Ranking the Sun Belt's signal-callers for 2019
The Sun Belt features four coaching changes for the 2019 season, but the league returns some of its top quarterbacks from last fall, which should help to ease the transition to the new staffs across the conference. Appalachian State's Zac Thomas ranks as the No. 1 signal-caller in the Sun Belt, followed by ULM's Caleb Evans and Troy's Kaleb Barker. Georgia Southern's Shai Werts isn't far behind the top three, with Georgia State's Dan Ellington and Louisiana's Levi Lewis looking to push for all-conference honors in 2019.
Ranking the quarterbacks by conference or nationally is no easy task. To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2019. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2019 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the Sun Belt for 2019.
Ranking the Sun Belt's Quarterbacks for 2019
10. Fred Payton, Coastal Carolina
Coastal Carolina used four quarterbacks last season, with Kilton Anderson and Payton receiving the most playing time. Anderson and Chance Thrasher left the program over the offseason, opening the door for Payton and Bryce Carpenter to battle for the starting job. Payton started four out of the last five games in 2018 and ended the year with 677 passing yards and six touchdowns to just two picks. He also contributed 142 rushing yards. Carpenter finished ahead of Payton in rushing yardage (194) and posted 464 yards and five scores through the air.
9. Cephus Johnson, South Alabama
Evan Orth and Cole Garvin expired their eligibility at the end of the 2018 season, leaving Johnson as the favorite to take the starting job for the Jaguars this fall. The Alabama native has an intriguing skill set for coach Steve Campbell to develop over the next few years. In limited action last season, Johnson completed 7 of 19 throws for 120 yards and three touchdowns to one pick. The 6-foot-5 quarterback also rushed for 62 yards on 28 carries. Junior college recruit Tylan Morton and freshman Desmond Trotter could push for time in the fall.
8. Logan Bonner, Arkansas State
Bonner inherits big shoes to fill this offseason. The junior has played sparingly over the last two years and is set to replace last season’s first-team All-Sun Belt quarterback Justice Hansen in Jonesboro. Bonner completed 9 of 21 throws for 70 yards and a touchdown in 2017 and connected on 15 of 21 passes for 165 yards and a score in ’18. Helping to ease Bonner’s transition into the starting role will be a strong supporting cast that features one of the Sun Belt’s top offensive lines, running back Marcel Murray and 1,000-yard receiver Kirk Merritt.
7. Gresch Jensen, Texas State
In terms of returning production for the 2019 season, few rosters in college football rank ahead of Texas State. New coach Jake Spavital has plenty of experience to work with in his debut, and the addition of Jensen could provide a much-needed spark under center. The Washington native started his collegiate career at Montana under current Texas State offensive coordinator Bob Stitt. Jensen accounted for 2,734 yards and 26 scores with the Grizzlies. He transferred to Fullerton College prior to the 2018 campaign and threw for 2,330 yards and 16 touchdowns. Jensen’s familiarity with Stitt should help ease the transition to the FBS level, allowing him to push for a spot much higher on this list by the end of the 2019 season.
6. Levi Lewis, Louisiana
Louisiana’s offense averaged 31.9 points a game in coach Billy Napier’s first season in Lafayette. With a deep stable of running backs, along with a standout offensive line in place, the Ragin’ Cajuns could push that total even higher in 2019. Of course, doing so will hinge on what transpires under center. Andre Nunez finished his eligibility, leaving Lewis as the team’s starter for 2019. Lewis started three games as a freshman in 2017 and played in all 14 contests as the backup last fall. The Louisiana native has been solid in limited action, throwing for 962 yards and nine touchdowns to three picks. The development of junior college signal-caller Jai’ave Magalei is worth monitoring in fall practice.
5. Dan Ellington, Georgia State
The 2018 season was a rebuilding year for Georgia State, but the development of young talent should pay dividends for this program in ’19 and beyond. After a prolific stint at Itawamba Community College, Ellington started 11 games in his first year at Georgia State. The Mississippi native ranked third among Sun Belt signal-callers by averaging 249.5 total yards a game and accounted for 17 overall touchdowns.
4. Shai Werts, Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern’s offense got back on track last season, as the Eagles ranked first in the Sun Belt in rushing and averaged 30.5 points a game. Werts certainly played a huge role in that performance, as he led the team with 15 rushing scores and finished second on the offense with 901 yards. Opportunities to throw the ball are limited in Georgia Southern’s offense, but Werts certainly made the most of his chances. He connected on 69 of 116 attempts for 987 yards and 10 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Werts also earned honorable mention All-Sun Belt honors in 2018.
3. Kaleb Barker, Troy
New coach Chip Lindsey finished spring practice with Barker and Sawyer Smith locked into a tight battle for the starting job. However, Smith transferred in late April, leaving Barker as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. The Alabama native started the first six games for the Trojans in 2018, throwing for 1,013 yards and 10 touchdowns to two picks. Barker tossed just two picks over 126 attempts and connected on 73 percent of his throws. He also added 261 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, including 111 yards versus Georgia State. Barker did not play in Troy's final seven games due to a knee injury but is set to return to 100 percent for the 2019 season.
2. Caleb Evans, ULM
The 2019 season marks the third consecutive year Evans owns the starting job for the Warhawks. As a sophomore in 2017, Evans emerged as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks among Group of 5 teams. He accounted for 2,868 yards and 17 touchdowns to six picks through the air and rushed for 579 yards and 13 scores. Evans’ numbers in 2018 were nearly identical to his ’17 totals. The Texas native threw for 2,869 yards and 16 scores and rushed for 632 yards and 10 touchdowns. Evans earned third-team All-Sun Belt honors last season, and provided ULM can reload at receiver, he should be in the mix for all-conference honors once again.
1. Zac Thomas, Appalachian State
Despite having to replace standout quarterback Taylor Lamb prior to 2018, Appalachian State’s offense didn’t miss a beat. The Mountaineers once again boasted a strong ground game and defense, but Thomas quickly emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the Sun Belt. Over 12 appearances, Thomas threw for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns to six picks and added another 504 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. New coach Eli Drinkwitz was instrumental in developing Ryan Finley at NC State, and Thomas should take the next step in his progression to emerge as one of the top Group of 5 quarterbacks in 2019.