Quarterbacks Turning Heads in 2019 College Football Spring Games
Tate Martell was the third quarterback to see action in Miami's spring game, but it was a better-late-than-never situation for one of the more impressive intrasquad performances of the month.
Spring game stats are generally meaningless. We recognize that. Last spring, Oklahoma's Austin Kendall outplayed Kyler Murray, Ohio State's Joe Burrow was clearly more impressive than Dwayne Haskins, and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa didn't play because of injury, but that didn't stop them from finishing top three in the Heisman vote.
Conversely, guys like Jack Richardson (Stanford), Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) and Brett Kean (South Florida) each threw for more yards in the 2018 spring game than they would in the entire regular season.
Neither a great showing nor a terrible one necessarily means anything.
All the same, these spring games served as our first look at a lot of key transfers in their new threads and also provided a glimpse into a few quarterback battles that will rage on into the fall.
Most of these quarterbacks passed their first test with flying colors, but there were also a few who left us turning our heads in a bad way.
Mac Jones, Alabama
This time one year ago, you could not read a preview of the 2018 season without at least one mention of the quarterback controversy at Alabama. We spent a solid eight months arguing whether Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa was more deserving and/or more likely to be the go-to guy for the season opener.
Rest assured, that isn't the case this year. Tagovailoa secured the job less than 10 snaps into last season, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, and the Crimson Tide have perhaps the most obvious starter in the nation.
But just in case Tua is as frequently banged up as he was this past fall, Nick Saban has a difficult decision to make between Mac Jones and the younger Tagovailoa (Taulia) for No. 2 on the depth chart.
Or maybe we should say it was a tough choice, because Jones was clearly the best quarterback in the A-Day game. Jones completed 19 of 23 pass attempts for 271 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
Some lot of good that distinction did for Jones last spring, though. With Tagovailoa out with a broken finger and Hurts struggling, Jones was Alabama's top passer last April too. He still only landed at No. 3 on the depth chart and ended the season with 13 pass attempts—all of them in garbage time of blowouts.
At this point, it seems like Jones is on the Joe Burrow career path.
Burrow redshirted as a freshman at Ohio State and barely saw the field in either of the two subsequent seasons in Columbus. But he always showed up in a big way in the spring and consistently looked the part of a guy who could lead a good team if given the chance. He had to transfer to LSU to find that opportunity, and Jones may need to do something similar next spring.
For the time being, though, Jones should remain an excellent safety net for the Crimson Tide if either Tagovailoa is ever unavailable.
Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Alabama's current No. 2 QB had an impressive day, and so did its former one.
Now with Oklahoma, Jalen Hurts completed 11 of 14 pass attempts for 174 yards with a touchdown. That's 12.4 yards per attempt, which is a heck of a lot better than the 8.0 mark he averaged during his three seasons with the Crimson Tide.
Always a threat to do damage with his legs, Hurts also ran for 12 yards and a score.
Following in the footsteps of Heisman winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, Hurts faces even higher expectations with Oklahoma than he did at Alabama. Based on his efficiency in the Sooners' spring game, though, he just might be the man to keep that streak alive.
Save for the final three games of both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hurts was a high-efficiency performer. He had 25 touchdowns against just three interceptions in his final two seasons in Tuscaloosa, and he ran for 1,022 yards and 10 touchdowns in the process. But he lost the job because he struggled in the most important games and because Tua Tagovailoa was a better deep threat.
Who knows if the first half of that problem will be any different, but the second half shouldn't be an issue.
The transition from the SEC to the Big 12 ought to be a big help for a passer who was already solid. In general, secondaries are much more forgiving in this conference. Hurts was never great at the 40-yard bombs, but his mobility and his ability to move the ball with shorter crossing routes should play beautifully in Lincoln Riley's offense.
We got a glimpse of that in the spring game, and it should only get better as he further absorbs the playbook over the next few months.
Brandon Wimbush, UCF
Not all of the graduate transfers made a positive first impression this spring.
While Jalen Hurts and Kelly Bryant (12-of-17, 150 yards at Missouri) both looked plenty comfortable in their new threads, former Notre Dame starter Brandon Wimbush had a rough debut at UCF. He didn't throw any picks, but he finished 6-of-15 for 92 yards—a 40 completion percentage and barely six yards per attempt. Worse yet, he was sacked six times.
For quarterbacks like Wimbush who run the ball more often than they complete passes, spring games can be brutal. Plays get whistled dead before they get a chance to showcase their elusiveness, and they just aren't the same without that ace up their sleeve.
And yet, Hurts and Bryant—also well-known for their dual-threat ways—had no problem reading defenses while working with new blockers and receivers. So, is that a fair excuse for Wimbush, especially in an offensive scheme where a mobile passer like McKenzie Milton has thrived for the past three years?
Wimbush transferred from one 12-0 team to another one, looking for a new start with the Knights after losing his Fighting Irish job to Ian Book. Given this start, though, he might just be a backup once again.
Darriel Mack Jr. wasn't much better in the spring game (10-of-23, 171 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), but the redshirt sophomore has the benefit of several years of experience with this offense. It should be his job to lose, and he certainly hasn't lost it yet.
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Similar to Brandon Wimbush, Ohio State's Justin Fields had a less-than-stellar first showing with his new team.
Fields did flash a few moments of serious promise. The most noteworthy was a 98-yard touchdown pass to Binjimen Victor. That ball traveled about 45 yards in the air, and he made it look effortless. He also had a 30-yard rush and a five-yard rushing touchdown. On those three plays, he looked every bit the part of the phenom that all of the recruiting services expected him to be.
Take out those three plays, though, and Fields was 3-of-12 for 33 yards and had a net rushing total of three yards thanks to four sacks.
In other words, it was an all-or-nothing type of performance—with much more nothing than all.
It was enough to send yet another Buckeyes quarterback to the transfer portal, though.
Tathan "Tate" Martell left for Miami shortly after Fields transferred from Georgia to Ohio State. And a few days after the spring game, Matthew Baldwin (20-of-37, 246 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) also decided his best hope for playing time was at a school other than Ohio State.
At this point, the full Buckeyes depth chart of scholarship quarterbacks is Fields and scarcely used West Virginia transfer Chris Chugunov. That's a scary proposition for any team with national championship aspirations, but especially for one with a mobile—translation: more likely to suffer minor injuries throughout the season—starter.
If Fields has any uneven performances like he did in this spring game, Ohio State no longer has any sort of Plan B.
Terry Wilson, Kentucky
Kentucky stunned the college football world this past season with a 10-3 record. After 10 consecutive seasons with seven or fewer wins and 40 straight years with a single-digit number in the win column, the Wildcats unexpectedly defended and rushed their way into an incredible campaign.
Had they been able to move the ball through the air with more consistency, they might have had a shot at the SEC title.
Starting quarterback Terry Wilson finished the year with a 133.9 passing efficiency rating—not even good enough for top 10 in the conference.
In the spring game, though, he was more than twice that efficient. He completed 10 of 12 pass attempts for 191 yards and two touchdowns. That was good for a rating of 272.0.
The deep ball was never much of an option for Wilson last year. He had just nine completions (in 268 total attempts) that went for 30 or more yards, none of which resulted in a gain of at least 60. But in 12 passes in the spring game, Wilson connected on a 42-yard touchdown to Lynn Bowden and a 60-yard pass to Isaiah Epps.
Epps had more yards in this scrimmage (97) than he had in the entire 2018 season (76). Maybe it was an anomaly, or maybe a breakout year is coming. Either way, he is one of many UK receivers who should get more looks now that star running back Benny Snell Jr. is out of the picture. And if Wilson keeps throwing anywhere close to as well as he did in the spring game, Kentucky might win 10 games again.
James Blackman and Jordan Travis, Florida State
It's a constant conundrum with gaudy spring game stats: Is the offense really this good or is the defense really this bad? Considering Florida State allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for 3,224 yards and 30 touchdowns last year—both marks higher than in any of the previous 15 seasons—the latter is a legitimate concern in Tallahassee.
But hope springs eternal in April, and Seminoles fans should instead be optimistic with how good both of their primary quarterbacks looked.
James Blackman is the projected starter with Deondre Francois gone, and he threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns in the Garnet and Gold spring game. Blackman averaged better than 18 yards per completion thanks to three bombs that went for at least 50 yards each.
His counterpart, Jordan Travis, also threw the ball well, completing 22 of 28 attempts for 241 yards. Travis didn't have any passes of 40 or more yards, but he was mistake-free.
Factor in lesser contributions from Alex Eleyssami and Nolan McDonald, and there were 784 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in the game. But, again, for the sake of Florida State fans, let's assume that was good quarterback play rather than dreadful defense.
It's still unclear whether Travis will be granted a waiver for immediate eligibility after transferring in from Louisville, but he should give Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook a run for his money on the depth chart if he is allowed to play this year. (Hornibrook won't enroll until the summer and was not part of the spring game.)
Anthony Gordon, Washington State
Mike Leach's primary quarterback has thrown for at least 4,555 yards in nine of his last 16 seasons as a head coach. Graham Harrell did it three times while Leach was with Texas Tech, but he was the only repeat "offender" on the list. Leach has had seven different quarterbacks hit that mark, including Gardner Minshew II last year (4,779 yards).
That air raid offense just keeps producing monster seasons regardless of who is actually throwing the ball. Thus, big things will be expected from the winner of the battle for the starting job.
So, who is the leader in the clubhouse for that gig?
Based on the spring game, redshirt senior Anthony Gordon looks like the guy to beat.
Gordon was 21-of-30 for 234 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. All three scores came in the first 19 minutes of the game. Senior Trey Tinsley and freshman Cammon Cooper combined for one touchdown and four interceptions, and Eastern Washington graduate transfer Gage Gubrud was unable to play because of an ankle injury that has limited him throughout the spring.
Gubrud threw for nearly 10,000 yards over the past three seasons and probably would have been the front-runner for the starting position with a healthy spring, but he'll need to prove his mettle this fall to move ahead of Gordon—even though the latter option has only attempted five regular-season passes (including one interception) in his college career.
Tate Martell, Miami
Tate Martell had a doubly head-turning afternoon for the Hurricanes.
First, folks were surprised to discover that the Ohio State transfer was neither the first nor the second quarterback to take the field. N'Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams saw action prior to Martell, indicating that—at least to begin the day—Martell was third on Miami's depth chart.
Once he got the chance to play, though, Martell showed why he was such a highly rated recruit, why he put up such impressive numbers in limited playing time last season and why he will probably be the starter by the time the 2019 season begins.
Martell completed 6 of 10 attempts for 154 yards with two touchdowns. Impressive, efficient numbers, but even more remarkable is that he did most of that damage while leading the second-team offense against the first-team defense.
Perry and Williams had similar completion percentages against the second-team defense, but their yards per attempt and touchdown/interception figures weren't as good as what the new guy was able to accomplish after just a couple of months with the team.
It's not the path to playing time that the No. 5 quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class was expecting to encounter, but the redshirt sophomore could become a star in a hurry with the Hurricanes.