including a 55-20 victory over rival Ole Miss. While Fitzgerald’s passing totals (2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns) are solid, his rushing ability is a difference maker for this offense. Fitzgerald accumulated 1,375 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last year, averaging a healthy 7.1 yards per rush. With a full offseason to work under Mullen, look for Fitzgerald to improve as a passer and maintain his dynamic playmaking ability on the ground.
Deondre Francois, Florida State
The development of Francois is a big reason why Florida State should be in the mix to win the national title in 2017. As a redshirt freshman last season, Francois started all 13 games for the Seminoles and guided coach Jimbo Fisher’s team to a 10-3 record, including a 33-32 victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Francois connected on 58.8 percent of his throws for 3,350 yards and 20 scores and added five rushing touchdowns and 196 yards. While Francois showcased his toughness and willingness to hang in the pocket last year, coach Jimbo Fisher wants him to get rid of the ball quicker in order to avoid the big hits suffered in 2016 and work on his completion percentage this offseason. Francois is one of the ACC's top returning quarterbacks for 2017.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2017
Will Grier, West Virginia
Grier showed flashes of promise in a short stint at Florida during the 2015 campaign and is one of the nation’s top impact transfers for the 2017 season. In his six-game run as the starter in Gainesville, Grier threw for 1,204 yards and 10 scores and completed 65.8 percent of his throws. A suspension ended his 2015 season prematurely, and the absence of Grier under center was certainly noticeable on Florida’s offense. The Gators averaged only 16.5 points over their final eight games and scored just 24 points in the last three contests. The North Carolina native ranked as the No. 48 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and should be one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
New coach Willie Taggart ran an offense similar to the up-tempo, spread attack Oregon has utilized in recent seasons, so the overall transition between schemes should be minimal. That’s good news for Herbert, as the sophomore is poised to rank among the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks after an impressive stint as a true freshman in 2016. After not registering a pass attempt through the first four games, Herbert eventually took over the starting job in October and finished the year with 1,936 passing yards and 19 scores. Herbert tossed only four picks, completed 63.5 percent of his throws and chipped in 161 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Herbert will also have more help in his supporting cast this year, as running back Royce Freeman is back at full strength, and tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury.
Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
With a talented group of running backs slated to replace Corey Clement and a standout defense in place, Wisconsin doesn’t need Hornibrook to throw for 300 yards every week to win the Big Ten West. However, as he showed in 2016, the sophomore is a promising option for coach Paul Chryst to develop over the next couple of seasons. Hornibrook played in 12 games last fall and started nine of those contests, throwing for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns. Hornibrook set a career high with 214 passing yards against Ohio State and also threw for 195 yards and a score in Wisconsin’s road win over Michigan State.
Daniel Jones, Duke
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is one of the nation’s best quarterback coaches, so it was no surprise Jones turned in a solid all-around freshman season after an injury sidelined starting quarterback Thomas Sirk in 2016. Jones was originally a grayshirt commit to Duke’s 2015 class and used his first year on campus as a redshirt season. The Charlotte native started all 12 games for the Blue Devils last season and threw for 2,836 yards and 16 scores, while adding 486 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Additionally, his 62.8 completion percentage ranks second among returning starting quarterbacks in the ACC.
Steven Montez, Colorado
Replacing a four-year starter (Sefo Liufau) under center is never easy, but Colorado’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Montez. Liufau suffered an ankle injury against Michigan in mid-September and missed the next two games before returning versus USC on Oct. 8. In his first opportunity for snaps, Montez guided Colorado to a 2-1 record over three starts and finished the 2016 campaign with 1,078 passing yards and nine scores on 83 completions. He also added 231 yards and one touchdown on the ground. The Texas native inherits a receiving corps that returns its top three options and is poised to build off last year’s experience to a successful season in his first as Colorado’s starter. Montez is a good fit for the up-tempo attack coordinators Brian Lindgren and Darrin Chiaverini want to utilize.
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
After a season-ending injury to starter Chad Kelly, coach Hugh Freeze decided to remove the redshirt from Patterson and allow the true freshman an opportunity for extended action over the last three games. The five-star freshman impressed in the limited stint, throwing for 880 yards and six touchdowns and adding 169 yards on the ground. The Rebels must replace tight end Evan Engram but still return one of the SEC’s top receiving corps in 2017 for new coordinator Phil Longo. Patterson should have a huge season in his first full year as the starter.
Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio)
Ragland’s return from an offseason knee injury was a big reason why Miami won its last six regular season games after an 0-6 start and lost by just one point to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The Cincinnati native passed for 196 yards and three scores in a limited role in 2015 and was slated to push Billy Bahl for the starting job in the spring before a knee injury. After returning to the lineup in mid-October, Ragland threw for 1,537 yards and 17 scores and tossed only one pick on 179 attempts. He also rushed for 202 yards and three touchdowns – numbers that can only increase with more playing time and a healthy knee in 2017.
Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech
Patrick Mahomes won’t be easy to replace, but Texas Tech has a strong track record of developing productive Big 12 quarterbacks. Don’t expect that to change with Shimonek at the controls, as the Iowa transfer gained valuable experience in a reserve role last year. In four appearances, Shimonek threw for 464 yards and six scores and completed 38 of 58 passes. The senior doesn’t have Mahomes’ running ability, but he’s a classic pocket passer built to thrive in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
Shurmur’s performance in November was a big reason why Vanderbilt finished with six regular season wins and the first bowl bid under coach Derek Mason. In a 38-17 victory against Ole Miss on Nov. 19, Shurmur threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns. A week later, Shurmur threw for a career-best 416 yards and added two scores in a 45-34 victory over Tennessee. After finishing 2016 with 2,409 yards and nine touchdown passes, hopes are high on West End for Shurmur to take a step forward in his development and build off a solid close to the 2016 season.
J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech has ranked among Conference USA’s top three in scoring offense in each season since 2014. The Bulldogs lose quarterback Ryan Higgins and receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor, but there are reasons to be optimistic for coach Skip Holtz. Smith is slated to replace Higgins under center and already has one career start under his belt. Smith threw for 212 yards and rushed for 10 yards and a score in Louisiana Tech’s 21-20 loss to Arkansas in the 2016 opener. The Mississippi native only has 43 career pass attempts, but Holtz’s track record on offense in Ruston and Smith’s talent (three-star recruit in 2015 signing class) should equal another explosive season for the Bulldogs’ offense.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stidham returns to the Power 5 level after sitting out the 2016 season at a junior college. The Texas native was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and signed to Baylor to play for former coach Art Briles. Stidham was pressed into action after Seth Russell suffered a season-ending neck injury and appeared in 10 games (with three starts), throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. Following the dismissal of Briles, Stidham left Baylor and spent last year at McLennan Community College. Stidham did not take a snap for any team last season but rust shouldn’t be an issue in 2017. With new coordinator Chip Lindsey calling the plays and a talented group of young receivers at his disposal, Stidham is going to provide a needed spark for Auburn’s passing game this fall.
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Thorson was arguably one of the Big Ten’s most-improved quarterbacks last season. After throwing for 1,522 yards and seven scores as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Thorson passed for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Additionally, Thorson improved his completion percentage to 58.6 in 2016 – up from 50.8 in 2015. The departure of top receiver Austin Carr (90 receptions) is a big concern for the Wildcats, but the addition of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown helps fill the void on the outside. Thorson should be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame
DeShone Kizer departed for the NFL after two standout seasons in South Bend. While Kizer could be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Fighting Irish are in good shape under center. Wimbush – the No. 45 overall prospect in the 2015 signing class – is set to take over after a redshirt year. The New Jersey native doesn't have a start under his belt but does have some limited experience. In 2015, Wimbush played in two games and completed three of five passes for 17 yards and added 96 rushing yards and a score on seven attempts. The development of Wimbush under new coordinator Chip Long and coach Brian Kelly is essential for the Fighting Irish to return to a top 25 ranking in 2017.
Arion Worthman, Air Force
Worthman was pressed into duty after an injury to starter Nate Romine in Air Force’s win over Fresno State in late October. The Illinois native proceeded to rush for 102 yards and two scores over the Bulldogs and handled the starting duties for the final five games. Worthman recorded at least 63 rushing yards in every contest during that span, including 215 against San Jose State. In addition to Worthman’s totals on the ground (674 yards and six scores), he also completed 23 of 39 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns. Air Force has a few voids to fill on offense, but coach Troy Calhoun’s group should perform at a high level once again with Worthman at the controls.
Others to Watch
Zach Abey, Navy
Injuries took a toll on Navy’s quarterback situation last season, as three different players made a start in 2016. Abey finished the year as the No. 1 quarterback and rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 159 yards and a score in the 48-45 bowl loss to Louisiana Tech. He’s slated to guide the Midshipmen attack in 2017.
Blake Barnett, Arizona State
Arizona State’s quarterback depth chart was hit hard by injuries last season, but help is on the way in the form of Barnett. The California native played in three games with Alabama in 2016, including a start against USC in the opener. Barnett finished the season with 219 yards and two touchdowns on 11 completions and transferred to Arizona State in search of more playing time after Jalen Hurts emerged as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Crimson Tide in 2016. Barnett should be an upgrade at quarterback for coach Todd Graham.
Mason Fine, North Texas
Second-year coach Seth Littrell has engineered standout offenses from previous stops as a coordinator at North Carolina, Arizona and Indiana. Fine was thrown into the mix as a true freshman last season and threw for 1,572 yards and six scores. How much of a step forward will he take in 2017?
Andrew Ford, UMass
Ford – a former Virginia Tech signal-caller – quietly posted 2,665 yards and 26 scores for the Minutemen last fall. He also finished 2016 by tossing at least three touchdown passes in five out of the last six games.
Kwadra Griggs/Keon Howard, USM
Griggs and Howard are talented options for coordinator Shannon Dawson, but former starter Nick Mullens leaves big shoes to fill this offseason.
Ben Hicks, SMU
Pencil in the winner of SMU’s quarterback battle in this spot. Hicks is the frontrunner after throwing for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, but Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey is a name to watch in spring ball. With a loaded group of receivers in place, SMU’s quarterback is going to post huge totals under coach Chad Morris this fall.
Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente developed Andy Dalton at TCU, Paxton Lynch at Memphis and transformed Jerod Evans into one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks just a year removed from the junior college ranks. Is Jackson his next star pupil? The redshirt freshman opens spring ball at the top of the depth chart in Blacksburg.
De’Andre Johnson, FAU
Former Florida State quarterback lands at FAU after a stint at East Mississippi Community College. Will Johnson emerge as the starter over Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for new coach Lane Kiffin?
James Morgan, Bowling Green
The Falcons had an up-and-down debut under coach Mike Jinks last season but closed 2016 with three consecutive victories. A resurgent ground game propelled Bowling Green late in the year, and the offense benefitted from the emergence of Morgan as the team’s starting quarterback. The freshman threw for 2,082 yards and 16 scores and gained valuable experience within the offense for 2017. Can Morgan cut down on the interceptions (15) in 2017?
Jacob Park, Iowa State
Joel Lanning could move to an all-purpose role in 2017, leaving Park as Iowa State’s clear No. 1 quarterback. Park threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 appearances last season, which was his first game action since his senior year in high school (2013).
Chad President, Tulsa
Dane Evans (32 TDs and 3,348 yards in 2016) expired his eligibility after the Miami Beach Bowl. President – the No. 358 recruit in the 2015 signing class – is the early frontrunner to start for the Golden Hurricane and coach Philip Montgomery's high-powered offense. The Texas native threw for 2,391 yards as a high school senior but also brings more mobility than Evans to the position.
Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan
A strong case could be made for Roback to rank as one of the top 25 options on this list. He didn’t play in the first three games of 2016 but later reclaimed the starting job and threw for 2,694 yards and 18 scores to help Eastern Michigan earn the program’s first bowl trip since 1987.
Zach Smith, Baylor
Smith took over the starting job after a season-ending leg injury to Seth Russell in early November and showed flashes of promise. While Smith is the frontrunner to start under new coach Matt Rhule, Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon is expected to push for snaps.
Johnny Stanton/Armani Rogers, UNLV
Stanton – a former Nebraska signal-caller – was a popular breakout pick at quarterback last year, but his 2016 campaign never got on track after a season-ending injury in September. Rogers – a promising redshirt freshman from Los Angeles – is slated to push for the No. 1 job this spring.