8 College Football Teams with the Biggest Quarterback Shoes to Fill in 2014
May’s NFL draft will not lack for quarterback talent. Last January, a number of standout college football quarterbacks either exhausted their eligibility or declared early for the NFL, leaving huge shoes to fill at campuses across the nation.
These quarterbacks won Heisman Trophies. National championships. BCS bowl games. Conference championships. They set program records, made impressive highlights and gained adoration from fans.
And now, the programs that waved goodbye in January are moving on. With spring practice in full swing across the nation, college football coaches are deciding who will replace their departed stars with high-profile quarterback battles.
Several programs have identified leaders in those races, but many have not. So, organized by program, here are the eight college football quarterbacks who will have the biggest shoes to fill in 2014.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace
Alabama: Jacob Coker
A.J. McCarron leaves a huge shadow behind in Tuscaloosa. Despite losing his final two games, McCarron still finished his college career 36-4 with a pair of national titles, establishing himself as one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football history.
Last fall, McCarron completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 3,063 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions for the Crimson Tide (11-2).
Alabama is going through spring practice with a five-way quarterback battle under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The QB tussle includes rising senior Blake Sims (McCarron’s backup last fall), rising sophomore Alec Morris, redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Parker McLeod and freshman early enrollee David Cornwell.
However, the odds-on favorite to win the job isn’t even on campus yet, and won’t be until May.
Last fall, Jacob Coker battled a redshirt freshman named Jameis Winston to replace NFL first-round pick E.J. Manuel. Winston won the job, and the rest is history: Famous Jameis led the Seminoles to a BCS national championship and won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman.
Winston wasn’t going anywhere this fall, so Coker graduated early and used the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, which allows players to receive immediate eligibility at their new program, provided that they’ve graduated and the new stop provides a compatible graduate program.
Coker stands 6’5”, 230 pounds and is the kind of pro-style quarterback that Kiffin has had success with in the past, as has Alabama.
Last fall, he completed 18-of-36 passes for 250 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in mop-up duty.
AL.com’s Andrew Gribble calls Coker “the leader in the clubhouse” to replace McCarron, meaning he’ll have much more playing time (and much more pressure) this fall.
Central Florida: Justin Holman/Pete DiNovo
Last season, Central Florida went 13-1 and won its first BCS bowl game, stunning Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl. Junior quarterback Blake Bortles was a huge reason why.
Bortles completed 67.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,581 yards with 25 touchdowns against nine interceptions. In the Fiesta Bowl, he threw for 301 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions, accounting for four total touchdowns and 394 total yards. It was no surprise that he declared for the NFL draft, where he’ll be a likely top-10 pick.
Replacing him will be an unenviable task for a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks.
This spring, George O’ Leary and his staff are looking at a pair of candidates in sophomore Justin Holman and redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo.
Holman, who stands 6’4”, attempted only 14 passes last season. The 6’1” DiNovo spent last season running UCF’s scout team.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, neither quarterback has distinguished himself much this spring. During the Knights’ first scrimmage Saturday, both quarterbacks had their moments, but neither displayed the consistency needed to put their stamp on the job.
If UCF hopes to continue its national prominence this fall, that’ll have to change sometime before the season opener against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland.
Clemson: Chad Kelly/Cole Stoudt/DeShaun Watson
When Tajh Boyd finished up his college career with an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, he left an impressive legacy behind. Boyd led Clemson to its first ACC title since 1991 and a trio of 10-win seasons, including the program’s first-ever consecutive 11-win seasons. Clemson won 10 games for three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1987-90.
Boyd set 53 Clemson and ACC records, including the Tigers’ career marks for passing yards, passing touchdowns, total touchdowns and completions and the ACC record for passing touchdowns.
As Clemson nears the halfway mark of spring practice, the race to replace him remains an open question.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris are running a three-man race among early-enrollee freshman DeShaun Watson, solid senior Cole Stoudt and highly-touted dual-threat sophomore quarterback Chad Kelly.
Swinney said before spring practice began that if one quarterback “separated” during spring practice, he’d be happy, but is open to beginning the season with multiple quarterbacks. He said that the starter in the season opener at Georgia won’t have a “lifetime contract.”
Swinney called Stoudt “the most proven.” The pocket passer spent the last three seasons as Boyd’s backup and was impressive in 2013. He completed 79.7 percent of his passes and threw for 415 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Kelly, the nephew of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, was a gem of Clemson’s 2012 recruiting class as a four-star signee. He suffered a torn ACL in the Tigers’ 2013 spring game but made an impressive comeback, serving as Clemson’s No. 3 quarterback. His experience was limited to mop-up duty, but he showed flashes of brilliance, completing 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards while adding 117 yards rushing and a 38-yard rushing touchdown. He mixes a strong arm and great mobility and is a threat to run or pass.
Watson was the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, per 247Sports, and a 4-star signee. He was a four-year starter at Gainesville (Ga.) High School, piling up 13,000 yards passing and over 4,000 yards rushing while calling his own plays at the line of scrimmage. This spring, Swinney said he has “all the credentials” to succeed at Clemson.
This is likely Stoudt’s job to lose given his overall experience in the offense, but don’t count anyone out. There’s a lot of time left before September. Whoever gets the job, however, will have a tough time living up to Boyd’s standard.
Clemson also lost its top two receivers to the NFL draft in Sammy Watkins (a likely top-5 pick) and Martavis Bryant. Senior Adam Humphries, junior Charone Peake and sophomore Mike Williams are the top returnees mixing with a trio of freshman early enrollees in Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.
Fresno State: Brian Burrell/Myles Carr/Zack Greenlee
Derek Carr knows a little something about following a strong legacy. After all, his older brother, David, was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft after starring at Fresno State. More than a decade after his older brother left, Derek carved his own legacy.
Last fall, Carr threw for 5,082 yards with 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions, finishing his Fresno career with over 12,000 yards passing and 113 touchdowns against 24 interceptions.
Sadly, there isn’t another Carr brother in Fresno’s pipeline, but that doesn’t mean the questions about following a legend will be any less pervasive this spring.
Bryan Burrell, Myles Carr and Zack Greenlee are all unproven: Burrell was Derek Carr’s primary backup last fall, but the trio has combined to throw 13 passes at the FBS level.
Burrell, a junior, stands 6’4”, 219 pounds. Myles Carr, a sophomore, is 6’2”, 211 pounds. Greenlee, a redshirt freshman, is 6’1”, 197 pounds. In past years, the No. 2 quarterback has had the inside track on becoming the Bulldogs’ starter once the incumbent departs. But last fall, Burrell attempted just 12 passes for 51 yards.
The race appears wide-open, but no matter who emerges as the starter, they won’t have an enviable task replacing the uber-productive Derek Carr.
Georgia: Hutson Mason
If there is one thing Hutson Mason has learned in his college career, it is patience. Mason was a Parade All-American in high school and set Georgia state records for passing yards and touchdowns in a season as a senior, rolling up 4,560 yards and 54 touchdowns.
He signed with Georgia, but had the unfortunate luck of being on campus at the same time as one of the SEC’s most prolific quarterbacks ever.
By the end of his Georgia career, Aaron Murray set SEC career records for completions (921), passing yards (13,166), touchdown passes (121) and total offense (13,562), becoming the first quarterback in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
Mason actually redshirted the 2012 season in order to get a potential season as a starter once Murray finished his eligibility, but the 6’3”, 202-pound passer actually got his chance a little early last fall.
Against Kentucky, Murray suffered a torn ACL that ended his college career, pressing Mason into action.
In his first career start, Mason led a rally that erased a 20-point Georgia Tech lead, eventually pulling out a 41-34 double overtime win. On the day, Mason threw for 299 yards and two scores.
In the Gator Bowl, Georgia suffered a 24-19 defeat, but Mason piled up 320 yards passing.
Mason’s track record suggests his transition will be smooth, but escaping Murray’s considerable shadow once and for all won’t be easy.
Louisville: Will Gardner
Whoever steps under center for Louisville’s first snap this fall has one of the toughest tasks in college football. The Cardinals’ new starting quarterback will be replacing Teddy Bridgewater, who left after his junior season and is expected to be one of the top-10 picks in May’s NFL draft.
Bridgewater threw for 9,817 yards with 72 touchdowns against 24 interceptions in three seasons, including 3,970 yards with 31 touchdowns against seven picks last fall. He completed 71 percent of his passes on the season and saved one of his best performances for last, torching Miami for 447 yards in a Russell Athletic Bowl rout.
Louisville entered spring with a three-way battle to replace Bridgewater with sophomore Will Gardner, senior Brett Nelson and redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin.
Gardner, who served as Bridgewater’s backup last season, has taken the lead in the quarterback derby, as coach Bobby Petrino told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Gardner must improve his passing, but he knows the Cardinals’ offense well and is familiar with his teammates. There is still time for him to lose the job, but he appears to have the edge as spring rolls toward a conclusion.
Still, replacing a player of Bridgewater’s mega-watt stature will be anything but easy.
LSU: Anthony Jennings/Brandon Harris
Zach Mettenberger developed into an excellent pocket passer as an LSU senior, throwing for 3,082 yards with 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 2013.
The 6’5”, 230-pound pocket passer displayed stats that surely impressed NFL scouts, and he’ll likely be drafted to develop while he recovers from a torn ACL that ended his college career in the regular season finale.
When Mettenberger went down, freshman Anthony Jennings stepped up, keying a 99-yard game-winning scoring drive against Arkansas that was capped with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Duvral. He also led an Outback Bowl win over Iowa, but struggled, completing seven-of-19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
This spring, he is being challenged by freshman early enrollee Brandon Harris, rated as the nation’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports. Harris can run or pass well, giving him the capability to thrive in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s pro-style system.
Either quarterback will be more mobile than Mettenberger, but both could suffer through some growing pains this fall while they adjust to life as an SEC starting quarterback.
Texas A&M: Kyle Allen/Kenny Hill/Matt Joeckel
If there are bigger shoes to fill in college football than in College Station, Tex., it’s hard to imagine them.
Over two years, Johnny Manziel went from an unknown redshirt freshman quarterback to Johnny Football, Heisman Trophy winner and national flashpoint.
Last fall, Manziel threw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores.
Coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital are auditioning three quarterbacks to replace Manziel: rising senior Matt Joeckel, rising sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.
Joeckel, a pocket passer, started A&M’s opener last fall against Rice when Manziel was suspended and served as Manziel’s backup the rest of the season.
Hill is more in Manziel’s mold, an athletic dual-threat quarterback capable of winning games in a number of different ways.
And Allen is a darkhorse to win the role. He is going through spring practice with the Aggies and was rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect.
A&M coaches have been tight-lipped about the position and are not expected to name a starter until fall. It’s a fascinating battle, and living up to the standard set by Manziel during his brief stay in Aggieland won’t be easy.