The Top College Football QB Battles to Watch in Fall Camp
Roughly 25 percent of college football programs will enter fall camps with an open competition at the quarterback position, but the defending national champions may have the biggest conundrum of all. Will it be Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson or Zerrick Cooper under center for Clemson when the regular season begins in just over a month?
The Tigers aren't the only team in the ACC with a question mark at QB either. Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina will each have an interesting battle to watch in fall camps, which makes the conference's Coastal Division one heck of a mystery. And buckle up for a lot of thoughts on the SEC, as it makes up 50 percent of the top eight QB battles.
For each team with an opening at the game's most prominent position, we'll take a look at the candidates and the frontrunner before offering up a prediction on how things will play out in August and September.
Teams on the following slides are ranked in ascending order of projected preseason Top 25 position.
Others Worth Monitoring
It's hard to believe that this is even a conversation. The Wolverines lost 17 starters. Why would they also make a change at QB? However, a lot of people seem to believe that both Brandon Peters and John O'Korn are threats to take Wilton Speight's job.
Similar to the situation at Michigan, this just seems silly. Shane Buechele is a borderline Heisman candidate who nearly threw for 3,000 yards last season. But new head coach Tom Herman says a few nice things about incoming freshman Sam Ehlinger and refuses to proclaim any starters in April and people jump to the conclusion that this is an open competition? Barring injury, everyone knows this is Buechele's job.
Nevada Wolf Pack and Arizona Sun Devils
Two intriguing situations where former Alabama players—David Cornwell at Nevada and Blake Barnett at Arizona State—are looking to transfer in and immediately supplant last year's starters (Ty Gangi and Manny Wilkins, respectively). Even though Barnett has 19 career pass attempts and Cornwell has none, it seems like a safe bet that the newcomers get the jobs by the end of the year if not by the end of fall camp.
Florida Atlantic Owls
There are only a couple of "high-profile" QB battles from the Group of Five conferences, but Lane Kiffin's situation at FAU should be intriguing (on multiple levels). Jason Driskel—younger brother of former Florida QB Jeff Driskel—will enter as the incumbent starter, but he'll be challenged by incoming transfer De'Andre Johnson.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
After three straight seasons at Western Michigan where Zach Terrell was the only QB worth noting, P.J. Fleck has a tough decision to make at Minnesota. With Mitch Leidner out of the picture, Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft are the only QBs on the roster with any experience, and they've each attempted just 17 passes in their careers. If one of those "veterans" doesn't shine in fall camp, freshmen Tanner Morgan or Seth Green could seize the opportunity.
North Carolina Tar Heels
UNC brought in LSU transfer Brandon Harris to help withstand the loss of Mitch Trubisky, but does that necessarily mean the job is his? Now-sophomore Nathan Elliott looked solid in (extremely) limited opportunities last season, and redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd will both enter the fall as legitimate candidates to start.
Among the middle-of-the-pack major-conference teams, the Bears might have the most intriguing QB situation. Zach Smith had a great finish to the 2016 season once Seth Russell's leg injury led to his promotion to starter, but Arizona graduate-transfer Anu Solomon will be a strong candidate for the job if he can get back to playing like he did in 2014 and 2015.
8. Texas A&M Aggies
Jake Hubenak, Senior (101-179, 1,283 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT over last two seasons)
Nick Starkel, Redshirt Freshman
Kellen Mond, True Freshman
The Frontrunner: Nick Starkel
Heading into the offseason, Matthew Bartlett of FanSided gave Mond a 15 percent chance, Hubenak a 35 percent chance and Starkel a 50 percent chance of winning Texas A&M's starting job. That didn't appear to change much during the spring.
Though his numbers (10-27, 184 yards, 1 TD) weren't great in the spring game, the takeaway from most onlookers was that Starkel was the most impressive of the bunch. The former Elite 11 QB had all of last season to learn this offense and could be poised to take it over.
The Prediction: Jake Hubenak gets the job...temporarily
Every time someone offers an opinion on this battle, it's that Hubenak is the safest option despite not being the sexiest one. Starkel has him trumped in arm strength, and Mond has the mobility to become Texas A&M's next great dual-threat QB.
But the Aggies have a huge season-opening road game against UCLA in which Hubenak's years of experience are more important than his comparative lack of upside. He may well lose the job by the end of the month—or even the end of the game—but look for Hubenak to be under center at the beginning of September.
7. Virginia Tech Hokies
AJ Bush, Junior (Iowa Western CC transfer who threw for 602 yards and three touchdowns last season)
Josh Jackson, Redshirt Freshman
Hendon Hooker, True Freshman
The Frontrunner: Josh Jackson
For the second consecutive summer, a junior college transfer is a major player in Virginia Tech's QB battle. However, Jerod Evans threw for nearly 400 yards per game in his final season at Trinity Valley and averaged better than 12 touchdowns for every interception prior to winning the Hokies job. Bush, on the other hand, wasn't even the starter at Iowa Western, making that an apples and oranges comparison.
As such, Jackson entered the spring as the slight favorite to win the job. No QB on the roster has taken a snap at the FBS level, but at least the redshirt freshman was part of the roster last season and (presumably) knows the playbook better than the other guy. Considering head coach Justin Fuente has given no indication whatsoever of an updated pecking order, we're left to believe Jackson will also enter the fall as the most likely starter.
The Prediction: Josh Jackson's experience with the program pays off
Hooker had an impressive showing in the spring game, completing 10 of 11 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. But the one incompletion was an interception, and he had the benefit of primarily facing the second-team defense. It was a nice step in the right direction for the true freshman, but he'll need to really outplay Jackson in the fall to get ahead of him on the depth chart.
6. Tennessee Volunteers
Quinten Dormady, Junior (24-39, 357 yards, 1 TD over last two seasons)
Jarrett Guarantano, Redshirt Freshman
The Frontrunner: Quinten Dormady
Though Guarantano was one of Tennessee's prized recruits in the 2016 class, two years' worth of experience as Joshua Dobbs' primary backup appeared to give Dormady a slight leg up at the beginning of what was always expected to be a long competition. And if spring game stats matter at all, Dormady furthered his lead in this battle by completing all 10 of his pass attempts, throwing for two touchdowns and even winning the halftime quarterback challenge.
The Prediction: Quinten Dormady starts Week 1, but Jarrett Guarantano gets at least 30 percent of the snaps
Guarantano had little to no chance to flash his scrambling skills while donning a no-contact jersey in the spring game, but he is the superior rusher by all accounts. That could be the X-factor that pushes him into the driver's seat for the job after the previous guy ran for 1,502 yards and 23 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
If they do open the season sharing the job, don't expect this to be a Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes type of situation in which Guarantano just comes in on rushing downs. He's a true dual-threat QB and not just a scrambler. Dormady is not a statue in the pocket either, and the full playbook should be open to both QBs, which could allow/force this battle to linger a month or more into the regular season.
5. Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Malik Rosier, Junior (31-61, 370 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT over last two seasons)
Evan Shirreffs, Redshirt Sophomore (DNP in 2016)
N'Kosi Perry, True Freshman
The Frontrunner: No one?
Interested parties tried to read the tea leaves all spring. Whether the coaching staff mentioned Malik Rosier more often than Evan Shirreffs (or vice versa) after a practice was interpreted as a sign of which way the decision-makers were leaning. But if you think there's a clear favorite in this race, you're only fooling yourself.
"If I had to say how I'd peck them right now, it would be just like I've got them going into this spring game," head coach Mark Richt said after Miami's scrimmage in April, per Christopher Stock of 247Sports. "Kind of a co-No. 1 thing and the rest are co-No. 3 just fighting for that No. 3 spot."
And that was before N'Kosi Perry even arrived on campus, as the dual-threat star was not an early enrollee at the university. At this point, it might be a three-way co-No. 1 thing, though it's going to be mighty difficult for Perry to win the job after less than three months with the program.
The Prediction: We won't know Miami's No. 1 QB until the first snap of the Week 3 game against Florida State (Sept. 16)
With all due respect to Bethune-Cookman, Miami's season opener is essentially one last scrimmage in which Richt can try to figure out a hierarchy at quarterback. Even the Week 2 game against Arkansas State—which hasn't defeated a Power Five team since August 2008—should be something of a warm-up to help determine which QB fares best in a road environment.
Forced to make a guess at this hour, I like Shirreffs' chances of becoming Miami's main man. But we'll see how he handles his series in those first two games.
4. Florida Gators
Malik Zaire, Senior (58-98, 816 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT; 324 rushing yards over last three seasons with Notre Dame)
Luke Del Rio, Junior (114-201, 1,358 yards, 8 TD, 8 INT last season)
Feleipe Franks, Redshirt Freshman
The Frontrunner: Malik Zaire
Suffice it to say, Zaire didn't transfer to Florida because it offered the coziest padding on the bench. After spending all but two weeks of the past two seasons behind DeShone Kizer on Notre Dame's depth chart, the man wants a starting job and chose a situation where he could win one.
And, for what it's worth, noted New York Mets minor leaguer Tim Tebow thinks Zaire's game-changing athleticism makes him the favorite for the job, as he told the 247Sports College Football Podcast (h/t to NFL.com's Dan Parr.)
The Prediction: Malik Zaire starts; Luke Del Rio transfers yet again
Florida opens the season with a neutral-site game against Michigan. Franks has the brightest future of the bunch and Del Rio was the starter for the first half of last season, but Zaire's combination of health and experience make him the top candidate for Week 1 warfare.
Del Rio has already made stops at Alabama, Oregon State and Florida in his collegiate career, but following offseason surgeries on each of his shoulders, it's unlikely he reclaims the starting job with the Gators. Even if Zaire hadn't joined the roster, Franks likely would have started ahead of Del Rio given how well he performed in the spring while Del Rio sat out. And rather than accept a position at No. 3 on the depth chart, Del Rio will most likely set sail for college No. 4.
3. Stanford Cardinal
Keller Chryst, Senior (77-136, 905 yards, 10 TD, 2 INT; 159 rushing yards last season)
Ryan Burns, Senior (102-167, 1,151 yards, 5 TD, 7 INT last season)
KJ Costello, Redshirt Freshman
Davis Mills, True Freshman
The Frontrunner: Keller Chryst
While most of these teams are stuck between a rock and a hard place, Stanford is loaded with great options. Burns won the starting job last fall and was solid through the first five games of the season. Costello was the No. 6 QB in last year's recruiting class, and Mills was No. 1 this February.
But if Chryst has fully recovered from the major knee injury he suffered in the Sun Bowl, it's his job to lose. He was a great dual-threat QB after inheriting the job in late October—a switch that jump-started a six-game, season-ending winning streak for the Cardinal. Given how frequently he relies on his legs, though, his confidence on that knee in fall camp should determine the outcome here.
The Prediction: Ryan Burns and KJ Costello share the duties in the season opener against Rice (in Australia), but Chryst starts Week 2 against USC
There's simply no need to rush Chryst back for an August 26 game against Rice—a team that Stanford slashed and gashed for 373 rushing yards last season. In fact, it would be a bit shocking to see him take the field at any point in the international affair, let alone emerge as the starter. But if Chryst is able to go for the subsequent huge game against USC, David Shaw will gladly go with the guy who helped turn the 2016 season around.
2. Auburn Tigers
Jarrett Stidham, Sophomore (75-109, 1,265 yards, 12 TD, 2 INT in 2015 with Baylor)
Sean White, Junior (133-208, 1,679 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT last season)
Malik Willis, True Freshman
The Frontrunner: Jarrett Stidham
Thus far, this hasn't been a battle. Rather, the spring was simply a successful audition for Stidham while White recovered from surgery to repair a broken forearm suffered in the Sugar Bowl. The incoming Baylor transfer had already played his way to the top of this depth chart before completing 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards in Auburn's spring game.
The Prediction: Not only does Jarrett Stidham start, he plays 95 percent of Auburn's offensive downs in 2017, health permitting.
Stidham is a former 5-star recruit who started multiple games for a 10-win team in 2015. Even if White had been healthy, there was always a good chance that Stidham would come in and steal the job. Unless something major happens this fall, it seems Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is the only one who isn't fully convinced that Stidham will start Week 1 against Georgia Southern.
The unknown in the equation is whether White sticks around and how/when he gets used if he does. Even if he's a distant No. 2 on the depth chart, it makes sense for him to stay. He should graduate this year, after which he can transfer anywhere he wants without sitting out a year.
He might as well spend this year at Auburn where he could at least still play if Stidham struggles or suffers an injury, after which White would have a better idea which school has the most use for him in 2018. But a healthy Stidham should be on the field for the vast majority of snaps in 2017.
1. Clemson Tigers
Kelly Bryant, Junior (13-18, 75 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 178 rushing yards, 3 TD over last two seasons)
Hunter Johnson, True Freshman
Zerrick Cooper, Redshirt Freshman
The Frontrunner: Kelly Bryant
Now in his third year as part of this offense, Bryant entered the spring with a huge experience advantage over his freshman teammates. He has also already proved himself to be a tremendous asset in the run-pass option offense the Tigers have been running for the past six years. Thus far, though, the run portion of that equation has clearly been Bryant's favorite. Long story short, one of the freshmen would need to show something special in the fall to start Week 1.
The Prediction: Hunter Johnson wins the job during or shortly after the season-opening win over Kent State; Zerrick Cooper transfers elsewhere
Bryant both started and finished the spring at the top of Clemson's depth chart and has earned the honor of being the first signal-caller on Sept. 2. It's a bit telling, though, that Bryant wasn't even No. 2 on Clemson's depth chart last season. Had Watson missed any time due to injury, Dabo Swinney would have entrusted his offense to Nick Schuessler—a pro-style passer. Of the trio, Johnson has by far the brightest future as a pro-style passer and would likely find favor in the eyes of the coaching staff if he's able to display a mastery of the playbook during fall camp.
As far as the Cooper portion of this prediction is concerned, if he doesn't win the job this year, he won't win it next year either with 2018 No. 1 overall recruit Trevor Lawrence already committed to Clemson. And Scout's No. 11 QB in last year's class is too talented to just languish near the bottom of a depth chart for his entire college career. At any rate, he didn't turn down offers from Ohio State, Miami, Virginia Tech and others to never see the field.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.