Returning College Football Starters in Danger of Losing Their Jobs in 2014
In college football, there are no guarantees. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and every summer, new recruits arrive on campus intent on making their own splash on the gridiron.
This fuels competition, angst and, occasionally, transfers, which fuel even more competition.
College coaches love to say that every job is up for grabs in preseason practice. This is partially hyperbole, but also somewhat true. If a player has a terrible August, many coaches feel they won’t be able to trust them in September, which leads us back to, you guessed it, competition.
Here is a look at some returning college football starters who are in danger of losing their jobs in 2014.
David Ash, Texas QB
David Ash has been Texas’ quarterback of the future for the last two years. The main problem has been turning that potential into consistent, healthy production. Ash threw for 2,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012 but played in only three games last fall before sustaining a concussion that ended his season.
He will enter preseason practice as the Longhorns starter, but new coach Charlie Strong hasn’t completely closed the door on someone other than Ash lining up as the starter this fall. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Jerrod Heard will also compete with Ash, Strong said at Big 12 media days, per ASAP Sports:
You look at Tyrone, he had a chance this spring because Ash went down with an injury to get a lot of reps in, to think about it's still all about just developing him and developing him as a person.
You look at him, he's very athletic. He can throw the football, but also he can run with the ball. So we have to be smart about it in how we use him. He's going to be able to go compete not only with Ash but then you get the freshman Jerrod Heard.
There's going to be competition in that position. He understands he's just got to get better and better.
Jason Croom, Tennessee WR
Tennessee’s offense was anemic at best last fall. The Volunteers averaged just 23.8 points per game, 11th in the SEC and No. 95 nationally, per CFBstats.com. An impressive influx of wide receiver talent means there will be greatly increased competition to catch passes this fall.
Josh Malone, a 5-star recruit, was a spring enrollee who 247Sports rated as the nation's No. 5 wide receiver recruit, and junior college standout Von Pearson figures to also push returnees, like sophomores Jason Croom and Marquez North.
At SEC media days, Tennessee coach Butch Jones was thrilled about the Vols’ wideouts, per ASAP Sports.
I'm excited about our wide receiver position. It's going to be one that's going to be exceptionally strong. We're going to have great competition there. I'm a former wide receiver coach, so I'm excited where we're going. Zach Azzanni does a great job with that position group with an overall mentality and a pride in the position. I believe that's going to be one of our strengths in moving forward.
Josh is being pushed.
Jason Croom has had a great, great off‑season. Von Pearson, No. 2 junior college wideout has pushed him. Alton Howard is back on our football team. He's had probably one of the best off‑seasons in our football program right now. You look at Marquez North … Again, I'm excited of where we're going at that position.
Devin Gardner, Michigan QB
Entering last season, there was no question that Devin Gardner would step into the shoes of Denard Robinson as Michigan’s starting quarterback.
A year later? There are questions, for certain. Gardner started all 12 regular-season games as a junior, throwing for 2,960 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while adding 483 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. That included a 451-yard passing effort in a 42-41 loss to then-unbeaten Ohio State which came down to a failed two-point conversion in the game’s waning moments.
However, Gardner missed the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl with a broken foot, allowing freshman Shane Morris to start. Morris completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards and an interception in a loss to Kansas State.
Gardner and Morris competed this spring, and neither really stood out with uneven efforts.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have said this summer that the competition will carry over into preseason practice, according to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. Snyder says he'd be shocked if Gardner lost the job, however.
Nussmeier is looking for a quarterback who can move the ball through the air and on the ground, qualities both quarterbacks possess. While Gardner has the edge as a senior, he does not have the job locked down by any means. A poor August from Gardner could easily result in Morris lining up under center for the Wolverines' season opener.
Nick Montana, Tulane QB
Tulane made a breakthrough last season, finishing 7-6 with a New Orleans Bowl berth. However, little of that credit can be given to Nick Montana, son of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.
Montana started 11 games, but the Green Wave finished the season No. 118 nationally in total offense, per CFBstats.com. With leading rusher Orleans Darkwa and top receiver Ryan Grant departing, the time is right for a total remake of Tulane’s offense, and that includes Montana.
He finished spring third on the Green Wave depth chart behind freshman Tanner Lee and sophomore Devin Powell, and faces an uphill battle to reclaim his job in the preseason. Montana completed only 53.4 percent of his passes last fall, so it would be no surprise to see a new quarterback leading Tulane’s offense this coming season.
Patton Robinette, Vanderbilt QB
Patton Robinette had a solid freshman season last fall, leading a comeback win over Georgia, a road win at Florida and a last-second victory at Tennessee. He started three games and passed for 642 yards and four touchdowns, adding 214 yards and seven rushing scores.
However, he is hardly a lock to start at quarterback under new head coach Derek Mason. Robinette can move the ball on the ground but doesn’t have exceptional arm strength.
He is being pushed by redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and LSU transfer Stephen Rivers.
At SEC media days, Mason praised Robinette’s competitive fire and leadership skills, per ASAP Sports, but said, “for us to be successful, we need a guy who can do it game in, game out, okay, with very little hitches, very few flaws.”
Anytime you have a young man who has played in games, it's something that you can't replicate. For us, I think Robinette has the leg up. But what I wanted was a quarterback competition. We need to make sure that if we're going to be successful, we have to solidify the quarterback position overall.
For us, with the addition of Rivers, with Wade Freebeck, you look at our freshmen, Grady is now healthy, we'll have six guys competing at the quarterback position.
You ask, how do you get six quarterbacks ready? You don't. You create competitive situations where those guys rise out front and you start to look at where we're at.
Joel Stave, Wisconsin QB
In most programs, there’d be no questions about Joel Stave’s job. After all, the junior has started 19 games over the past two seasons, including every game in 2013. Last fall, he led Wisconsin to a 9-4 record while throwing 2,494 yards with 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.
Entering preseason, Stave is being pushed, and pushed hard, by fellow junior and former wide receiver/safety Tanner McEvoy.
Stave suffered an injury to the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the Badgers’ Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina and did not fully participate in spring, but he is now healthy. That gave coaches a chance to look more at McEvoy, who possesses the athleticism that Stave simply does not have.
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told BTN.com's Tom Dienhart that quarterback “is a real competitive position.”
Ludwig said he and head coach Gary Andersen are “very confident” in Stave but said, “it will be a very competitive fall camp. Both guys have had productive summers, and I’m anxious to see what happens.”
Ludwig told Dienhart that he’d like to make a decision at least 10 days before the Badgers' season opener. Clearly, it is no lock that Stave keeps his job. He has a battle on his hands in August.
J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State QB
Last fall, J.W. Walsh spent significant time as Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback. In eight games, the 2012 Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year averaged 203.4 yards of total offense per game, throwing for 1,333 yards with nine touchdowns against five interceptions and rushing for an additional three scores.
He’d figure to be the odds-on candidate to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback this fall, but listen to coach Mike Gundy and that doesn’t sound like the case.
At Big 12 media days last week, Gundy had multiple opportunities to declare Walsh as his starter, but declined to, according to ASAP Sports:
We have some inexperienced and young players behind him. Each one of them brings something a little different to the table in our offense. Based on the style of play or the plan of attack that we want to use, we have a little bit of flexibility with the quarterback that we put in the game at that time.
Asked again if Walsh was his starter in the opener, Gundy replied:
Well, we have three quarterbacks that are playing. And I've said earlier that J.W. is the guy that's been out there most of the time. But each quarterback brings something different to the table, and that gives us a little bit of flexibility on offense and what we want to try or how we want to try to attack a team each week.
Walsh is competing with Arizona transfer Daxx Garman, a junior, and true freshman Mason Rudolph. He clearly has some work to do to solidify his position this fall.