Top 25 college quarterbacks to watch in 2017
Back by popular demand (or force of habit), it’s the College Football Most Intriguing lists. Last week, we had the Most Intriguing Coaches of 2017. This week, the Most Intriguing Quarterbacks.
Before we get to the list, a brief bit of context. This might be the most intriguing collection of college quarterbacks in many years – talented, deep and proven. Four of the top five and seven of the top 10 QBs in pass efficiency in 2016 are back in ’17.
And many of the best are becoming draft-eligible this season. Yet even with as many as six potential 2018 first-round NFL draft picks in this group, there is a wide range of opinions about what they’ve shown so far, how they might translate to the NFL and what their ceilings might be.
This week Yahoo Sports will go inside the Year of the Quarterback in college football, starting with Pete Thamel’s overview of the potential 2018 draft class and this list of the Most Intriguing QBs. Check back daily for more stories in this series.
1. Josh Rosen, UCLA: He was The Chosen Rosen out of high school, a cinch to elevate the Bruins to national title contention while winning a Heisman Trophy and becoming the No. 1 pick in the ’18 draft. Those things still can happen for the outspoken junior, but thus far they have not. A shoulder injury and an 11-8 record as a starter have muted the hype. Now he might also be playing to save Jim Mora’s job.
2. Sam Darnold, USC: Meanwhile on the other side of L.A., Darnold has exploded out of Rosen’s shadow and become the hottest name in college football. After redshirting in 2015 and starting ’16 on the bench, Darnold finally got the call and led the Trojans to nine straight victories, including an epic Rose Bowl triumph. A gifted freelancer, the SoCal native might be improvising USC into a national title threat.
PODCAST: Pete Thamel on the Year of the QB
3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville: The most maligned returning Heisman winner ever? Maybe. Jackson produced 51 touchdowns and a dozen jaw-dropping highlights, but the Cardinals’ closing three-game losing streak and his turnover trouble made many analysts forget how good he was in 2016. Then there is the disagreement about his NFL future. He might be both America’s most exciting and most debated player.
4. Josh Allen, Wyoming: Has come out of nowhere, almost literally, to become a potential top-10 NFL pick. Almost completely ignored by college recruiters out of a small California farm town, Allen went to junior college and then blew up last year at Wyoming, producing 3,700 yards total offense and 35 touchdowns. Now he’s been tagged the next Carson Wentz, playing for the same coach (Craig Bohl).
5. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Has seen it all in college football, with the exception of leading a team to a national title. Barrett watched Cardale Jones fill that role in 2014; was part of a QB controversy in ’15; then led the Buckeyes to the ’16 playoff but fell apart as a passer late in the year. With a new offensive coordinator, will the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Barrett re-emerge in 2017?
6. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: Heisman finalist gets a new head coach but the same play-caller as Lincoln Riley moves into Bob Stoops’ big office while retaining control of the play sheet. The Riley-Mayfield combo has produced nearly 7,800 passing yards and 76 passing touchdowns, a level of production that helps avoid suspension for a February arrest for public intoxication and other charges.
7. Jalen Hurts, Alabama: He was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, but by the postseason he was almost useless as a passer with a total of 326 yards in three games (he did make some heroic plays late in the national title game). Still, he is ‘Bama’s first returning QB starter since 2013, so progress is expected. If Hurts doesn’t make enough of it, five-star freshman Tua Tagovailoa waits in the wings.
8. Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: DeShone Kizer went pro early, Malike Zaire transferred, and now Brian Kelly’s future rests partially in the hands of a guy who has thrown five college passes, none of them since 2015. Wimbush is lavishly talented, both with his arm and legs, and will be complemented by Notre Dame’s returning leaders in rushing and receiving, plus a quality line. Could be a breakout star.
9. Will Grier, West Virginia: It will be nearly 700 days between games for Grier when the Mountaineers open against Virginia Tech. In that time he’s been suspended for a full year by the NCAA for failing a performance-enhancing drug test and transferred from Florida, where he was a nascent star. Grier brings a perfect, 6-0 record as a starter to WVU, and some baggage he’d like to unload.
10. Trace McSorley, Penn State: Undersized (6-foot) mad bomber whose ability to go deep (tied for sixth nationally in yards per attempt at 9.9) helped take Joe Moorhead’s offense from good to great. So did his running ability on the zone read, producing 365 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Hopes are the highest they’ve been in State College in nearly a decade, thanks in no small part to McSorley.
11. Malik Zaire, Florida: Gators wanted him badly enough to (successfully) challenge SEC rules and bring in the former Notre Dame starter as a graduate transfer. Zaire’s roller-coaster career could reach a happy conclusion if he provides the one thing Florida has lacked since Tim Tebow: consistent, high-quality QB play. Of course, he also must hold off hotshot freshman Feleipe Franks.
12. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn: Third team in three seasons, will the stars finally align? Stidham was pressed into duty as a freshman on a powerful Baylor team and performed well until a broken leg doomed the Bears’ season. When Art Briles was fired, Stidham transferred to junior college. Now he’s at Auburn, which has been starving for a quality QB since 2014. But can he unseat ’16 starter Sean White?
13. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: Another potential first-round pick, Rudolph will (barring injury) become the school’s all-time leading passer within the first two weeks of the season. Combines with receiver James Washington for the top pass-catch duo in the country. But if the Pokes want to win the Big 12, Rudolph must play better against rival Oklahoma (had his lowest efficiency rating of 2016).
14. Clemson starter: Replacing the great Deshaun Watson won’t be easy, and it might not be permanent, either. Watson has publicly backed junior Kelly Bryant as his successor and most observers believe Dabo Swinney will favor experience – initially. But five-star freshman Hunter Johnson might be the best QB on campus – until super recruit Trevor Lawrence arrives in 2018.
15. Logan Woodside, Toledo: A backup for two years and then redshirted in 2015, Woodside finally got his chance as a starter last year and blew up into a star. He was second nationally to Mayfield in pass efficiency and led FBS in touchdown passes with 45. This year he leads what looks like the MAC’s best team, and he could be a prospect that makes a Trubiskian move up draft boards.
16. Jake Browning, Washington: Like Jackson, Browning seemed to plummet from celebrated to doubted as his play tailed off last season. A possible explanation: He had offseason shoulder surgery after playing hurt and producing paltry numbers in the postseason against Colorado and Alabama. When Browning was good, he was very good: 34 TDs and three interceptions through nine games.
17. Deondre Francois, Florida State: Took a frightful number of hits as a freshman, yet never flinched. Francois led rallies to beat Mississippi, North Carolina State – and, after blowing a lead, Michigan in the Orange Bowl. FSU put less on Francois’ shoulders as the season wore on, throwing 28 or fewer passes in its last four games. But without Dalvin Cook, Francois’ role will expand on a national title contender.
18. Kyle Allen, Houston: He came out of high school as the No. 1 QB recruit in the country in 2014, but transferred from Texas A&M after two seasons of bouncing in and out of the lineup. Following a redshirt season at Houston, Allen now has the starting position to himself under new head coach Major Applewhite. They’ll both have something to prove in the quest to keep Houston nationally relevant.
19. Jacob Eason, Georgia: He was the No. 1 QB in the signing class of 2016, and after enrolling early everything was set up for Eason to be an instant success. It didn’t happen that way. Eason struggled plenty as a freshman, ranking 11th in pass efficiency in a league that didn’t exactly light it up in that category, and Georgia was a disappointing 8-5. If he significantly improves, the Bulldogs will win the SEC East.
20. Quinton Flowers, South Florida: Lamar Jackson is the only greater dual-threat QB in the country. Flowers could end his USF career as the school’s all-time leading rusher (he’s 1,016 yards away) and as a top-three passer (more than 5,200 yards and counting). The past two seasons he’s led the Bulls to 19 wins, and this year’s team looks loaded on paper. Could Flowers lead USF to a New Year’s Six bowl?
21. Luke Falk, Washington State: With an average year, the former walk-on will wind up in the all-time FBS top five in passing yards (more than 15,000) and touchdown passes (more than 130). This could be Mike Leach’s best Wazzu team, and Falk could be Leach’s best NFL QB prospect in a career full of productive passers who don’t always translate well to the next level. He could go in the first round.
22. De’Andre Johnson, Florida Atlantic: He’s the most famous quarterback in FAU history, but not for anything he’s done there. You might know Johnson from the infamous video of him punching a woman while a Florida State freshman, which led to his dismissal there. Or you might know him from spending last season at Last Chance U., East Mississippi Community College. Now he’s playing for Lane Kiffin. What could go wrong?
23. Wilton Speight, Michigan: He’s gone from running fifth string early in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure to productive starter last year to veteran leader of a wildly inexperienced 2017 team. On an offense replacing its top three receivers, leading rusher and three starting linemen, Speight will have to be at his best – once Harbaugh stops playing games about who his starter will be.
24. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern: Made major year-over-year strides from freshman to sophomore, and if he takes another big step forward in 2017 the Wildcats could be the surprise team of the Big Ten. Formerly scattershot passer has become much more accurate, completing at least 62 percent of his throws in the last four games of ’17. Now can he do it without star security blanket WR Austin Carr?
25. Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio): He was a blocked field goal in the St. Petersburg Bowl away from a perfect season of sorts. While Ragland rehabbed a knee injury, the Redhawks started 0-6. With him in the lineup, they went 6-0 – and Ragland threw 15 touchdowns without an interception in those games, before finally losing to Mississippi State by a point and throwing his first collegiate pick. What can he do in a full season?
Just missed the list: Shea Patterson, Mississippi; Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin; Keller Chryst, Stanford; Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State; Danny Etling, LSU; Shane Buechele, Texas; Jesse Ertz, Kansas State; Miami Starter To Be Named Later; Riley Ferguson, Memphis; Kenny Hill, TCU; Jake Bentley, South Carolina; Max Browne, Pittsburgh; Brandon Harris, North Carolina; David Cornwell, Nevada; Brian Lewerke, Michigan State.
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