College Football Veteran Backup QBs Primed to Earn Starting Jobs in 2016
The veteran backup quarterback who shows promise behind a proven starter and rises to QB1 once that proven starter leaves is one of the key players in college football.
Hyped throughout each offseason, these passers are hit-and-miss. Last year, for example, people famously missed on Auburn's Jeremy Johnson, who excelled for two years behind Nick Marshall and spent all summer gathering Heisman hype but then flopped at the start of the season and lost his job to Sean White.
However, there are also success stories, such as Baylor's past two quarterbacks, Bryce Petty and Seth Russell. Petty came on strong after backing up Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence, and Russell came on strong (until he got injured) after inheriting the role from Petty. Those two more than justified the hype.
This year, as always, there are candidates to fill both molds. We defined "veteran backup quarterback" as a minimum third-year player (redshirt sophomore or true junior) who has spent his whole career at one school (no transfers). From there, we narrowed the list to power-five programs and picked the eight most likely starters.
Sound off below, and let us know which one will have the best season.
Max Browne, USC
Learned Behind: Cody Kessler
Max Browne came to USC at the wrong time: right as Cody Kessler, then a sophomore, was rounding into form and taking command of the offense. At 6'1", 215 pounds, Kessler lacked the size of an NFL quarterback, so he was never a threat to declare early and started for three seasons.
Browne could have transferred and played earlier elsewhere, but he stuck with the Trojans and waited his turn. That's rare for a player with his pedigree—Browne was the No. 11 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class, ranking one spot ahead of Derrick Henry—but it means he'll enter next year with inflated expectations.
The size (6'5", 220 lbs), arm (a cannon) and supporting cast (JuJu Smith Schuster) are there for him to meet them. Now he just needs to adjust to the speed of live defenses.
Keller Chryst, Stanford
Learned Behind: Kevin Hogan
Keller Chryst has the physical and mental tools to become an All-American quarterback. It might not happen next year—his first as a projected starter—but it's unwise to bet against him.
Starting with the physical tools, he's 6'5", 233 pounds and left high school with an NFL arm. According to Tom Fitzgerald of the San Francisco Chronicle, Chryst can throw the ball roughly 70 yards.
As for the mental tools, he was raised in a football family under his father, Geep Chryst, the former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator (and quarterbacks coach who molded Colin Kaepernick); and his uncle, Paul Chryst, the head coach at Wisconsin.
Those tools made Keller the No. 51 overall player and No. 4 quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class. Two of the QBs ahead of him, Kyle Allen and Will Grier, showed promise before transferring this offseason, while the other, Deshaun Watson, is the Heisman favorite, according to Odds Shark.
There's a reason Chryst ranked right up there beside him.
Chase Forrest, California
Learned Behind: Jared Goff
Chase Forrest had the fortune of learning under Jared Goff, which should help him lead the Cal offense next season.
The Bears will take a predictable step back, but much of that concerns the loss of last year's top six receivers, not just the drop-off from Goff to Forrest.
Forrest is a promising player in his own right and deserves time to learn with a new cast of skill players. His season should be measured with film more than the degree to which his numbers—which should be fine under head coach Sonny Dykes—compare with those of Goff.
He hasn't won the job quite yet, but he's a strong favorite to inherit the role. By next year, he should look like a quality prospect.
Bart Houston, Wisconsin
Learned Behind: Joel Stave
Joel Stave was always better than advertised (that's what happens when you follow Russell Wilson), but Wisconsin could still use an upgrade at quarterback.
Really, it just needs someone new.
Bart Houston is the favorite to become that someone new, although he'll have to beat out freshman Alex Hornibrook.
If he wins the job, he stands to benefit from a ground game that will improve after a curious down year, but that doesn't mean things will come easy. Wide receiver Alex Erickson graduates, leaving no clear No. 1 target on the outside. Head coach Paul Chryst had Tyler Boyd when he was at Pittsburgh, then Erickson when he returned to Madison, so he might need to make small scheme adjustments.
If he doesn't, this might be another disappointing Wisconsin offense. Only this time, without defensive coordinator Dave Aranda around to pick up the pieces, those struggles could infect the whole team.
Houston has his work cut out for him.
Jalan McClendon, North Carolina State
Learned Behind: Jacoby Brissett
He had no chance of starting early after Jacoby Brissett transferred in from Florida, but his game resembles that of Brissett, so learning behind the veteran passer likely aided his development.
At 6'5", 212 pounds, he has a tall but lanky frame and could use some extra muscle. Bulk helped Brissett avoid pass-rushers during his time with the Wolfpack, and McClendon will need to replicate that pocket presence—especially as left tackle Joe Thuney, one of the best and most underrated blockers in America, joins Brissett on the way out.
It might not happen immediately, but McClendon has the tools to become a star under new offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, a Gus Malzahn disciple who last year held the same role at Boise State and coached a productive season from true freshman Brett Rypien.
Tyler O'Connor, Michigan State
Learned Behind: Connor Cook
In his only career start, Tyler O'Connor beat the defending national champions, Ohio State, in Columbus. The Buckeyes are undefeated in their last 25 games against other quarterbacks.
Decent way to start a career.
Of course, that's a little misleading. O'Connor played an understated role in the upset, avoiding the costly mistake more than he dragged the team on his back. But that can be forgiven in a rain-soaked affair against a defense that, both in the moment and especially in hindsight, will rate as one of the most talented groups of the decade.
O'Connor hasn't won the job and will likely split reps, in some capacity, with dual-threat teammate Damion Terry. But the junior from Lima, Ohio, has an all-around skill set and throws a catchable ball a la former Spartans Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins.
No team develops quarterbacks better than Michigan State, and O'Connor looks like the next in this successful line.
Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Learned Behind: Marquise Williams
Mitch Trubisky spent three years challenging Marquise Williams to start, but he could never quite clear the hump.
Now it's his time to shine, and he inherits a unit worth fearing. Running back Elijah Hood and receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard give him a talented group of skill players, and head coach Larry Fedora's offense encourages big numbers.
"I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have a great spring and show some things because he has grown tremendously," Fedora said of Trubisky, per ESPN.com's Jared Shanker. "He knows the offense, he’s a good leader, and he’s just what we’re looking for at quarterback in this system."
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Learned Behind: Dak Prescott
Mississippi State's emergence the past two seasons, an anomaly for the team with the worst resources in the SEC West, were led by dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott.
Maintaining the momentum in Starkville will come down to Prescott's replacement, Nick Fitzgerald, picking up where he left off.
Fitzgerald has earned rave reviews as Prescott's backup, playing well in spring games, scrimmages and garbage time, but he's had little to do on actual, meaningful reps. He's less physical but just as mobile as Prescott—which will help on an offense that loses 56 percent of its production, per SB Nation's Bill Connelly—and might already have a more accurate arm, but he'll need that extra something that made Prescott so successful.
If he has it, mark him down as one of next year's breakout stars. Head coach Dan Mullen knows how to tailor an offense around his quarterback.
Note: All recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings.