2014 College Football QB Battles That Won't Be Decided in Fall Camp
Ideally, a college football team would like to know its starting quarterback before fall camp opens or closes.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way.
In rare cases, a quarterback battle can linger until the start of the regular season. AJ McCarron, for example, didn't win the starting job out of fall camp at Alabama in 2011, instead vying with Phillip Sims in the early part of the schedule. Sometimes, a sample against live defenses is needed for a coach to make the right decision.
But it's not always as cut-and-dried as it was with McCarron three years ago. Sometimes, even though the coach names a starter after fall camp, the battle is not exactly over. We know who will start Week 1, but that doesn't mean the questions will subside. An example of this would be Trevor Knight and Blake Bell at Oklahoma in 2013.
The Knight-Bell situation is more common than the McCarron-Sims situation. Because there are obvious benefits to "naming" a starter by Week 1, the latter is difficult to project. But based on how close each situation appears and the timing of the quarterback's remaining eligibility, it is not as tough to project which competitions will linger into the regular season a la Knight and Bell.
Here are a few that fit the bill.
Not a Real "Battle"…But Close
Clemson and Notre Dame are similar in that they both have a veteran starter who is heavily favored to play over a freshman backup. However, the freshman backup seems to have a higher ceiling than the veteran starter, and the story all season will be (a) whether he begins seeing snaps and (b) how many snaps he sees.
At Notre Dame, the veteran is Everett Golson, who sat out last season with an academic suspension but led the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012-13. The freshman, a redshirt, is Malik Zaire, who was the undisputed offensive star of spring practice.
Zaire made a bold proclamation in March, saying he thought he could—and would—win the starting job by Week 1. Although that remains unlikely, it is not unthinkable, and his superior option-running skills could result in some player-specific packages regardless.
At Clemson, the veteran is Cole Stoudt, a senior who was Tajh Boyd's backup last season and is well-versed in Chad Morris' offense. The freshman is Deshaun Watson, the top-ranked dual-threat QB in the 2014 class who enrolled early but broke his collarbone during spring practice, which helped Stoudt earn the starting job.
But Watson, even more so than Zaire, is the more athletic option and could see the field in a platooning role. Earlier this month, Morris reiterated that Stoudt would be the starter but also said that Watson will not redshirt and will see the field in some capacity against Georgia in Week 1, per David Hood of TigerNet.com.
Contenders: Connor Brewer, Jerrard Randall, Jesse Scroggins, Anu Solomon
Rich Rodriguez does not lack for big-name options at quarterback, even though those names are largely untested.
Of the four main candidates for the job, three transferred to the program from established college football powers. Jerrard Randall (LSU) and Jesse Scroggins (USC) are considered the favorites to start Week 1, and Connor Brewer (Texas) looms behind them with a chance.
Also looming behind them is redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, who might see the field at some point if the season starts to crumble. He is the future at the position, but he faces an uphill battle if he wants to start in the early part of the year.
Either way, though, there isn't much separation between any of those four quarterbacks. According to Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star, Brewer and Solomon have "realistic chances" of winning the job despite entering camp marginally behind Randall and Scroggins.
Even the slightest hint of struggle from whoever wins the job (my best guess would be Randall, who has the athleticism Rodriguez so desires) will lead to whispers about subbing in the No. 2 option.
Contenders: Aaron Bailey, Wes Lunt
Aaron Bailey was one of the most highly anticipated signings in program history. He was the No. 162 overall player and No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the 2013 class, and his mobility is similar to that of Isaiah "Juice" Williams, who led the Illini to the 2008 Rose Bowl.
Wes Lunt, however, was one of the most highly anticipated transfers in program history. He started a few games at Oklahoma State in 2012, and it's not often that a player with starting experience—especially one who looked pretty good in that starting experience—leaves a Top 15 national program and ends up in Champaign, Illinois.
Whoever wins the job out of fall camp (probably Lunt) will have to deal with the presence of the other this entire season. Every time one screws up, the other will be ready to strap on his helmet.
Contenders: Drew Barker, Patrick Towles
This only applies if true freshman Drew Barker, Kentucky's undisputed future at the position, does not win the job out of fall camp.
If he does, it becomes clear that Kentucky is chalking up the season as one more learning experience before trying to make an earnest run at a bowl game in 2015. Barker can learn on the fly, go through his inevitable lumps and come back ready as a sophomore.
What's more likely is he will start the season on the bench behind redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, who saw action down the stretch in 2012 before redshirting last season. Per Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal, Towles emerged from spring camp with a slight edge at the position after a good showing in the spring game.
If he starts Week 1, Towles will have to show more than just encouraging signs to stay on the field. He'll have to win some games Kentucky has no business winning (i.e., against SEC opponents).
Otherwise, there will be no reason not to give Barker a shot at some point before reopening the competition next offseason.
Contenders: Jake Heaps, Brad Kaaya, Kevin Olsen, Ryan Williams
This one is kind of a mess.
More likely than not, redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, the younger brother of Greg Olsen, will start against Louisville in Week 1. But Olsen struggled badly in the spring game, per David Kenyon of Bleacher Report, and there are options behind him.
Senior Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who was presumed to be the starter before tearing his ACL this spring, is trying to get back in time for the season. Doing so seems like a pipe dream on paper, but according to Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald, Williams sounds confident in the possibility:
I feel like where I'm supposed to be, is where I'm at. No setbacks yet. As long as I'm not going to go out there and re-injure myself and the doctor feels confident I can play in Week 1, I will play. But if I can't, if he wants me to hold off a couple weeks, then I will. ... As soon as [Dr. Lee Kaplan] gives me the full go, I'll be back out there.
Also in the mix is freshman Brad Kaaya, a late riser in the 2014 class who did not enroll early but looks impressive on film, and former blue-chip prospect Jake Heaps, who underwhelmed in stops at BYU and Kansas but recently joined the program.
No matter who starts against Louisville, it is difficult to think of a scenario where the QB situation feels "solved" by Week 1. It's a side story that will dominate the narrative of the Hurricanes' season.
Contenders: Joshua Dobbs, Justin Worley
Tennessee's situation is more similar to Kentucky's than it would like to admit. Under a second-year coach who has helped turn around recruiting, the Vols want to factor into the SEC race this season but know, deep down, that they are probably a year away from doing so.
Like Kentucky, Tennessee also has an underclassmen, Joshua Dobbs, who should be the quarterback of the future. But he's considered a slight underdog to win the job from an upperclassman, Justin Worley, out of the gate this upcoming season.
Worley and Dobbs both looked great in the spring game, but that was against Tennessee's rebuilt defense. Once the real games start, Worley's experience probably gives the Vols their best chance to win.
But if they start falling victim to a brutal early schedule—first five opponents: Utah State, Arkansas State, Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida—the thought of inserting Dobbs would be difficult to ignore. Why not let him establish a real-time rapport with Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone and running back Jalen Hurd?
Contenders: Tanner McEvoy, Joel Stave
Experience or upside?
In crude form, that is the decision Gary Andersen must make at quarterback, where 1.5-year starter Joel Stave is battling 6'6" athletic specimen Tanner McEvoy for the right to start against LSU in Week 1.
Stave is not exactly a fan favorite in Madison, and without Jared Abbrederis, his longtime safety net, around to catch passes, there are questions about whether he can capably run the offense. He did barely enough to make the passing game skate by last season.
McEvoy, meanwhile, moved to safety last season after losing the job to Stave in fall camp (and actually played pretty well in that spot). He has the physical tools of a poor man's Cam Newton; he's just yet to take a meaningful snap at the FBS level.
So, which will Andersen prefer? It's hard to say for sure. Even he doesn't know. At Big Ten Media Days on Monday, he said the two QBs will split reps during fall camp and that he has "no timeline" on naming a starter, per Dave Miller of the National Football Post.
Throwing McEvoy into the fire against LSU, of all opponents, sounds dangerous. But so does trotting out the stone-footed Stave.
That is not an easy first defense to play against, which complicates this situation. Either quarterback Andersen picks, there will be questions about subbing in the other.
And those questions might not dissipate all season.
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.