College Football QBs Who Could Shock World by Starting Week 1
The projected starting quarterback at the start of fall camp does not always win the job by the end of fall camp.
Last year, for example, Blake Bell was favored to win the starting job at Oklahoma after serving as the short-yardage quarterback behind Landry Jones in 2011 and 2012. But a redshirt freshman named Trevor Knight swept the coaches off their feet in August and took the first snap of the season against UL-Monroe.
This year, there are numerous candidates to pull off the same sort of upset as Knight did. If the season started today, they probably wouldn't hear their numbers called, but they have the talent and the opportunity to change that in the next three weeks.
Sometimes, that is an indictment of the players projected ahead of them. Other times, it's an endorsement of the backup. In most cases, it's a varied combination of the two.
This list includes all of the above.
Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee
Favorite to Start: Justin Worley
This is technically an open battle between Justin Worley (the senior favorite), Joshua Dobbs (the sophomore with the most tools) and Nathan Peterman (the redshirt sophomore dark horse).
Worley entered camp the presumed favorite because of his experience, but Dobbs was very much in the mix after needing just nine attempts to rack up 199 passing yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. He also rushed for 59 yards and a fourth touchdown, flashing a dual-threat dimension that makes him unique.
According to John Brice and Brent Hubbs of Volquest.com, the whole group of signal-callers did come strong out of the gate this fall.
"[I] was not pleased with our accuracy," said head coach Butch Jones of the quarterbacks on August 1. "We had 62 footballs on the ground today all throughout the course of practice. The great teams I've been around, you have about 18 to 20 on the ground."
Roughly one week later, the returns had not improved.
Local radio host Jimmy Hyams did say that Worley looked more accurate than Dobbs, but a lack of order in the quarterback ranks is never bad for the underdog. If no one player stands out—which it doesn't sound like Worley has thus far—it forces the coaches to evaluate and reevaluate the position throughout camp.
In the words of Lord Petyr Baelish, "chaos is a ladder." And it's a ladder that Dobbs has the talent to climb. He needs to improve, sure, but isn't that what this next month of practice is all about? And who better than a mobile QB to play behind an iffy offensive line?
Tennessee's Week 1 opponent, Utah State, has a defense that can really get after it and is led by a legit first-round NFL draft prospect in outside linebacker/pass-rush specialist Kyler Fackrell.
Dobbs' legs would be an asset against the Aggies.
Daxx Garman, Oklahoma State
Favorite to Start: J.W. Walsh
According to head coach Mike Gundy, Daxx Garman is already preparing as if he'll take "10-to-12 snaps" in the season-opener against Florida State, per Kyle Fredrickson on NewsOK.com.
At this point, what's a few more?
J.W. Walsh started strong as a sophomore last season but couldn't hold the job past the middle of the year because of turnovers. He threw two interceptions in the upset loss at West Virginia—a game that for a long time looked like it might cost Oklahoma State a Big 12 championship—and two more against TCU two weeks later.
Clint Chelf took over for the rest of the season.
Garman hasn't played a meaningful game since high school, and that was way back in 2009, but he probably has the best arm of any player on the team. Walsh provides a dual-threat element that Garman does not, but teammates have raved about Garman's arm strength, per Fredrickson, and his high school coach said Garman's accuracy was just as impressive as his power, per Mark Cooper of Tulsa World.
Both quarterbacks will play against Florida State, so calling whoever takes the first snap the "starter" might be a misnomer. More likely, that game will serve as an extension of the competition, the same way Walsh earned the job after outperforming Chelf in the season-opener against Mississippi State last year.
And that will give Garman a chance.
Brad Kaaya, Miami
Favorite to Start: Jake Heaps
Miami does not lack for options to replace Stephen Morris at quarterback, but each one comes with an asterisk.
Ryan Williams and Kevin Olsen entered spring camp battling for the job, but Williams tore his ACL in April, and Olsen struggled throughout the offseason before getting suspended for a failed drug test.
Neither will be available for Week 1.
That leaves former blue-chip recruit Jake Heaps as the most logical option, but Heaps only joined the program a couple of months ago, transferring from Kansas (by route of BYU) in June.
He's thrown about 900 passes in his college career, including 261 last season, but he has not seized those opportunities. Kansas is a tough place to play, sure, but 10 interceptions to eight touchdowns is brutal.
All of which gives Brad Kaaya a realistic chance to swoop in and win the job as a true freshman. He was a fast-rising prospect over the past year, finishing as a top-150 recruit in the 2014 class, and despite a lean frame (6'4", 215 lbs), the ball really zips out of his hands.
Head coach Al Golden said he wanted to "temper his optimism" about Kaaya during the pre-pads sessions of fall camp, but he gushed about the freshman nonetheless, per Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post.
In Golden's own words:
[Kaaya is] just really mature. Smart. Has shown a lot of pocket poise and presence. His length really stands out. His length and his ability to stand up and see. He’s great at the underneath stuff, the shallows and the meshes and things of that nature. Again, so far, so good.
Maturity. Intelligence. Pocket presence. Underneath stuff.
These are things it usually takes a player one or two (or more) seasons to develop. It's what separates a 5-star guy who flames out from a lower-ranked guy who succeeds. That Kaaya is earning this praise—even if it comes at the point of the preseason where everyone seems to earn high marks—is a great first step in his development.
It might be enough to get him onto the field against Louisville.
Shane Morris, Michigan
Favorite to Start: Devin Gardner
Of all the battles on this list, Michigan's is the one I feel most sure about—i.e., the one I came the closest to excluding.
What will Morris have to do to unseat senior Devin Gardner?
A couple of things. First and foremost, he'll need to get some help. He'll need for some of Gardner's bad habits and tendencies to relapse this fall after mostly disappearing this spring. He'll need the door to crack open just a bit wider than it's cracked open right now.
Then, he'll need to show improvements from his performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which was on the whole encouraging but still revealed some weaknesses. Morris had good command of the offense but was inaccurate in spots and unwilling to stretch the field vertically—the former of which is a bigger concern than the latter.
Michigan's offensive line will be a work in progress despite the addition of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, so getting the ball out of his hands quickly is a good trait for Morris to have. But he can't just be a checkdown robot if he wants to supplant a senior with superior athleticism who earned points for his toughness in 2013.
Does Morris have the talent to win the job? Absolutely. Does he have the opportunity? Technically, yeah…but it's debatable.
Still, I wouldn't bank on it.
Blake Sims, Alabama
Favorite to Start: Jacob Coker
From the sound of it, Blake Sims winning this job would not shock Nick Saban in the slightest. Seemingly every time he's asked to talk about Jacob Coker, the Florida State transfer whom most have penciled into the starting role, he ends up gushing over Sims instead.
"No one ever seems to ask about Blake Sims," Saban said after the first few days of fall practice, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com, "but he has done extremely well so far in camp as well."
Sims does not fit the prototype of an Alabama quarterback the way that Coker, a strong-armed 6'5" pocket passer, probably would. He is only 6'0" and adds a mobile dimension that is foreign to the Tide.
However, Sims is also a senior and a leader, and according to Gribble, a good deal of the Alabama locker room supports him.
That has to count for something, right?
In anointing Coker the starter, it seems the world might be overreacting to Alabama's spring game, where Sims admittedly struggled. But if we've learned it once, we've learned it a million times: The results of an April scrimmage should not be taken as gospel.
"I don't think he gets the credit he deserves," center Ryan Kelly said of Sims, per Gribble."I don't think the spring game really did him justice for how well he played in the spring."
Johnny Stanton/Ryker Fyfe, Nebraska
Favorite to Start: Tommy Armstrong
Tommy Armstrong played well this spring and is the only one of Nebraska's quarterback competitors—also including Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe—who has meaningful game experience.
That's why he's the favorite.
Still, there has to be a faction of people in Lincoln who are rooting for Stanton to finally turn that "corner" and play with more consistency in the fall than he did in the spring. He's a dual-threat option who has long tantalized Huskers fans with his potential.
Also in the mix is Ryker Fyfe, who actually might be gaining on Armstrong at a faster rate than Stanton is. Receiver Brandon Reilly said Fyfe is "putting a name out there for himself" and "deserves to get a shot for the starting job," per Sean Callahan of Rivals.com, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck said Fyfe is improving his command of the offense, per Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald.
Both of those players have a real chance to unseat Armstrong, who was good but not great in relief of Taylor Martinez last season. He did lead the Gator Bowl upset over Georgia, but his 6-of-14 passing performance in that game left a lot to be desired.
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Favorite to Start: Marquise Williams
Marquise Williams taking over for Bryn Renner was more or less the turning point of North Carolina's season in 2013, which makes it crazy to think he could start the following year on the bench.
If he does, though, it will be through no fault of his own.
It will be because of Mitch Trubisky.
247Sports had Trubisky rated as the No. 79 overall player and No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class. The other major recruiting services (ESPN, Rivals and Scout) did not think as highly of him, but ranking so well on any respected list demands attention.
He's shown well during spring and fall camp, too. Even the Tar Heels receivers don't know which QB has the edge.
"I don't know what separates them, what one does better than the other," said sophomore slot receiver Ryan Switzer, per Aaron Beard of The Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports). "I just know it is close.''
Granted, this is a good problem for North Carolina to have. It probably shouldn't even be classified as a problem. Their breakout star from 2013 might get replaced by a new breakout star in 2014.
If it happens, though, it would still come as a pretty big shock.
Malik Zaire, Notre Dame
Favorite to Start: Everett Golson
Malik Zaire took a redshirt behind Tommy Rees when Everett Golson was suspended from the school last fall, but with a year of practice experience under his belt, he is ready to compete for the starting job.
He also might be ready to win it.
It certainly looked that way during the spring game, when Zaire culminated a solid month of practice with a dazzling performance while Golson looked merely average. Part of Golson's showing can be attributed to nervousness and rust, but not at all of it.
Still, the thought of Golson holding a clipboard in Week 1 would be shocking. On principle—or at least in a vacuum—a quarterback who led his team to the national title game as a redshirt freshman should not lose his job to a quarterback who has never taken a snap.
But the context of that 2012 season plays a role in this decision. Head coach Brian Kelly downplayed Golson's imperativeness to that team, saying he "would argue Golson rode the bus to the championship," per Dan Murphy of Blue Gold Illustrated.
Even though his motives for making such a comment can be argued—it's definitely a good motivational tactic for Golson—Kelly doesn't come off as the type who says something unless he means it.
He'll give Zaire every chance to prove he's the better option.
All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings.