By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The countdown to the 2012 college football season continues with a look at the top quarterback battles in the nation. Spring practice is already underway at many campuses and will continue for many teams into late April. Quarterback battles are one of the most popular topics when it comes to spring practice, but there's no guarantee they will be settled by the end of April. Expect many of the battles on this list to last well into the fall.
The Biggest, Most Important Quarterback Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
A year after claiming the national championship and watching Cam Newton hoist the Heisman Trophy, Auburn’s offense was stuck in neutral in 2011. The Tigers finished ninth in the SEC in passing offense and managed just 25.7 points a game. Barrett Trotter led the team with 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Clint Moseley threw for 800 yards and five scores. Kiehl Frazier threw for only 34 yards, but was a valuable contributor on the ground by rushing for 327 yards and three scores. Trotter decided not to return to the team for 2012, leaving Frazier, Moseley and true freshman Zeke Pike to battle for the job. In addition to breaking in a new quarterback, coordinator Gus Malzahn departed to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Coach Gene Chizik tapped Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to lead Auburn’s offense, which will likely be a little more conservative than the Tigers saw under Malzahn. Pike and Frazier have more upside, but how quickly will they develop as passers? Moseley is more of a caretaker, but may have to start until one of the young quarterbacks is ready. Don’t be surprised if Auburn starts three different passers in 2012.
Projected Winner: Frazier
The Broncos have a plethora of holes to fill, but none bigger than finding a replacement for quarterback Kellen Moore. The general feeling is coach Chris Petersen and new offensive coordinator Robert Prince will find a way to keep Boise State’s offense among the best in the nation next year, but there may be a few growing pains. Four candidates will compete for the job this spring, with junior Joe Southwick and sophomore Grant Hedrick the early frontrunners. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and true freshman Nick Patti will also get an opportunity to win the No. 1 spot. With a tough road test against Michigan State awaiting the Broncos in the first week of 2012, settling the quarterback battle is going to be crucial to Boise State’s chances at winning.
Projected Winner: Southwick
It’s a shock to see the lack of playmakers and offensive talent Florida has on the roster going into 2012. Considering the Gators had so much offensive success under former coaches Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, it’s almost hard to believe Florida finished 10th in the SEC in total offense last year. There wasn’t much that went right with the Gators’ offense last year and there’s a new coordinator taking over this season – Brent Pease from Boise State. Pease led a high-scoring offensive attack with the Broncos, but will have his work cut out for him in 2012. Jacoby Brissett made two starts last year and ended with 206 passing yards, two touchdowns and four picks. Jeff Driskel threw for 148 yards and brings more mobility to the offense. Although Brissett and Driskel were both highly-regarded recruits, neither did enough to lock up the job going into the spring. Whichever quarterback wins the job also needs the receiving corps, running backs and offensive line to play better in 2012.
Projected Winner: Brissett
There’s a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball for the Hurricanes in 2012, so it may be difficult to better last season’s 6-6 record. Jacory Harris was a lightning rod for criticism during his career, but actually turned in a solid senior year, throwing for 2,486 yards and 20 scores. The battle to replace Harris is already off to a slow start, as Stephen Morris suffered a back injury and will miss spring practice. With Morris sidelined, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and true freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Crow will compete for the top spot. Williams was the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2010, throwing for 2,075 yards and 13 scores and grew up north of Miami in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Dewey and Crow lack experience, but enrolled early for spring practice. Although Morris won’t return to practice until the fall, he has to be the favorite to take the first snap for Miami this year.
Projected Winner: Morris
For the Irish to get back into contention for a BCS game, settling the quarterback position is the top priority. Coach Brian Kelly did a good job of plugging in different quarterbacks at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but has yet to find that same success with Notre Dame. Dayne Crist began 2011 as the starter, but was eventually benched in favor of Tommy Rees. Andrew Hendrix also received playing time last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown, while adding 162 yards and a score on the ground. Rees finished with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns, but also tossed 14 picks. Crist decided to transfer to Kansas for his senior year, leaving Rees, Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and true freshman Gunner Kiel to compete for the No. 1 spot this spring. Kiel ranked as the No. 24 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100, but has drawn mixed reviews from scouts and there’s no guarantee he will be ready to start this year. Although Rees may be limited in how far he can take Notre Dame’s offense, he may represent the safest choice. Golson and Hendrix provide a running dimension, but neither have much (or any) experience. Considering the Irish know what they have in Rees, the guess here is a different quarterback starts the season opener.
Projected Winner: Hendrix
A year after claiming their first BCS bowl victory, Oklahoma State has some large holes to fill on offense if it wants to claim the Big 12 title in 2012. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon have moved onto the NFL, which will force the Cowboys to rely a little more on running back Joseph Randle. Weeden didn’t miss a start over the last two years, which left little time for backup Clint Chelf to get onto the field. Chelf has been solid in limited action, completing 34 of 49 passes for 520 yards and five touchdowns. However, Chelf isn’t secure as the starter, as redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and incoming freshman Wes Lunt will compete for the job this spring. Lunt was a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and could be Oklahoma State’s long-term answer to the quarterback position.
Projected Winner: Chelf
Darron Thomas’ surprising decision to enter the NFL Draft leaves a vacancy at quarterback for the Ducks this spring. Although Thomas was a solid player for Oregon, the Ducks have done a good job of plugging in new starters under center and not missing a beat. Bryan Bennett is the frontrunner to replace Thomas, as he made one start last season and impressed during his limited action. Bennett threw for 369 yards and six scores, while adding 200 yards on the ground. Although Bennett is believed to have a sizeable lead on the field going into preseason workouts, he will be pushed for playing time by incoming freshmen Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, along with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota and junior Dustin Haines. Mariota is biggest challenger for the starting nod, but look for Bennett to take the first snap for Oregon in 2012.
Projected Winner: Bennett
Replacing Andrew Luck isn’t going to be an easy task for Stanford coach David Shaw. Vying to replace Luck this spring will be a handful of candidates, including sophomore Brett Nottingham, freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan and juniors Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo. Nottingham completed 5 of 8 throws for 78 yards and a touchdown in a backup role last year, but has yet to record his first start. Nunes is expected to be Nottingham’s biggest challenger, but has only two career attempts. The Cardinal can lean on a solid rushing attack while the quarterbacks get acquainted to the starting role. However, there’s going to be a drop-off in production with Luck throwing passes in the NFL next year.
Projected Winner: Nottingham
Contending for the Big 12 title isn’t out of the question for the Longhorns in 2012. However, Texas has to settle the quarterback battle early and get the starter settled before Big 12 play arrives. David Ash took control of the No. 1 spot thanks to his performance in the Holiday Bowl against California. Ash ended last season with more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (4), but can add a different dimension to the offense with his rushing ability. If Ash struggles, the Longhorns will turn to Case McCoy or incoming freshman Connor Brewer. All reports out of Texas’ spring practices indicate Ash is off to a strong start and appears to be pacing the field to take the first snap in 2012.
Projected Winner: Ash
Moving to the SEC is already a difficult task, but the Aggies have to do it with a new quarterback taking over in 2012. Ryan Tannehill finished a solid two-year run as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback by throwing for 3,744 yards and 29 touchdowns. There’s no clear-cut No. 1 passer going into fall practice, but the team has some intriguing options. Sophomore Jameill Showers worked as the No. 2 quarterback last year, completing four of five passes for 40 yards. Joining the mix this spring will be sophomore Matt Joeckel, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel and true freshman Matt Davis. Manziel ranked as the No. 14 dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school by Rivals.com, while Davis was ranked as a four-star prospect. Davis enrolled early to participate in spring practice and should be a good fit for new coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense. Considering Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury’s success at building a successful offense at Houston, the Aggies will eventually figure things out this season. The guess here is Showers wins the job, but will be pushed by Davis and Manziel throughout the year.
Projected Winner: Showers
It’s been a struggle for UCLA’s offense to establish any consistency over the last couple of years. Will that change under new coordinator Noel Mazzone? Kevin Prince has battled injuries throughout his career, but is expected to begin spring practice as the favorite. Richard Brehaut threw for 948 yards and six scores last season and will likely be the No. 2 quarterback when spring drills open. The wildcard in the competition is Brett Hundley. The redshirt freshman ranked as one of the top 100 recruits coming out of high school by Rivals.com and brings a different dimension to the offense with his mobility. If Hundley is ready, he will quickly assume UCLA’s No. 1 spot. However, look for Prince to gain an early edge in spring practice and at least start the season opener.
Projected Winner: Prince
It’s not crazy to think the winner of this quarterback battle could lead the Pac-12 in passing yards. And yes, that’s counting Matt Barkley at USC. New coach Mike Leach produced some of college football’s top offenses at Texas Tech and will look to rekindle the magic with the Cougars in 2012. Jeff Tuel’s 2011 campaign was hindered by injuries, but a glimpse at his 2010 numbers shows his potential – 2,780 yards and 18 scores. Connor Halliday played well in limited action last season, throwing for 960 yards and nine touchdowns, but a lacerated liver ended his season early. Whether it’s Tuel or Halliday getting the start for Washington State next year, this should be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in 2012.
Projected Winner: Tuel
The Badgers dipped into the transfer ranks to find their starting quarterback last season, will we see them do it again? Russell Wilson was one of college football’s top quarterbacks last year, throwing for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns. With Wilson out of eligibility, Wisconsin has no clear No. 1 quarterback entering spring practice. Jon Budmayr has battled elbow problems the last two seasons and his status for 2012 is uncertain. Curt Phillips has not played since 2009 due to knee injuries and will be limited in spring practice. Incoming freshman Bart Houston recently had shoulder surgery and will be sidelined for the start of fall practice. Joel Stave and Joe Brennan are Wisconsin’s only healthy quarterbacks, but this position could get a boost this spring if Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien joins the team. O’Brien is expected to seriously consider Wisconsin as a destination, especially since he has a clear path to the starting job. If O’Brien doesn’t land in Madison, it’s a tossup as to who will be the starter.
Projected Winner: Brennan
The Next Tier
Arizona State – Todd Graham’s high-octane offense didn’t work out at Pittsburgh, but that style should fit in well at Arizona State. The decision of Brock Osweiler to leave early for the NFL Draft left a big void in the Sun Devils’ passing attack, leaving three inexperienced candidates to compete for the job this spring. Sophomores Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly, along with redshirt freshman Michael Eubank have combined to throw just seven attempts in their short careers, leaving Graham with a lot of inexperience under center. Eubank ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals, but Bercovici was listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart last year. With no clear-cut frontrunner, this battle could go deep into fall practice.
Cincinnati – Due to a leg injury against West Virginia, the Bearcats got a glimpse of life at quarterback after Zach Collaros. Munchie Legaux completed just 47.4 percent of his throws, while tossing five scores and four interceptions. Legaux added 185 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Jordan Luallen attempted only four passes, but showcased his rushing ability by chipping in 135 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Legaux and Luallen enter spring practice as the top options for coach Butch Jones, but don’t rule out senior Brendon Kay, redshirt freshman Patrick Coyne or incoming freshmen Trenton Norvell or Bennie Coney from making a run at the position. Legaux is the favorite, but he has to get better as a passer if Cincinnati wants to challenge for a Big East title.
Colorado – The battle to replace Tyler Hansen is already off to a strange start. Nick Hirschman completed 18 of 35 passes for 192 yards last season, but suffered a broken bone in his foot while walking that will keep him out of spring practice. Hirschman’s bad luck will give Texas transfer Connor Wood a clear path to the starting job. However, Hirschman will have a shot to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the fall for the Buffaloes.
Connecticut – Finding a consistent passing game has eluded Connecticut over the last few seasons. Coach Paul Pasqualoni took a few steps this offseason to get the Huskies out of the Big East cellar in passing yards, bringing in junior college recruit Chandler Whitmer and incoming freshman Casey Cochran. Both quarterbacks will have a chance to win the job this spring, as Johnny McEntee was unimpressive as the starter and Scott McCummings appears to be best suited for a change of pace role. This is a wide-open battle and may not be decided in spring ball.
Iowa State – The Cyclones open spring practice with two players neck-and-neck for the No. 1 spot. Steele Jantz got off to a good start last season, leading Iowa State to a 3-0 start with wins over Iowa and Connecticut. However, Jantz was injured in the win over the Huskies and never appeared to be 100 percent the rest of the way. Jared Barnett took over for Jantz and finished with 1,201 yards and six scores, while leading the Cyclones to an upset win over Oklahoma State. Both players are mobile, which adds an extra dimension to the Iowa State offense. Expect this battle to go down to the wire and it wouldn’t be surprising to see both players get a start in 2012.
Kentucky – After finishing 114th nationally in passing offense last season, the Wildcats have plenty of room to improve. Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith played significant snaps in 2011, with neither gaining clear separation as the No. 1 passer. Newton threw for 793 yards and eight scores, but completed only 47.7 percent of his throws. Smith had a higher completion percentage (54.9), but threw for only four scores and tossed four picks. Although both quarterbacks have to be better, the Wildcats need more help from the receiving corps and running backs in 2012.
Mississippi State – With running back Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf expiring their eligibility, there will be some new faces stepping into key roles for the Bulldogs next season. Relf was inconsistent as a passer, and Mississippi State ranked a disappointing 94th in passing offense last year. Junior Tyler Russell started four games last season and finished with a respectable statline – 1,034 yards and eight touchdowns. Russell will face competition from redshirt freshman Dak Prescott this spring, but Mississippi State could play both quarterbacks in 2012.
Ole Miss – There wasn’t much to get excited about when it came to the Rebels’ offense last year. Ole Miss ranked 11th in the SEC in passing, total and scoring offense and averaged just 129.6 rushing yards per game. Quarterback play was a major factor for the struggles, as three players (Randall Mackey, Barry Brunetti and Zack Stoudt) received meaningful playing time. Mackey finished with the most passing yards (1,112), but completed just 49.7 percent of his throws. Brunetti likely has the most upside, but all three candidates will be pushed for playing time by incoming junior college transfer Bo Wallace.
Purdue – There’s an old football cliché that says if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. What about three quarterbacks? That’s the dilemma facing Purdue coach Danny Hope this spring, as the Boilermakers return four quarterbacks with starting experience. Sean Robinson is expected to move to linebacker, leaving Rob Henry, Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush as the contenders this spring. Marve has struggled with knee injuries recently, while Henry missed all of last season with a torn ACL. TerBush started all 13 games last year and threw for 1,905 yards and 13 touchdowns. Although Marve should be closer to 100 percent, Henry and TerBush are the most likely candidates to start. Henry’s dual-threat ability would be an added dimension for a Purdue offense that has a chance to be improved in 2012. A two or three-quarterback system can’t be ruled out, but Henry figures to eventually wrestle away the No. 1 gig.
Rutgers – Even with the departure of coach Greg Schiano to the NFL, the Scarlet Knights figure to be picked near the top of the Big East in 2012. However, the difference between just contending and finishing at the top could boil down to quarterback play. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova shared snaps last year, but there’s very little separation going into the spring. Dodd finished last year with 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Nova threw for 1,553 yards and 11 scores. Nova has more upside, but Dodd has more experience. New coach Kyle Flood certainly has a tough task trying to sort out the quarterback situation this spring.
San Diego State – The Aztecs are coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. However, coach Rocky Long has some work to do if he wants to get San Diego State back in a bowl game in 2012, as quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman have departed. Helping to soften the blow of Lindley’s departure was the transfer of former Oregon State passer Ryan Katz to San Diego State. Although Katz was benched last year in Corvallis, he should be a solid replacement for Lindley and will keep the Aztecs in contention for a spot among the top three in the Mountain West.
SMU – Kyle Padron was benched after a poor outing against Texas A&M in the season opener and never cracked the starting lineup the rest of the year. J.J. McDermott was adequate as SMU’s starter the rest of the year, throwing for 3,421 yards and 17 scores. McDermott finished his eligibility, while Padron decided to transfer to Eastern Washington, leaving Stephen Kaiser as the only quarterback with an attempt on the roster this spring. However, former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert is expected to arrive at SMU this summer and barring a poor performance in the fall, will be the Mustangs No. 1 passer for the season opener.
Southern Miss – Austin Davis had a productive four-year career as Southern Miss’ starting quarterback and will be missed in 2012. There’s very little experience returning under center, as Arsenio Favor tossed three passes in backup duty last year. Redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd will push Favor this spring, but true freshman Anthony Alford will throw his hat into the ring in the fall. Alford is the team’s most talented quarterback, but how quickly will he pickup the offense?
Tulsa – If the Golden Hurricane can replace G.J. Kinne, they should be one of the favorites to win Conference USA in 2012. Kalen Henderson backed up Kinne last year, but his numbers were abysmal – 8 of 29, 122 yards and four interceptions. In fairness to Henderson, a majority of his playing time came against Oklahoma State and that was his first extended action. Henderson should be better after a spring practice to work with the No. 1 unit on offense, but he will be pushed by Nebraska transfer Cody Green. In two seasons with the Cornhuskers, he threw for 657 yards and five touchdowns. Green also rushed for 254 yards and three scores in Lincoln. Look for Green to eventually emerge as Tulsa’s No. 1 quarterback for 2012.
UCF – After a solid freshman year, Jeff Godfrey was one of Conference USA’s biggest disappointments in 2011. Godfrey threw for just five touchdowns on 232 attempts and chose to transfer from the team at the end of the year. Blake Bortles played well in relief, throwing for 958 yards and six touchdowns. Bortles is the favorite to become UCF’s starting quarterback, but former Missouri signal-caller Tyler Gabbert will get into the mix.
Returning Starter, but….
Boston College – Chase Rettig holds the top spot, but is expected to get a push for playing time from Josh Bordner. Rettig completed 53.6 percent of his throws, tossed nine picks last year and topped only 200 passing yards twice last season. Bordner has only two career attempts, but is a good runner and his mobility would add a different dimension to the Boston College offense.
California – Zach Maynard wasn’t awful last season (2,990 yards, 17 touchdowns), but was too inconsistent and struggled with his accuracy at times. The senior will open spring drills as the No. 1 passer, but coach Jeff Tedford will give redshirt freshman Austin Hinder, sophomore Allan Bridgford and incoming freshman Zach Kline every opportunity to win the job. Kline has generated the most buzz in Berkeley, as he ranked as the No. 40 overall recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100.
Georgia Tech – Tevin Washington had his moments, but also drew the ire of coach Paul Johnson last season and has to get better if he wants to hold onto the No. 1 spot. Washington led the team with 987 yards and 14 rushing scores, but completed only 49.3 percent of his throws. The Yellow Jackets don’t throw the ball a lot, but Washington needs to bump his completion percentage higher and lower his interceptions (8). Synjyn Days was solid in a relief role last year, rushing for 237 yards and four touchdowns on 48 attempts, while throwing for 198 yards. Redshirt freshman Vad Lee is an intriguing prospect and will also push for playing time this spring. Washington should finish spring as the No. 1 quarterback, but Johnson will have a quick hook to Days or Lee if he struggles this year.
Penn State – Rob Bolden (eight) owned an edge in starts over Matt McGloin (five) last year, but neither was particularly impressive. Bolden completed a miserable 39.3 percent of his throws and tossed seven picks to only two touchdowns. McGloin was better, throwing for 1,571 yards and completing 54.1 percent of his passes. Under new coach Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions would like to throw the ball more in 2012, but that’s going to require more efficient play from the quarterbacks. McGloin should win the job out of spring practice, but keep an eye on sophomore Paul Jones, who missed 2011 due to academic issues.
Pittsburgh – Tino Sunseri has drawn the ire of Pittsburgh fans over the last two years, but the senior still gives the Panthers their best chance to win in 2012. New coach Paul Chryst was one of college football’s top coordinators during his time at Wisconsin and should adapt the Pittsburgh offense to Sunseri’s strengths. Trey Anderson and Mark Myers will be Sunseri’s biggest competition in the spring, but neither was able to work their way into consistent playing time last year. Chryst will also take a look at two converted players – defensive back E.J. Banks and tight end Anthony Gonzalez – at quarterback this spring, but Sunseri should finish atop the depth chart going into fall practice.
Utah – A shoulder injury ended Jordan Wynn’s 2011 season just four games into the year. Wynn also had shoulder surgery at the end of 2010, so durability is certainly a concern for new coordinator Brian Johnson. The Utes should be USC’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12 South, but Wynn has to stay healthy and give Utah a consistent passing attack. If Wynn can’t stay healthy, look for the Utes to turn to senior Jon Hays or incoming freshman Travis Wilson (a three-star recruit by Rivals).
Vanderbilt – Jordan Rodgers is clearly the Commodores’ No. 1 quarterback entering spring practice, but there’s a wildcard on the table that could open things up this summer. Danny O’Brien is transferring from Maryland and is eligible to play right away. Vanderbilt coach James Franklin tutored O’Brien with the Terrapins, but both sides are in a holding pattern until a tampering allegation against Vanderbilt is investigated. Rodgers will also face competition from Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels and redshirt freshman Josh Grady, but his biggest test could come from O’Brien if he comes to Nashville.
Virginia – The Cavaliers opened spring practice last season with four candidates vying for the starting job. Michael Rocco eventually emerged as the No. 1 passer, but tossed 12 interceptions to only 13 touchdowns. David Watford showed promise in his true freshman season, finishing with 346 yards and three touchdowns on 74 attempts. Watford has a lot of room to grow, but Rocco provided steady leadership in the starting role last year. Virginia needs Rocco to stretch the field and take better care of the ball in 2012, but he should be able to hold off a charge from Watford this spring.
Vacancy Available, but No Battle?
Baylor – Let’s go ahead and get the obvious out of the way: Robert Griffin will be missed. However, this Baylor team is well-equipped to survive Griffin’s departure and remain a factor in the Big 12. Senior Nick Florence has seven career starts and has thrown 290 attempts over the last three years. Barring a surprise performance by sophomore Bryce Petty this spring, Florence will be Baylor’s No. 1 quarterback entering the fall.
Michigan State – Even though Kirk Cousins earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year, he might have been one of the conference’s most underrated players. Cousins threw for 3,316 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, and led the Spartans to back-to-back seasons of 11 victories. Andrew Maxwell has no starts and only 51 attempts in his two seasons on campus, but all signs point to him as the clear No. 1 quarterback.
Northwestern – Dan Persa’s injuries allowed Northwestern to build some depth at the quarterback position last year, with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian receiving meaningful playing time. Colter served in a jack-of-all-trades role with the Wildcats last year, throwing for 673 yards and six scores, rushing for 654 yards and catching 43 passes for 466 yards. Siemian completed 16 of 26 throws for 256 yards and three scores last season. Colter is a better runner, while Siemian is regarded as a better passer. With two quality quarterbacks, both players could see significant snaps for Northwestern in 2012.
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