Predicting the Winner of the Biggest Quarterback Battles in College Football

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2019

Predicting the Winner of the Biggest Quarterback Battles in College Football

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    Quarterbacks may get a whole lot of the credit and even more of the blame, but that's because they play the most high-profile position in football—if not all sports.

    You normally need quality quarterback play to win in college football, and that's why all eyes are on the position battles at several marquee programs around the nation.

    It's that way every year, and 2019 is no different.

    From a slew of highly touted freshmen vying for starting jobs to new faces hoping to lead their latest program, the 2019 spring football practice season is chock-full of headline-grabbing signal-caller battles.

    Whether they are conference-winning programs like Washington and Central Florida or former powers (trying to regain their footing in the national conversation) like Florida or Auburn, there's a flashing "vacancy" sign over QB1 on the depth chart.

    Let's take a look at some quarterback battles across the country to keep a close eye on this spring. We may not know the final outcome of who will start once the lights come on, but these 15 practices should give everybody a pretty good idea.

Arizona State: Jayden Daniels

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    Jayden Daniels
    Jayden DanielsCredit: 247Sports

    Second-year coach Herm Edwards proved last season that the Sun Devils are going to be in an intriguing spot to watch over the coming years.

    Considering the Pac-12 South is wide-open with USC struggling, Arizona State could move to the top of the heap with elite quarterback play. It didn't have that a season ago with Manny Wilkins leading the way, but his departure leaves an open spot.

    Vying for the gig are redshirt junior Sterling Dillon-Cole, who backed up Wilkins a season ago, along with a trio of talented freshmen in Jayden Daniels, Ethan Long and Joey Yellen. 

    It may appear as though Dillon-Cole has the best chance to win the job, as he was the best quarterback in the spring game. He threw a pair of touchdown passes in seven-on-seven drills, but according to the Arizona Republic's Jeff Metcalfe, wide receiver injuries limited live reps.

    247Sports ranked Yellen as the No. 9 pro-style passer in his recruiting class, but Daniels is an elite prospect who has the type of talent who doesn't come around often.

    The San Bernardino, California, native was the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school and the 35th-rated prospect overall. He's also a midterm enrollee (along with the other two freshmen), and an offseason in a strength and conditioning program should help the 215-pounder add necessary weight.

    Daniels is a difference-maker who was coveted by most of the Pac-12, and Edwards should realize he's too talented to keep off the field. That should be Daniels by the start of the season.

Auburn: Bo Nix

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    Bo Nix
    Bo NixCredit: 247Sports

    Sticking with the first-year vibe, Auburn is going to have a quarterback free-for-all this spring.

    The player with the most sheer talent in the competition is incoming freshman Bo Nix.

    The nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback was slightly above Jayden Daniels as the 247Sports Composite's No. 33 overall player. Much like Daniels, he also enters a race that lacks anyone with many reps.

    Jarrett Stidham left with a year of eligibility, creating a vacancy for some unproven talents. That starts with junior Malik Willis, who has thrown all of 14 collegiate passes.

    Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood boasts an impressive frame at 6'4" and 232 pounds, but he's still raw. There's also Cord Sandberg, a 24-year-old walk-on who played six years of professional baseball in the Philadelphia organization before deciding he wanted to try football.

    None of those guys will strike fear in the heart of Nix, a polished prospect with deep, long bloodlines in the Plains. His father, Patrick, was a starting quarterback for the Tigers. Now, the younger Nix comes to Auburn after shattering Alabama state records.

    Intriguing options abound for head coach Gus Malzahn, but Nix looks like a great option to run the Tigers' spread option. Although he doesn't have the strongest arm, he's accurate and boasts excellent athleticism.

    The prediction here is that AU will go with a freshman to start the 2019 season.

Boise State: Hank Bachmeier

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    Hank Bachmeier
    Hank BachmeierCredit: 247Sports

    Boise State has enjoyed its share of dynamic quarterbacks during the regimes of Chris Petersen and now Bryan Harsin on the Smurf Turf. And the latest, Brett Rypien, is going to be hard to replace.

    The four-year starter finished his career with 90 touchdowns and 29 interceptions, so he leaves behind a void at the position for a program that expects to finish at the top of the Mountain West Conference every year.

    Rypien's backup from a season ago, Chase Cord, tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the season and won't be ready for spring drills. That presents a golden opportunity for four newcomers to win the gig.

    While Kaiden Bennett, Jaylon Henderson and Riley Smith will all get a legitimate chance, the Broncos haven't had a quarterback of Hank Bachmeier's caliber coming out of high school in, well, ever.

    The 6'1", 200-pound signal-caller from Murrieta, California, holds the state record for touchdown passes. An even more impressive accomplishment considering the Golden State's history of producing passers. He chose the Broncos over a slew of offers.

    "I think Hank understood that how we do things and the things we had to offer him fit him best," Harsin told 247Sports' Chris Hummer. "He followed that process, and that led to Boise State."

    The 235th-ranked player is the highest-rated offensive player ever to choose Boise, according to Hummer, and he'll be rewarded with the starting gig.

    Yes, that's three straight freshmen so far. But that run is about to end.

Florida: Feleipe Franks

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    Feleipe Franks isn't the ideal quarterback to run coach Dan Mullen's system, but it's going to be too difficult for anybody to wrestle the job away from him.

    Just when everybody thought that Florida was going to open the job up and give Kyle Trask a chance to win it late last season, Trask got hurt and Franks played his best football of the season, shredding Michigan 41-23 in the Peach Bowl.

    Now, Mullen says the job is wide-open again, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson. Don't believe it.

    Yes, redshirt freshman Emory Jones' speed is intriguing and he's going to play a lot of football for the Gators before his career is over. But, he isn't anywhere near polished as a passer and this is a team that can win big now.

    Trask is a wild card, and while he has potential, he's never had a large on-field sample set. True freshman midterm enrollee Jalon Jones is another dual-threat quarterback who needs some more of the rough edges knocked off before he's ready for SEC play.

    Franks was an underrated orchestrator on Florida's best team in a long time last year, and there's plenty of reasons to believe he'll improve dramatically from his sophomore to junior season. Franks is sneaky-athletic and possesses a huge arm. Don't let his 6'6" frame fool you; he's a dual-threat guy, too.

    Mullen wants competition, but, in the end, that will bring out the best in Franks and he'll start the season as the Gators' top option.

Florida State: James Blackman

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    Few teams on this list are as desperate for a difference-maker at quarterback than Florida State, which failed to make a bowl game in head coach Willie Taggart's first season in Tallahassee.

    Though the Seminoles got some big news when Wisconsin redshirt senior Alex Hornibrook decided to play his final season in FSU, that doesn't mean they'll hand the job over to the former Badger.

    Two seasons ago, James Blackman filled in for Deondre Francois after his season-ending injury and threw 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Last year, he played in just four games in relief of Francois, who is no longer on the team.

    Entering this spring, he's the only signal-caller on Florida State's roster with any game experience, and it's going to be a full-tilt battle with Hornibrook to win the job. Although a look at Hornibrook's resume shows an impressive 26-6 record as the starting QB in Camp Randall, look closer.

    The Badgers always had exceptional running backs and offensive line play. That isn't the case with the Seminoles. As a matter of fact, FSU had one of the worst O-lines in the nation a season ago, and the statue-like, 6'4" Hornibrook doesn't look like an ideal fit.

    There may be points this year where Hornibrook plays and even starts, but Blackman's mobility and familiarity in the offense will be valuable assets to help him win the gig. Look for him to start the season as the Seminoles quarterback.

Miami: Jarren Williams

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    Everybody's talking about Tate Martell's transfer to Miami and wondering whether the NCAA will grant him immediate eligibility as it did with Justin Fields and the Buckeyes.

    If that doesn't happen, there will be plenty of controversy surrounding the decision.

    But don't let that fool you; Martell may not even the best quarterback on the Hurricanes roster. It could be redshirt freshman Jarren Williams, who has a chance to beat out Martell for the gig whatever his waiver status might be.

    The former 4-star signal-caller is a promising passer who boasts a little athleticism as well. His best attribute, however, is his arm strength, and though he's only played against Savannah State so far in his college career, Williams has a ton of ability.

    It's possible that the NCAA grants Martell a waiver, which would probably give him a leg up in the competition since he's played some important snaps in his career with Ohio State. But there's no real reason why he should get a hardship exception just because he didn't want to compete with Fields.

    Then again, the same can be said with Fields and Georgia, too.

    The guess here is that Martell doesn't get the waiver and Williams beats out N'Kosi Perry for the job. It's going to be fun to watch the dropback passer learn under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and he'll be a good player for the 'Canes.

    It's going to be an awesome battle to watch, regardless.

Michigan State: Brian Lewerke

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    Michigan State hopes rising senior Brian Lewerke returns to his 2017 form.

    That year, he threw for 2,793 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions and looked like he was well on his way to a surging career with the Spartans. Then he crashed in 2018, regressing to throw for 2,040 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

    That disastrous season cracked the door for fan favorite Rocky Lombardi, but is he really the kind of player who can lead the Spartans through the minefield of the Big Ten for coach Mark Dantonio?

    Lewerke is a quality athlete who can do a lot of things with the ball, but he was fundamentally broken a year ago. He's also still got some offseason shoulder issues (a reason he struggled in 2018) that may linger through spring drills. If he doesn't surge this spring, will Dantonio look elsewhere?

    Don't bet on it. Dantonio, like a lot of coaches, leans toward veterans. And Michigan State knows what it could have if Lewerke is able to come back and return to his former form.

    Lewerke can run a little (finishing with more than 500 rushing yards in 2017) and he can throw, too. New offensive coordinator Brad Salem knows Lewerke well from his time as MSU's quarterbacks coach, so the two need to hit it off and get the Spartans, who ranked 126th in scoring offense in 2018, heading back in the right direction.

Oklahoma State: Dru Brown

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    A year ago, Taylor Cornelius replaced Mason Rudolph and played virtually the entire season for the Oklahoma State Cowboys during a down season for coach Mike Gundy's program.

    Everything is new again in 2019, and that may not be such a bad thing. Gone are Cornelius and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (to Ohio State) and there are a lot of playmakers still on the Cowboys roster if they can find somebody who can consistently get them the ball.

    The job is expected to come down to Hawaii transfer Dru Brown, who many expected to start a season ago, and redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders.

    Sanders was a top-200 player out of high school, and he'll get his turn for the Pokes eventually, but Brown preserved a season of eligibility by playing just one snap a season ago. He would be a strong bet to mesh well with new offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson, who came from Princeton.

    Gleeson was known as a quarterback developer at Princeton, leading one of the top FCS offenses with an uptempo attack. Brown ran a similar offense while starting at Hawaii, and the Cowboys are even quicker-paced.

    Brown threw for 2,785 yards and 18 touchdowns at Hawaii in 2017. Now that he's had a year to get to know Gundy and the offense, it's a safe bet that he will be the man in Stillwater this season.

    He doesn't have the strongest arm, but much like Rudolph, he's the kind of player Gundy has helped turn into an all-conference selection before. Don't be surprised if he puts up some big numbers in 2019.

    Brown will beat out Sanders in the end, but both will play this year.

Penn State: Tommy Stevens

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    Penn State coach James Franklin has some quality young quarterbacks, but the battle to replace Trace McSorley is going to come down to two veterans.

    Fifth-year senior Tommy Stevens has waited his turn over the course of his career in Happy Valley while throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns, rushing 76 times for 506 yards and catching 14 passes for 62 yards and two more touchdowns.

    His versatility is an exciting option for PSU, but can he do enough with his arm to improve an offense that was, at times, stagnant in 2018?

    There are a lot of potential budding offensive weapons, led by running back Ricky Slade and receiver Justin Shorter, but the Nittany Lions need somebody who can get them the ball. 

    Sean Clifford is a former 4-star prospect with a big arm who threw a 34-yard touchdown pass in mop-up duty against Pittsburgh a season ago. And he may prove to be a worthy candidate to push Stevens.

    But, in the end, the 6'5", 240-pound Stevens will get his opportunity to lead Penn State. He's waited long enough and it's going to be a big storyline to watch him in such a pivotal season for the Franklin regime.

    Don't be surprised if there's a quick trigger if he isn't getting the job done, as Clifford has too much talent to keep sitting around while the team sputters.

TCU: Alex Delton

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    TCU suffered a disappointing setback in its quarterback battle when Shawn Robinson, who'd started much of the year before a season-ending injury, decided to transfer to Missouri.

    That left the position wide-open for coach Gary Patterson, but the cupboard is far from bare.

    Two exciting, young prospects in the mix are incoming freshman Max Duggan and former 4-star Justin Rogers, who is finally healthy after spending much of his Horned Frog career injured. When Mike Collins is healthy this summer, he too will join the fray.

    But by then, all of them will likely be looking up at Alex Delton atop the depth chart.

    The Kansas State transfer does not cast an imposing shadow, but he has a wealth of Big 12 experience. During his career as a Wildcat, he completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,202 yards and five touchdowns while running for 868 yards and 11 more scores.

    He can definitely win the job over the youngsters, but can he throw it well enough to keep it?

    "I like the way all of them are throwing the ball right now," Patterson told reporters recently after a spring practice. "Everybody understands there’s a competition and anytime you have a competition there's more attention to detail because whatever rep you get you're going to make it the best you can make it."

    Delton will have to be able to sling it to make offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie happy, and the coach has a lot of options if he falters. He'll win the gig for now, but watch out for Collins once he's healthy, as well as Rogers, who will be an exciting player to follow in the future.

UCF: Brandon Wimbush

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    Perhaps the most up-in-the-air battle between two potential stars this spring will occur in a Group of Five conference.

    Yes, it is the best Group of Five team, but it will be outside the Power Five's huge shadow. Funnily enough, it won't even involve the team's Heisman Trophy contender.

    Central Florida is going to be waiting on McKenzie Milton to return from his gruesome leg injury, and it's possible that his entire 2019 season will be lost. That's why Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush elected to finish his career in Orlando.

    After filling in admirably for Milton at the end of 2018, rising sophomore Darriel Mack Jr. won't just hand over the job either. Both quarterbacks have the ability to lead the Knights to a spotless record and within reach of the College Football Playoff yet again, keeping the seat warm for Milton until his return. 

    Though Mack would be a strong option to lead the team, his limitations showed a season ago in the Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU. However, since he was a true freshman facing one of the nation's most loaded secondaries, Mack shouldn't be penalized for that performance.

    Wimbush has played in a lot of big games for the Fighting Irish and can do a lot of things with his arm and his feet. It's going to be a close battle, and coach Josh Heupel will find a way to get both of his guys snaps, but Wimbush is going to win the job and close his college career with a bang.

Washington: Jacob Eason

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    You can call this a competition if you want to, but it would be a stunner if anybody other than Jacob Eason won the starting quarterback job at Washington.

    Replacing Jake Browning won't be easy.

    The four-year starter is Washington's all-time leading passer; he did plenty of great things with the Huskies. But he did have plenty of physical limitations (mostly arm strength after his shoulder surgery), and he struggled in his final two years in comparison to a two-year start that suggested he might wind up as one of the best QBs in Pac-12 history.

    At 6'6" and 227 pounds, Eason doesn't have such physical limitations.

    He's a strong-armed quarterback who can make every throw on the field. If he's grown up and developed since his days at Georgia, watch out.

    There are other talented options for coach Chris Petersen. While Jake Haener backed up Browning admirably a season ago, his ceiling is a reliable backup. It would be surprising if he started.

    The other talented signal-callers are former 4-star prospects Colson Yankoff (from the 2018 class) and Dylan Morris (from the 2019 class), along with big-armed Jacob Sirmon, the son of former Oregon and NFL linebacker Peter Sirmon.

    Any of those three could challenge Eason, but he is a former freshman starter for the Bulldogs who likely would still be between the hedges if not for Jake Fromm's emergence. He has all the ability to make U-Dub not skip a beat offensively as it looks to repeat as conference champions.

West Virginia: Austin Kendall

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    With Neal Brown entrenched in Morgantown after leaving Troy to replace Dana Holgorsen, he has to build the program his way and in his image. The first major detail in doing that is replacing Will Grier, a dynamic passer who will be throwing to NFL receivers next season.

    For a while, it looked like that would be a two-man race between Miami transfer Jack Allison and dual-threat quarterback Trey Lowe, whose speed provides an exciting option.

    In last year's Camping World Bowl loss to Syracuse, Allison completed 17 of 35 passes for 277 yards after Grier elected to sit. Those aren't bad numbers, but he also threw a pick and was sacked four times.

    Austin Kendall is stepping into an ideal situation to play for the Mountaineers. He actually made a race out of the quarterback job at Oklahoma before losing the job to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

    The North Carolina native decided not to stay in Norman despite being Murray's backup a season ago and looking like he was in line for starting duties in 2019. That's probably a good call since coach Lincoln Riley went out and got Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts.

    It looks like it could work out for Brown and Kendall, too. The former offensive coordinator probably isn't going to deploy an offense that throws up PlayStation numbers like Holgorsen's, but he's got a rich history of tailoring his scheme to his playmakers' abilities.

    Kendall has a lot of talent in need of an opportunity. He's got one now.

Wisconsin: Graham Mertz

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    Graham Mertz
    Graham MertzCredit: 247Sports

    The Wisconsin Badgers have been Alex Hornibrook's team for the past few years, but struggles and injuries led to a disappointing 2018 season. Rather than stick around and compete for the job, the redshirt senior decided to transfer to Florida State instead.

    His departure sets up a wide-open battle between junior Jack Coan, who played in five games and started the Pinstripe Bowl in 2018, sophomore Danny Vanden Boom and redshirt freshman Chase Wolf. But there's another guy whose name you should commit to memory.

    That would be incoming freshman Graham Mertz, a Kansas native who torched the competition in the Army All-American Bowl with a game-record five touchdown passes.

    The 6'3", 205-pound signal-caller had offers from several of the nation's top programs. He chose to head to Madison, and the question remains if coach Paul Chryst will reward that.

    Barton Simmons, 247Sports' director of recruiting, told Badger247's Austin Nivison to expect big things quickly from Mertz:

    Graham isn't a guy that presents a lot of flashy physical traits at first glance. Even when we saw him at the All-American Bowl, his play was pretty quiet throughout the week of practice. He really turned it on during the game though and showcased some feel for the position that was unique and a comfort playing on a big stage. It's those kind of intangible traits that I think will give him a chance to contribute quickly in Madison. He's a subtle talent but he took over in that All-American setting.

    The safe bet for the starting job is Coan. After all, Chryst has shown a propensity to lean toward the veteran for several years now. Mertz is the kind of player who can turn it up a notch when the lights come on, but will he be consistent enough to earn his coach's trust right away?

    Coan may take the first snap, but Mertz will ultimately win the job and be entrenched as the starter for years to come.

                 

    All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from the 247Sports composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.