Predicting the Winners of the Biggest Quarterback Battles in College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2018

Predicting the Winners of the Biggest Quarterback Battles in College Football

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The biggest story in all of college football is the sheer number of quarterback battles that will be waged across the country from big-name programs beginning this spring.

    It starts at the top, too.

    Three of the four College Football Playoff participants from this past year will have full-fledged signal-caller free-for-alls before next season.

    Actually, that could be all four if you consider the possibility that dynamic 5-star midterm enrollee Justin Fields could be too talented to keep off the field at Georgia, even with Jake Fromm standing in his way.

    Whether schools like Oklahoma and USC lost stars in Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, respectively, or whether a guy coming in may just be too awesome to stand with his helmet in hand like Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, there are plenty of reasons to watch this spring.

    There is going to be a changing of the guard among field generals across the country, and several of the races will generate huge headlines, starting in Title Town with defending national champion Alabama.

    Let's take a look at the biggest quarterback battles this offseason and predict who's going to come out on top.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    When Alabama received the signature of 5-star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the 2017 recruiting class, he became a popular pick to unseat shaky Jalen Hurts right away. While Hurts has done nothing but win in his two years in Tuscaloosa, he isn't the best downfield passer.

    Tagovailoa, on the other hand, was rumored to be able to beat teams with his arm or feet, though there was no real reason for coach Nick Saban to bench Hurts throughout last year.

    Then came the Iron Bowl loss to Auburn and a 13-0 halftime hole dug by an impotent Alabama offense in the national championship game against Georgia. Saban inserted Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide stormed all the way back and won in overtime, and now here we are.

    For his part, Hurts has handled the entire situation with maturity beyond his years. But he wants to win this job, and now with Tagovailoa entering his sophomore season and looking like one of the nation's elite playmakers, it's going to be hard to fend him off.

    It's difficult to envision UA sending anybody out there but Tagovailoa once the season starts, but Hurts has been in quarterback battles before and won one as a true freshman. Let's see if he can do it again, but right now, the money is on the talented Tua after that championship game performance.

          

    Prediction: Tua Tagovailoa

Clemson Tigers

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    It's hard to discount everything Kelly Bryant accomplished a year ago in doing the impossible and replacing generational talent Deshaun Watson at quarterback for Clemson and leading the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff.

    Once they got there, though, Bryant's passing limitations glared against Alabama. Of course, that was likely the best secondary in the nation, but the fact remains that the Tigers are much more one-dimensional when Bryant is under center. 

    A year ago, Bryant completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,802 yards but just 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He added 665 rushing yards and 11 more scores, but is he the quarterback to lead the Tigers back to another national championship?

    That's the tough question coach Dabo Swinney must answer, especially with two of the top quarterbacks from the past two classes waiting in the wings. Hunter Johnson is a former 5-star from the 2017 class who got some mop-up action a season ago.

    Then there's Trevor Lawrence, the nation's top-rated pro-style passer in this past class. 

    The bottom line is Bryant is a rising senior. He has the experience, and he has played in the big games. He'll most likely win the starting job at the beginning of the season, but don't be surprised if Lawrence plays the role of usurper once he adds some weight and gets some reps.

    He's that kind of elite talent.

              

    Prediction: Kelly Bryant

Florida Gators

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    Credit: 247Sports

    New Florida coach Dan Mullen's first order of business this spring is to find somebody who can lead the Gators and run his offense.

    With the way UF's signal-callers have looked in recent years, good luck, Dan!

    That's why it was such a coup for him to flip 4-star quarterback Emory Jones from Ohio State in the early signing period. The Georgia product is a midterm enrollee who is on campus and ready to compete for the starting gig. It would be unwise to count him out.

    The signal-callers already on Florida's roster are predominantly pro-style passers, led by towering redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks. Kyle Trask and Jake Allen are two wild cards who've been with the program for a year, and both have capable arms.

    It really wouldn't be a surprise for any of those guys to win the job.

    But we'll go with the wild card and Mullen's guy, Jones. Yes, he'll probably be the rawest of the bunch, but he also more closely resembles the moldable, dual-threat players that Mullen polished into stars like Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald.

    Jones has a long way to go before he can transform his body into the kind of SEC athlete who can endure that kind of beating, but he may get the opportunity right away. This is going to be a transition season, anyway. Jones is the future. Why not make him part of the present, as well?

             

    Prediction: Emory Jones

Louisville Cardinals

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    There's no way to replace Lamar Jackson, who won one Heisman Trophy and was invited to last year's ceremony. He didn't get all the headlines a season ago, but he was still impossible for defenses to deal with.

    Jackson left a year early when it would have been wise to marinate another year and develop as a passer, but some NFL team will scoop up an otherworldly athlete like him, give him the opportunity to play quarterback or, if that doesn't work, put him somewhere else.

    So, where does that leave Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals?

    It's going to be tough for them to make a bowl game this year as they adapt to life without Jackson. The odds-on favorite to win the job vacated by the former U of L star is Jawon Pass, a former 4-star dual-threat signal-caller from Georgia who has a similar skill set.

    He'll have to hold off former 4-star prospect Malik Cunningham and incoming freshman Jordan Travis. But Pass is athletic and more of a traditional passer at 6'4" with a live arm. He's the kind of player Petrino can turn into an eventual star.

    Will it happen this year? That may be the difference in Louisville making it to a bowl game or not in what is expected to be a rugged ACC.

                

    Prediction: Jawon Pass

LSU Tigers

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    It's hard to say that coach Ed Orgeron is entering shaky territory in just his second year as LSU's head coach, but you don't hang around in the Bayou if you're not competitive in the SEC West, and there were definite struggles a year ago.

    Losing to Troy didn't help, either.

    So, Orgeron parted ways with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was lauded as a great hire but lasted just one year in Baton Rouge. The two personalities obviously didn't mesh well, and now, veteran assistant Steve Ensminger takes over.

    He'll be overseeing a raw bunch of Tigers signal-callers as the offense looks to rebuild. For the first time in five years, there won't be an elite running back on which to lean, either, with Leonard Fournette having finished his rookie year in the NFL and Derrius Guice leaving the Bayou a year early.

    The race will be between sophomore Myles Brennan, redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse and junior Justin McMillan, and Orgeron already said Brennan will get the spring's first snap. He knows all eyes will be on the position.

    "Someone's got to step up. That's been the question for LSU for a long time," Orgeron told ESPN 104.5 FM's Off the Bench. Orgeron also told NOLA.com's Andrew Lopez the Tigers will probably wait till the fall to name a starter, so it's a free-for-all until then.

    Narcisse looks like the elite athlete of the bunch, but Brennan can spin it, and the Tigers need a downfield attack, especially after Danny Etling's career as a game manager. That and (little) experience are why Brennan gets the nod.

                  

    Prediction: Myles Brennan

Michigan Wolverines

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    There's a huge question mark surrounding who's going to start for Michigan at quarterback in 2018. All the other pieces are in place, but that's a massive missing piece of the puzzle.

    Last year's starter, Wilton Speight, announced he was going to be a graduate transfer, but now that status is in limbo and he could possibly return. It all hinges on whether Ole Miss transfer and former top-ranked quarterback Shea Patterson is immediately eligible.

    If he is, the Wolverines all of a sudden become a threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten. Patterson is that talented.

    With offensive linemen back and a bunch of offensive weapons around him, Patterson could have a huge junior year and jump to the NFL. Then factor in how good the Wolverines defense is expected to be.

    There's only one huge question about Patterson. Will the NCAA let him play immediately for the Wolverines? That's still up in the air. According to MLive.com's Aaron McMann, that decision is currently "at a standstill." If not, it could be Speight, Brandon Peters or former top quarterback prospect Dylan McCaffrey.

    Peters was known for his accuracy and his ability to throw the deep ball, though that didn't manifest itself well a year ago as he completed less than 53 percent of his passes. Still, at 6'5" and with plenty of eligibility remaining, he could blossom.

    Don't rule out McCaffrey, the younger brother of Carolina running back Christian, if Patterson isn't available. He's big, silky smooth and has great arm strength and good athleticism for a player his size. But if Patterson is eligible, there's little question the former Rebel will be the guy in Big Blue.

                  

    Prediction: Shea Patterson

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Record-setting quarterback Mason Rudolph is gone from Stillwater, and so is Fred Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver James Washington. That's a huge chunk of offense that will be missing from the pass-happy Cowboys offense in 2018.

    That's a challenge for head coach Mike Gundy, who must find Rudolph's heir apparent.

    Taylor Cornelius, a former walk-on, has attempted 24 career passes, and sophomore Keondre Wudtee is the only other player on the roster with experience for the Cowboys. But neither of those guys are expected to be major factors.

    A huge transfer for the Cowboys will arrive in June, and that's former Hawaii signal-caller Dru Brown, who led the Rainbow Warriors to their first bowl berth since 2010 in '16, throwing for 2,488 yards and 19 touchdowns. He should be the favorite to win the job.

    But don't count out star incoming freshman Spencer Sanders, who won the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Texas, leading Guyer High School to a 14-1 record and throwing for 3,877 yards, 54 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    Sanders is the future, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him take the reins from Brown at some point during the '18 season. But look for the transfer to have the first opportunity to lead the Cowboys and keep the seat warm for future star Sanders.

                  

    Prediction: Dru Brown

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Remember in 2016 when McKenzie Milton started 10 games as a true freshman for coach Scott Frost at Central Florida?

    That was all the evidence you need to realize the new big name in the town of Lincoln isn't scared to go with a first-year option at the most important position on the offense. He also is more likely to do that if he's got his guy back there.

    So that may just be the case in his first year with the Cornhuskers.

    Nebraska returns redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and redshirt sophomore Patrick O'Brien, who are both capable of leading the Cornhuskers into Big Ten play. But the biggest recruiting coup Frost had in his first recruiting class was flipping California signal-caller Adrian Martinez from Tennessee.

    What Martinez doesn't have going for him is he missed his entire senior season with an injury, but he is a silky-smooth passer who also can make teams miss with his feet. He's the ideal weapon for Frost to build around in his first year in Lincoln as he tries to replicate the success he had with the Knights.

    Martinez doesn't have to worry about battling any quarterbacks with extensive experience, and that should put him on even footing. He'll be going through spring drills, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get some first-team reps and wind up running away with the job.

    Expect to see Martinez under center to open the season.

                 

    Prediction: Adrian Martinez

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Ian Book took advantage of his opportunity when he replaced Brandon Wimbush a season ago and completed 14-of-19 passes and two touchdowns in a Citrus Bowl win over LSU.

    That should give him a leg up in the battle that will begin this spring. 

    Book and Wimbush are back, and both players have tons of potential. Avery Davis is a 2017 recruit who could come in and make some noise, and the Fighting Irish also will welcome elite signal-caller Phil Jurkovec into the race this summer. He's the kind of passer who can make things very interesting.

    But it all hinges on the enigma that is Wimbush. Two years ago, he looked like he'd be a terrific option to replace DeShone Kizer, but that didn't transpire a season ago.

    He was the reason why Notre Dame's offense was inconsistent. In his 12 games as a starter, he had 803 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns but also completed just 49.5 percent of his passes.

    That's not going to cut it under Brian Kelly, especially in a year when he could be coaching for his job.

    There are a lot of talented options on the Irish roster, but it's all about picking the right one. Book pushed some impressive buttons in the bowl game, giving everybody a glimpse of what he can do. The 6'1", 200-pound quarterback may be even better in 2018.

    Wimbush is beginning the spring as the starting quarterback, but Book will get a real shot. He'll seize the job by season's start.

                   

    Prediction: Ian Book

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    There will be a quarterback race in Columbus, but it would be a stunner if anybody but Dwayne Haskins comes out on top.

    The former Maryland prep standout looked brilliant in last year's spring game, and though he threw only 57 passes in mop-up duty behind J.T. Barrett a season ago, he completed 70 percent of them for 565 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.

    He looks like the next big thing for the Buckeyes.

    Coach Urban Meyer has a ton of talent behind him in former Ohio high school star Joe Burrow, who may wind up being the odd man out, and redshirt freshman Tate Martell, who could wait his turn and be the signal-caller for the Buckeyes in a couple of years.

    They'll battle Haskins, but the 6'3", 218-pound signal-caller who served as Barrett's primary backup a season ago looks like he's ready to go. This should be his job for the next two years, and he'll try to bring the title to the Buckeyes that Barrett couldn't the past two years.

    Barrett was part of that 2014 national championship team, but Cardale Jones was the quarterback in the 42-20 win over Oregon.

    Can Haskins get them back there? He will get his opportunity.

                      

    Prediction: Dwayne Haskins

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Another rubber-stamp quarterback battle will be waged in Norman, Oklahoma, where there won't be any time for tears as Baker Mayfield waves goodbye as one of the most decorated signal-callers in school history.

    Much like Haskins, Kyler Murray didn't get many throws a year ago behind Mayfield, but he made the ones he did get count, completing 18-of-21 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns. After transferring from Texas A&M, where he played as a true freshman, Murray has enough experience to seize the spotlight.

    He can beat teams with his arm or feet, and though he isn't a traditional dropback passer, neither was Mayfield, and he thrived in coach Lincoln Riley's offense. Murray will do the same in 2018, especially with star weapons like Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb on the perimeter.

    It wouldn't be shocking to see Austin Kendall transfer after this spring. Right now, he's waged in what is being called an open battle, but Murray is too talented to keep off the field. Though class of 2019 commit Spencer Rattler looks like he's the future of the Sooners, Murray is right now.

    Kendall is going to make some other team very happy if he chooses to go elsewhere, but Murray has all the physical tools to be a star in Riley's system.

    Mayfield will be missed, but the Sooners may not miss a beat with Murray under center flinging the ball all around the field.

                      

    Prediction: Kyler Murray

TCU Horned Frogs

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    John Weast/Getty Images

    Kenny Hill's topsy-turvy college career began at Texas A&M like Kyler Murray's. Also like Murray, he ended up elsewhere, finishing with a nice 2017 season for a TCU Horned Frogs team that flirted with the top of the college football rankings before falling off toward the end of the season.

    Really, that was just because they couldn't beat the Oklahoma Sooners.

    Now, Hill is gone, and the attention shifts to who is going to replace him. Among them is Shawn Robinson, who completed 48 percent of his 27 passes for three touchdowns a year ago in place of Hill. Though that wasn't much of an audition, the 6'2", 225-pound signal-caller could take charge this year.

    He'll battle incoming freshman Justin Rogers, who was a highly regarded recruit and had offers from many of the top schools in the country before deciding to play for the Toads. 

    It's going to be an exciting competition. Robinson is a former U.S. Army All-American from powerhouse DeSoto, Texas. Rogers is a 4-star prospect from Bossier City, Louisiana, who was the nation's third-ranked dual-threat passer. 

    "I watched a lot Shawn at DeSoto and he's the real deal," SportsDay.com's Adam Grosbard said. "He's fortunate in that he's coming into the Big 12 in which there's really only one veteran quarterback (Will Grier at WVU) and a lot of other young guns. That gives Robinson a little room for error and the ability to rely on the TCU defense to win some games."

    That may be the case early on, but Robinson is talented enough to carry the team once he gets adjusted.

                   

    Prediction: Shawn Robinson

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    First-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt has already made several changes since coming to Knoxville, including parting with Butch Jones' entire coaching staff, dropping a few committed players and signing his own recruiting class for the Vols.

    Many assume since he's gotten commitments from Stanford graduate transfer QB Keller Chryst and running back Madre London from Michigan State, they'll come in and start. They'll both have the opportunity, especially with Pruitt wanting to employ a downfield passing attack and power running game.

    But don't count out rising redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano, who played in nine games a season ago, completing 62 percent of his passes for 997 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in UT's inept offense. 

    Chryst will have to watch spring drills where Guarantano and Will McBride will split reps following the transfer of Quinten Dormady. But this is Guarantano's spring to show he can live up to his billing as the top dual-threat quarterback  in the 2016 recruiting class.

    If he can grasp offensive coordinator Tyson Helton's scheme and get better throwing downfield, it's going to be tough for the Vols to keep a player with his skill set on the sideline. Chryst had accuracy issues in Palo Alto, and though he's more suited for a pro-style scheme, he isn't a guaranteed starter.

    This will be a fun battle into the fall, but Guarantano has the tools to emerge victorious if he can develop as a passer.

                     

    Prediction: Jarrett Guarantano

Texas Longhorns

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The most up-in-the-air battle out there that has waged for more than a year is in Austin, Texas, where coach Tom Herman is still waiting to see which of the Longhorns quarterbacks can take his scheme and move the 'horns to a championship level.

    There are two capable signal-callers on the roster in rising junior Shane Buechele and sophomore Sam Ehlinger. The former has more starting experience, but the latter has better downfield ability and can run a little, too. He seems like he'd be the ideal player for Herman's offense.

    But one of those players has to take over.

    If they don't, Casey Thompson or Cameron Rising may step right in and get an opportunity as a true freshman. If you're Herman, you don't bring in two signal-callers in a loaded 2018 recruiting class if you're convinced Ehlinger or Buechele is the man for the gig.

    Ehlinger is talented, as he proved in last year's bowl win over Missouri, but he's got to mature on the field and off. It wasn't a good sign of growth in that area for him to get into a Twitter spat after calling out former Oklahoma left tackle Orlando Brown's NFL combine performance, either.

    Ultimately, none of those shenanigans matter. What does is that Ehlinger hasn't proved himself on the field, and exceptional quarterback play is one thing standing in the way of the 'horns making some noise in the Big 12.

    It's about time for Ehlinger to stand up and prove what Herman saw in him as a recruit.

                      

    Prediction: Sam Ehlinger

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Everything is bigger in Texas, and that goes for quarterback battles, too. Not only do the hated Longhorns have one on their hands and is TCU looking for a replacement, but the Texas A&M Aggies will be immersed in a "wide-open" battle, too, according to new coach Jimbo Fisher, speaking to SportsDay.com's Alex Miller.

    Former coach Kevin Sumlin recruited two good-looking prospects to College Station in Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, and both showed flashes of brilliance as freshmen a season ago.

    While Mond is the more dynamic athlete who can beat teams on the ground, Starkel looked too good to keep off the field when he was healthy. He began the season against UCLA and then missed a portion of the year after getting injured.

    He completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,793 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Mond didn't fare nearly as well through the air, and while Fisher proved he can mold dual-threat and pro-style passers during his time at Florida State, he has enjoyed better teams with pure passers.

    That's what Jameis Winston was for the Seminoles, and though Deondre Francois could do both, he made things happen through the air.

    Starkel is that guy. It's a good thing Fisher is opening up the competition, because it could bring out the best in both players. But once each player has gotten his fair share of reps, Starkel will be the winner.

                               

    Prediction: Nick Starkel

UCLA Bruins

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    It's just a matter of time before prized recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson is the maestro for Chip Kelly's spread offense in Westwood, but there's no reason to rush into that decision.

    The Bruins have plenty of options, even though Josh Rosen left a year early to head to the NFL.

    While Washington graduate transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels, Austin Burton and Matt Lynch could all factor into the elimination process, it's going to be difficult for Kelly to keep a player with Devon Modster's skill set off the field.

    Is the 6'2", 225-pound passer the ideal Kelly quarterback? No. He's more of a dropback signal-caller who completed 65 percent of his passes for 671 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in five games a season ago as a freshman.

    But he also has the talent and experience to give the Bruins the best chance to win right now.

    If Kelly is worth the money UCLA is paying him, he will be able to adapt his offense to the strengths of his quarterback. Though he did that at times in the NFL, it wasn't always something at which he excelled. You have to think he wants Thompson-Robinson to develop quickly, but that won't happen overnight.

    The freshman is a promising prospect, but he probably won't be ready to start the year. Modster will, and he's going to be a reliable option right away and looks like he could be the future at UCLA, even if he isn't the type of player who can turn the momentum of a game with his wheels.

                         

    Prediction: Devon Modster

USC Trojans

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    Credit: 247Sports

    USC is known for producing elite quarterbacks, and the Trojans must replace another one after Sam Darnold left Los Angeles following his redshirt sophomore year.

    Three former star prospects will vie to take his place.

    Last year, Matt Fink beat out Jack Sears for the chance to back up Darnold, but he only attempted nine passes all season. Now, he returns as the spring favorite to win the job again over Sears, though both players will have the opportunity to step in.

    Whoever is the leader exiting spring drills had better impress quickly because JT Daniels will be here in the summer, and he's one of the best pure passing quarterbacks to come out of high school in a long time.

    He'd be the top-ranked pro-style quarterback if not for Trevor Lawrence, and there's no shame in being second to him. The 6'2", 205-pound signal-caller wasn't even supposed to be a member of the '18 class, but he graduated early and reclassified, and he'll be at Troy in June.

    That's huge news, as he's good enough to step in and start, especially considering he'll already have a rapport with elite wide receiver prospect Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was his prep teammate at Mater Dei.

    Sears took over for Darnold once before, replacing him at San Clemente High School, after he graduated. Can he do it again? Maybe, but Daniels has the ability to make the jump right from high school to under center for the Trojans.

                             

    Prediction: JT Daniels

Washington State Cougars

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    Cooper
    CooperCredit: 247Sports

    The Washington State football program had to deal with tragedy this offseason when Tyler Hilinski took his own life, according to Sporting News' Bob Hille. That's awful on a lot of more important levels, but from a football standpoint, Hilinski was expected to replace Luke Falk as the starter.

    Now, the Cougars, at least on the football field, must move on from that difficult situation and find a starting signal-caller where Hilinski left a major void.

    Perhaps the player with the best skill set to run coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense is incoming freshman Cammon Cooper, who is one of the coach's highest-rated passers ever. The former 4-star prospect threw for 4,726 yards and 58 touchdowns as a high school senior.

    He will have the opportunity to replace Falk, but if he can't seize the opportunity, there are several other candidates like Trey Tinsley and John Bledsoe. The latter is the son of former NFL and Washington State star Drew Bledsoe, and the prospect of that favorite son leading the Cougars is an interesting wrinkle.

    But this just feels like Cooper's turn, as the 6'4" quarterback could have the chance to put up some huge numbers in this offense right away. It'll be hard to replace Falk, who was a perfect fit for the scheme and will be a strong mid-round selection in the NFL draft.

    Cooper has that ability, though. And in Leach's system, he could thrive.

                      

    Prediction: Cammon Cooper

                       

    All recruiting info via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.