Forde-Yard Dash: How the quarterback game has changed in college football

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (healthy quarterbacks needed at USC, which lost two of them Saturday in a loss to Utah):

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For decades, if not longer, the prevailing wisdom in college football was that the first indicator of optimism or pessimism heading into a season was the presence or absence of an experienced quarterback. A returning starter at that most important of positions usually was a harbinger of hope. An absence of one produced anxiety.

That’s changed, and all you have to do is look at the current AP Poll to see how dramatic the change has been. Four of the top five teams all are being led by a quarterback who either wasn’t on campus last year or wasn’t the starter at the beginning of this season. Five others in the top 15 are led by first-year starters and/or transfers.

Maybe it is homogeneity of systems — if you can operate an RPO offense in Greenville, North Carolina, you can operate one in Pullman, Washington, too. Maybe it’s the fact that quarterbacks generally are ready to play more quickly than ever, with an applicable base of knowledge learned at a younger age. Maybe it’s a transient era at that position, where change of location is now the norm and the adjustment period is smaller.

Whatever the reason, the season of high-impact, plug-and-play QBs is upon us. The Dash breaks it down among top 25 teams, starting with the immediately eligible transfers:

Shea Patterson (21), Michigan. Where he played in 2017: Mississippi. How he got to Ann Arbor: NCAA sanctions applied at Ole Miss, coupled with some industrious lawyering from Thomas Mars, produced an instant eligibility ruling for Patterson at Michigan — and the impact has been profound. The Wolverines have risen from No. 116 in pass efficiency in 2017 to No. 20 this season, and from No. 116 in third-down conversions to No. 16. Patterson also has made a difference in the running game, giving the Michigan offense an added threat it hadn’t had from the QB position during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.

Shea Patterson celebrates during Michigan’s win over rival Michigan State. (AP)
Shea Patterson celebrates during Michigan’s win over rival Michigan State. (AP)

Joe Burrow (22), LSU. Where he played in 2017: Ohio State. How he got to Baton Rouge: After losing the competition to start for the Buckeyes, Burrow checked his options and saw immediate playing time at LSU. His numbers aren’t much — he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass yet in October, and has thrown three interceptions — but the 7-1 record against a tough schedule is impossible to knock. Burrow has had a knack for timely plays, and like Patterson has contributed some big runs — see his 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the thumping of Georgia. This LSU team is all about defense and running the ball, with the quarterback chipping in some plays when he needs to. Burrow has filled that role capably.

Gardner Minshew (23), Washington State. Where he played in 2017: East Carolina. How he got to Pullman: When Minshew decided to leave ECU, he originally committed to Alabama — not because he saw himself winning the starting job, but because he wants to be a coach after his playing days. But Minshew changed his mind last March, opting to maximize his playing chances before moving on to coaching. Washington State offered immediate playing time, and this has been a remarkably successful marriage. Minshew is the next super-productive guy on the Mike Leach assembly line, leading the nation in passing yards per game (392.1) and leading the Cougars to a 6-1 record and No. 14 ranking.

Terry Wilson (24), Kentucky. Where he played in 2017: Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Before that he spent a year at Oregon. How he got to Lexington: When four-star quarterback Jarren Williams de-committed from Kentucky for Miami last November, the Wildcats ramped up their efforts to land Wilson and beat out Florida and Nebraska for his services. He’s far from a polished passer — 13th in the 14-team SEC in pass efficiency — but his running ability has taken some of the burden off bell-cow back Benny Snell Jr. Wilson’s best game also happened to be Kentucky’s biggest win: 256 yards total offense and three touchdowns in a win at Florida. The Wildcats’ 6-1 record is their best through seven games since 2007.

Blake Barnett (25), South Florida. Where he played in 2017: Arizona State. Before that Barnett was at Alabama. How he got to Tampa: Barnett couldn’t beat out Manny Wilkins at ASU under two different coaches — first Todd Graham in 2017, then Herm Edwards in 2018 spring practice. That sent him in search of a transfer, and he committed to USF in May. After throwing 34 passes in his college career prior to this season, he’s settled in under Charlie Strong. Aside from a bad game at Tulsa, he’s been a solid starter for the undefeated Bulls.

The former understudies:

Tua Tagovailoa (26), Alabama. Where he spent 2017: On the bench behind Jalen Hurts, until the most famous backup QB comeback performance ever in the College Football Playoff championship game. Prior to that game, he’d thrown 53 college passes. What Tua started in the second half against Georgia, he has perpetuated and elevated against all comers this year. He remains on pace to break Baker Mayfield’s NCAA records for single-season pass efficiency and yards per attempt, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (currently 25-0) grows more absurd by the week. The biggest test yet comes Saturday, when Tua takes on the No. 6 pass efficiency defense in the country in LSU.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throws to a receiver in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throws to a receiver in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Ian Book (27), Notre Dame. Where he spent 2017: Backing up Brandon Wimbush, until getting the start in the Citrus Bowl upset of LSU. Even after that win, Book went back to the bench behind Wimbush to begin this 2018 season. After three games of sputtering offense, Kelly reinserted Book and the Fighting Irish offense has been transformed. The ND pass efficiency rating in three Wimbush starts: 119.2. The ND pass efficiency rating in four Book starts: 163.7. Book also has contributed 112 rushing yards and three TDs on the ground for the undefeated Irish.

Kyler Murray (28), Oklahoma. Where he spent 2017: Backing up Baker Mayfield. Murray began his college career at Texas A&M in 2015 before transferring to Oklahoma. Murray signed a multimillion-dollar baseball contract with the Oakland A’s during the offseason, but stuck with his decision to play for the Sooners this fall — and he’s been a home run. He has the best numbers of any quarterback not named Tagovailoa, with a 224.9 efficiency rating and 30 total touchdowns running and passing. If he maintains his current rate of production, Murray will join Tua in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December.

Dwayne Haskins (29), Ohio State. Where he spent 2017: Backing up J.T. Barrett. Haskins was good when he played, but other than providing a spark at Michigan he was primarily a spectator while four-year starter Barrett ran the show. Then he stepped up in the offseason to beat out Burrow, and what has followed is unprecedented Ohio State production. Haskins easily is on pace to set new school records for single-season passing yardage, completions, attempts and touchdown passes. The problem lately has been an over-reliance on Haskins’ arm, as the Buckeyes’ running game has bogged down to an alarming degree. Haskins threw 73 passes at Purdue on Saturday, shattering the single-game school record for attempts by 21.

The freshman:

Trevor Lawrence (30), Clemson. Where he spent 2017: Starring at Cartersville High School in Georgia. Lawrence enrolled early at Clemson and went through spring practice, but remained the backup to incumbent starter Kelly Bryant through the first four games of the season. Lawrence played enough in relief, and showed enough promise, that coach Dabo Swinney made the inevitable move to promote him over Bryant before the Tigers played Syracuse on Sept. 29. Lawerence was injured in the first half of that game, but has come back and performed very well in subsequent wipeouts of Wake Forest and North Carolina State. He threw for 308 yards against the previously undefeated Wolfpack on Saturday, most for a Clemson QB since Deshaun Watson’s epic performance to beat Alabama in the 2016 championship game.

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