Predicting college football's top quarterback battles entering the 2018 season

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/264323/" data-ylk="slk:Jalen Hurts">Jalen Hurts</a> (2) and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/274844/" data-ylk="slk:Tua Tagovailoa">Tua Tagovailoa</a> (13) are set to compete for Alabama’s starting quarterback job. (Vasha Hunt/ via AP)
Jalen Hurts (2) and Tua Tagovailoa (13) are set to compete for Alabama’s starting quarterback job. (Vasha Hunt/ via AP)

For most college football programs, preseason camp is right around the corner. Every program has competition for starting spots, but the quarterback position always attracts the most attention. Below, we’ve detailed the quarterback battles for some of the country’s top programs and predicted who we think will emerge as the starter. 

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Alabama: Jalen Hurts vs. Tua Tagovailoa

Jalen Hurts: Hurts quickly jumped to the top of the depth chart as a true freshman and went on to become the SEC’s freshman and offensive player of the year with 36 total touchdowns (23 passing, 13 rushing) while leading the Tide to a national runner-up finish. He returned as the starter in 2017 and led the Tide back to the CFP title game, but struggled as a passer as the year progressed.

Tua Tagovailoa: Tagovailoa enrolled early and quickly impressed with his spring game performance. He looked good in mop-up duty throughout the year, but was still behind Hurts until the very end of the season. With Hurts scuffling in the first half of the CFP title game vs. Georgia, Tagovailoa was inserted at halftime with Bama down 13-0. From there, he led the Tide to a dramatic comeback victory that was capped off with the game-winning overtime TD pass to DeVonta Smith.

Prediction: Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa may take a few more risks than Nick Saban is comfortable with, but he unlocks the downfield passing game in a way Hurts has failed to over the past two seasons. However, a two-quarterback system, especially early in the season would not be a surprise. Hurts is a very effective runner.

Clemson: Kelly Bryant vs. Trevor Lawrence

Kelly Bryant: Bryant spent two seasons as Deshaun Watson’s backup before seizing the starting role in 2017. He had a pretty good year, throwing for 2,802 yards while completing 65.8 percent of his passes to lead the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff. But he threw only 13 touchdowns to go with eight interceptions and struggled mightily in Clemson’s CFP semifinal loss to Alabama. That performance led some to wonder if Bryant has the ability to lead Clemson to another national title.

Trevor Lawrence: Lawrence is a 6-foot-5, 205-pound true freshman who enrolled early as the country’s No. 1 quarterback prospect. Early reports coming out of spring were positive for Lawrence, so much so that Hunter Johnson — a five-star recruit from the 2017 class — transferred to Northwestern. With Johnson out of the equation, Lawrence will be nipping at Bryant’s heels during preseason camp.

Prediction: Bryant. Bryant earned the trust of Dabo Swinney with his play last fall. With a trip to Texas A&M in Week 2, it’d be a surprise if Swinney put a true freshman into a hostile environment early in the year. But even if Bryant starts, Lawrence will see plenty of action in the non-con portion of the schedule. And if Bryant scuffles, Swinney could turn to Lawrence just like he did with Watson (supplanting Cole Stoudt) in 2014.

Florida: Feleipe Franks vs. Kyle Trask vs. Emory Jones

Feleipe Franks: Franks showed some flashes of potential last fall, but did not have much to work with behind a leaky offensive line and without many playmakers. He gets a fresh start with Dan Mullen in Gainesville. Mullen has a track record for developing quarterbacks, and he has some work to do with Franks, especially with his decision-making.

Kyle Trask: Trask arrived at UF as an unheralded two-star recruit in 2016, but hasn’t had any action yet. He impressed throughout spring and was better than Franks in the spring game, especially with his accuracy. Coming out of spring, Mullen said there was “essentially no separation between the two.” He has a legitimate shot to win this job.

Emory Jones: When Mullen got the job, he made landing Jones, a top 100 recruit, one of his top priorities. Jones enrolled early and showed his strong arm and the ability to extend plays with his legs. He has already been tabbed by most as UF’s QB of the future, but Mullen emphasizes bringing young QBs along slowly.

Prediction: Franks. Franks has experience and a more diverse skillset than Trask, so expect him to get the start when the season begins. But if he struggles, Trask could see the field sooner than later. Jones could have a role as well, especially with the NCAA’s new redshirt rule.

Florida State: James Blackman vs. Deondre Francois

Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois (12) threw for 3,350 yards as a redshirt freshman. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois (12) threw for 3,350 yards as a redshirt freshman. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

James Blackman: Blackman was thrust into a tough situation last fall as a true freshman after Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Blackman had his ups and downs and ended up finishing the year with respectable numbers: 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on 58.2 percent throwing. He closed the year with 233 yards and four scores in FSU’s bowl win.

Deondre Francois: Francois was looking to build off an impressive redshirt freshman campaign — 3,350 yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs — when he hurt his knee in the opener vs. Alabama. With new coach Willie Taggart in place, Francois spent the spring rehabbing the knee and getting back in Taggart’s good graces after the coach questioned his maturity. Now healthy, he has the chance to reclaim his starting spot.

Prediction: Francois. With Taggart running the show, Blackman and Francois both have clean slates to work with in preseason camp. It’ll be a close battle, but Francois, who Taggart had plenty of praise for at ACC Media Days, feels like a better fit for the offense Taggart has run at his past stops.

Kansas State: Skylar Thompson vs. Alex Delton

Skylar Thompson: With Jesse Ertz injured, Thompson started KSU’s last four games, leading the team to wins over Oklahoma State and Iowa State. A redshirt freshman in 2017, Thompson played in eight games overall and threw for 689 yards, five TDs and three INTs while completing 61.4 percent of his passes. Thompson also ran for 267 yards and three TDs, but averaged only 3.9 yards per rush.

Alex Delton: Delton, a redshirt junior in 2018, is more of a rushing threat than Thompson. He showed that with big performances against Oklahoma — 142 yards and three touchdowns — and against UCLA in the Cactus Bowl (158 yards, 3 touchdowns). Delton finished second on the team with 500 rushing yards and had a team-high eight TDs. As a passer, he totaled 637 yards, three TDs and two picks on 57.6 percent.

Prediction: Thompson, but both will log significant playing time. Bill Snyder will play both in the opener vs. South Dakota before Mississippi State visits Manhattan in Week 2. The two have pretty similar skillsets, so look for the coaching staff to ride the hot hand.

LSU: Joe Burrow vs. Myles Brennan

Myles Brennan: Brennan was Danny Etling’s backup last year as a true freshman and ended up seeing action in six games. During that time, he completed 14-of-24 passes for 182 yards, a TD and two INTs. The 6-foot-4 Brennan competed with junior Justin McMillan and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse during spring practice.

Joe Burrow: Burrow was Ohio State’s No. 2 quarterback in 2016 and fell to No. 3 last year after hurting his thumb. He competed with Dwayne Haskins in the spring but decided to transfer with Haskins having a leg up in the competition. Now, with two years of eligibility left, he has a great chance to seize the starting role for Ed Orgeron and the Tigers.

Prediction: Burrow. If the LSU coaching staff was happy with what they had at QB during spring, they would not have made recruiting Burrow such a priority. Burrow drew nothing but praise during his time at Ohio State and is a guy who is reliable in the passing game while still presenting a threat as a rusher. It’d be a shock if he didn’t win the job.

Nebraska: Adrian Martinez vs. Tristan Gebbia

Adrian Martinez: When Scott Frost took the Nebraska job, flipping Martinez from Tennessee became one of his top priorities. He succeeded, and Martinez has incurred plenty of hype since he enrolled for spring semester. Martinez is a dual-threat who showed his rushing ability with three scores in the spring game. He could be tough to stop for opponents in the RPO game.

Tristan Gebbia: Gebbia was recruited by Mike Riley’s staff and is more of a pro-style quarterback compared to Martinez, but he’s not a statue in the pocket either. Gebbia was one of the highest-rated prospects that Riley’s staff brought in during their time in Lincoln, but to operate Frost’s scheme, Gebbia will need to run the ball.

Prediction: Martinez. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Martinez, despite being a true freshman, already has the frame needed to absorb the hits a running QB is going to take while operating Frost’s offense. There’s a reason Frost put the full-court press on Martinez during the recruiting process. He’s a perfect fit.

Oklahoma: Kyler Murray vs. Austin Kendall

Kyler Murray was Baker Mayfield’s backup at Oklahoma in 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
Kyler Murray was Baker Mayfield’s backup at Oklahoma in 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Kyler Murray: Murray served as Baker Mayfield’s backup in 2017 and has long been the favorite to start in 2018. But that briefly looked like it might change when Murray, a two-sport star, was selected No. 9 overall in the MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics. After signing a lucrative contract, Murray made it clear that he would still play football for the Sooners this fall before beginning his pro baseball career in 2019.

Austin Kendall: Despite Murray being the perceived favorite, OU coach Lincoln Riley continues to say that Kendall is in the mix for the starting job. A top 100 recruit, Kendall was Mayfield’s backup in 2016 while Murray redshirted. With Murray eligible, the 6-foot-2, 219-pound Kendall took a redshirt last fall. Kendall played well when he saw the field in 2016, completing 16-of-22 passes for 143 yards and two scores.

Prediction: Murray. It seems illogical that Murray would put off his professional baseball career for a whole year if he wasn’t going to be OU’s starter in 2018. Kendall is a solid option, but Murray is a dynamic athlete who gives the Sooners a home run threat on every play with his arm or his legs.

Oklahoma State: Dru Brown vs. Taylor Cornelius vs. Spencer Sanders

Dru Brown: After two years as the starter at Hawaii, Brown recently arrived at OSU with his eyes on the starting job vacated by Mason Rudolph. Brown combined for 5,273 yards, 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while completing 62 percent of his passes for the Rainbow Warriors.

Taylor Cornelius: Cornelius is a fifth-year senior who was Rudolph’s primary backup in 2016 and 2017 and has seen some action in mop-up duty, completing 15-of-24 passes for 220 yards in eight games. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy had high praise for Cornelius at Big 12 Media Days and even referred to him as “the guy.”

Spencer Sanders: Sanders is the wild card here. A four-star freshman out of Denton, Texas, Sanders presents a running threat that Oklahoma State hasn’t had at the position in recent years. Gundy will give him the opportunity to compete for the job, and with the new redshirt rule in place, he could see some time even if he does not win the starting role.

Prediction: Cornelius. Above all, coaches want quarterbacks to avoid mistakes. Cornelius has been with the program for five years and knows Gundy’s offense better than Brown, who only arrived on campus in the last few days, and a true freshman like Sanders.

Texas: Sam Ehlinger vs. Shane Buechele

Shane Buechele: Buechele started all 12 games as a freshman and opened the 2017 season, Texas’ first with Tom Herman, as the starter, too. But Herman flipped back and forth between Buechele and Ehlinger often with both playing in nine games. Buechele, who dealt with a few injuries, was the better passer of the two but fell behind Ehlinger in the pecking order late in the year.

Sam Ehlinger: Ehlinger made six starts as a freshman and seemed to gain Herman’s favor toward the end of the year, starting the last two games. However, after some costly INTs late in the year, Herman ended up starting Buechele in the bowl game until another injury forced Ehlinger into the ballgame. Now, entering 2018, they are back in a competition.

Prediction: Ehlinger. Herman has been vocal about wanting more leadership out of Buechele, and Ehlinger showed a lot of toughness and playmaking ability as a true freshman. If he can make improvements as a passer, especially with his timing and anticipation, he can grab hold of the job.

Texas A&M: Nick Starkel vs. Kellen Mond

Nick Starkel: Starkel began the 2017 season as A&M’s starter, but was injured in the opener against UCLA. He worked his way back and reclaimed the starting role from Kellen Mond late in the year and ended up throwing for 1,793 yards and 14 touchdowns. In A&M’s 55-52 Belk Bowl loss to Wake Forest, Starkel threw for 499 yards and four scores.

Kellen Mond: Mond’s play was up-and-down when Starkel was sidelined. He completed only 51.5 percent of his passes, but showcased his talent as a runner, especially with 109 yards against Arkansas and 95 more against South Carolina. Mond was just a true freshman in 2017 and has plenty of room for growth.

Prediction: Starkel. With Jimbo Fisher in the fold as head coach, he will want a more steady passer running his offense. That’s Starkel. Mond has a world of potential, but Starkel seems like a safer bet in Fisher’s first season.

UCLA: Devon Modster vs. Wilton Speight vs. Dorian Thompson-Robinson

UCLA head coach Chip Kelly speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly speaks at the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college football Media Day in Los Angeles, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Devon Modster: With Josh Rosen sidelined last season, Modster threw for 671 yards and four touchdowns on 51-of-79 passing. He started the Cactus Bowl against Kansas State and threw for 295 yards and two scores. Modster has mobility, too. With Chip Kelly in place as head coach, that skillset should come in handy.

Wilton Speight: Speight entered the last two seasons as Michigan’s starter, but missed significant time last year because of a back injury. With Shea Patterson now in Ann Arbor, Speight grad transferred to UCLA with the hopes of starting again in his last college season. Overall at UM, Speight threw for 3,192 yards, 22 TDs and 10 picks while completing 58.8 percent of his passes.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson: A top 50 recruit, Thompson-Robinson committed to the previous UCLA staff, but stuck with the program after Kelly was hired. Also a dual-threat, the 6-foot-2 Thompson-Robinson seems like an ideal fit for the style of offense Kelly employed at Oregon, but he may need time to adjust to the college game.

Prediction: Modster. Speight has the most experience and would be a solid option, but Modster, with his ability to run, provides much more upside. And if Thompson-Robinson does well in practice, Kelly could take advantage of the new four-game redshirt rule and get him some experience.

USC: Matt Fink vs. Jack Sears vs. J.T. Daniels

Matt Fink: After a redshirt in 2016, Fink was Sam Darnold’s backup in 2017 and is the only QB on USC’s roster who has seen the field. That action is limited: he completed 6-of-9 passes for 43 yards in three games. He also had a 52-yard touchdown run against Oregon State.

Jack Sears: A four-star QB in 2017, Sears took a redshirt while serving as the Trojans’ No. 3 QB. The 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman competed with Fink throughout the spring, without much separation on either side.

JT Daniels: Daniels arrived on campus in June as a much-heralded, five-star true freshman. Daniels was ranked by Rivals as the fourth-best player in the entire 2018 recruiting class. Even before he enrolled, he was making frequent trips to campus to break down tape with coaches.

Prediction: Daniels. The hype surrounding Daniels has been building for months and months. And now that he’s finally on campus, most expect him to seize the starting role. Though they showed improvement as spring went on, neither Fink nor Sears have the talent Daniels possesses. Clay Helton recently said age “doesn’t matter,” he’s going to play his best guy.

Washington State: Trey Tinsley vs. Anthony Gordon vs. Gardner Minshew

Trey Tinsley: Tinsley is the only QB on the roster to appear in a game for Washington State, but it was as a holder. The former walk-on is a redshirt junior, so he’s been around Mike Leach’s offense for a while. He performed well in the spring game, going 19-of-24 for 213 yards and three scores.

Anthony Gordon: Gordon, also a redshirt junior, competed with Tinsley throughout the spring. In the spring game, he completed 15-of-21 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. Like Tinsley, Gordon is entering his third season with the program. Both began their careers at the junior college level.

Gardner Minshew: Minshew, the former starter at East Carolina, originally committed to Alabama as a graduate transfer, but ended up signing with WSU, where he has a much better chance to start. During his time at ECU, he appeared in 17 games, threw for 3,487 yards, 24 TDs and 11 INTs.

Prediction: Minshew. Leach is as hard to predict as any coach in the country, but it’s hard not to give Minshew, with two years of experience under his belt, the leg up. He’s behind Tinsley and Gordon, but can quickly make up ground in preseason camp.

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