Quarterback Battles Still Up in the Air Following Spring Practices
Spring camps have come and gone for college football teams, and quite a few 2019 quarterback battles are no closer to being resolved than they were several months ago.
Heck, for some of these teams, the projected Week 1 starting signal-caller is much less of a sure thing now than it seemed during "Way Too Early Top 25 SZN."
This isn't intended to cover every quarterback battle yet to be decided, though. Of the 130 FBS programs, there are probably more teams with a question mark at the top of the depth chart than there are teams with a stone-cold lock in that spot. Discussing all of the pending decisions would be too much.
Rather, we're focusing on the seven competitions that should have the most national relevance.
If these potential preseason AP Top 25 teams make the correct choice at quarterback, they could win at least 10 games and might get into the running for the College Football Playoff. The ones who make the wrong decision, however, may find it difficult to become bowl-eligible.
The Battle: Joey Gatewood vs. Bo Nix vs. Malik Willis vs. Cord Sandberg
Jarrett Stidham was responsible for 739 of Auburn's 763 pass attempts over the past two seasons. Now that he'll suit up for the New England Patriots, what's next for the Tigers?
They aren't lacking for options.
Joey Gatewood was a top-50 recruit in 2018. True freshman Bo Nix was a 5-star guy in this year's class. Malik Willis wasn't that highly rated, but he has been with the program for the longest and was the primary backup to Stidham for the past two seasons. And Cord Sandberg—a 4-star recruit in 2013—is the 24-year-old wild card who gave up on minor league baseball after six years to sign with Auburn last summer.
All four fared well in Auburn's A-Day spring game. Nix and Gatewood got the first-team reps, each completing roughly two out of every three pass attempts while tossing two touchdowns. Willis and Sandberg were a combined 17-of-19, though, showing they won't quietly fade into depth chart obscurity anytime soon.
However, most seem to believe this is a two-horse race between Gatewood and Nix—even though Gus Malzahn has yet to give any indication of a pecking order, aside from the order in which they saw action in the spring game.
Regardless of how this plays out, the starter will be a guy with either zero or little game experience at this level, and he'll have three similar players breathing down his neck. Margin for error will be painfully slim, and it wouldn't be a shock if at least three of these four quarterbacks receive legitimate playing time.
The Prediction: Gatewood is named the starter just days before the regular season begins, but a tough opening game against Oregon is what determines who gets the start the following week. If Nix is ever given the chance to start, he won't give it back.
Boise State Broncos
The Battle: Hank Bachmeier vs. Chase Cord vs. Jaylon Henderson
It has been a while since Boise State had to think about its quarterback situation. Brett Rypien was responsible for more than 88 percent of the Broncos' pass attempts over the past four seasons, including 447 out of 460 in 2018. Now head coach Bryan Harsin has to start from scratch, and it's anybody's guess which option he'll choose.
If Chase Cord is fully healthy, he seems to be the favorite. But that's a gigantic "if." The redshirt sophomore tore his ACL in October, and that was his second ACL tear in three years. He did a little bit of throwing in the spring, but no one will know his availability until fall camp.
In Cord's absence, Jaylon Henderson had a bit of a breakout in spring camp, culminating in the team's best showing in the spring game. Henderson completed nine of 13 passes for 187 yards and was the only quarterback to record a touchdown. If the fifth-year senior can carry that momentum into the fall, he just might be the guy in Week 1, regardless of how good Cord's knee looks.
True freshman Hank Bachmeier also had an impressive spring, and he is more highly touted than the other quarterbacks. Boise State fans are expecting the 4-star recruit to be the guy of the future, but is he ready for the job right away? It'd be one thing if the Broncos opened the season against some no-name FCS school, but they get Florida State in Week 1. Throwing a true freshman out there against that defense could end terribly.
Kaiden Bennett and Riley Smith are also at least nominally in the running for the job, but it's likely going to be some combination of Bachmeier, Cord and Henderson taking 99 percent of the snaps.
The Prediction: If Cord is healthy, he starts against Florida State and is given until the start of conference play (Week 4) to show he's up to the task. If Cord can't go, Henderson gets the start in Week 1 with Bachmeier ready to start as early as Week 2 if Henderson doesn't immediately end the debate by defeating the Seminoles.
The Battle: Tate Martell vs. N'Kosi Perry vs. Jarren Williams
Poor quarterback play buried Miami last season. The Hurricanes did all right for the first half of the schedule, but N'Kosi Perry and Malik Rosier had a combined one touchdown and five interceptions during their four-game losing streak. The defense held its own in all four of those games, but the offense averaged 15.0 points and looked pathetic at times.
If the 'Canes can find a better solution at the position this year, they could bounce back to their 2017 form of flirting with perfection.
Rosier is gone, but Perry returns as the most experienced member of this three-headed battle.
Was it valuable experience, though? Perry barely completed half his pass attempts last season. Among the 142 players who threw for at least 1,000 yards, Perry had the No. 129 passing efficiency rating (114.9). Perhaps the only reason he was given so many chances is because Rosier (111.7) was 136th on that list.
Well, that and the fact that he was a top-200 recruit in 2017. However, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams was rated as the No. 77 recruit this past season, and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell was No. 56 in 2017, so those high school accolades aren't working in Perry's favor anymore.
This is probably the most wide-open competition of the bunch. Throughout the spring, beat writers changed their opinion on the projected pecking order on a practice-by-practice basis. And the spring game did little to provide clarity. Martell had the most impressive day and did so primarily against the first-team defense, but he was the third quarterback to see action, if that matters in the least.
Most of the national analysts are of the mindset that Martell wouldn't have transferred to Miami unless he was all but assured a starting job. Outside that presumption, though, there's not much to be read in the tea leaves.
The Prediction: One of these dudes will transfer. All three are too talented to be wasting away in third place on a depth chart. Once a hierarchy is established—whether that's in the next four months or whether it's not until the fourth game of the season—the odd man out will pack his bags. That's the new normal for college football in 2019.
As far as a guess goes, Martell wins the job, Perry is the primary backup and Williams leaves. Not one of the six possible one-two-three permutations would be much of a surprise, though.
Penn State Nittany Lions
The Battle: Sean Clifford vs. Will Levis (vs. Tommy Stevens?)
For the other six teams on this list, we knew before the spring even began that a long battle was likely.
For Penn State, though, it seemed cut and dried that fifth-year senior Tommy Stevens would step into the starting role after backing up Trace McSorley for just about his entire college career. However, a foot injury kept him from doing much of anything during the spring and prevented him from playing in the annual Blue-White Game.
This opened the door for both redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Will Levis to gain a lot of ground on Stevens, and it led to a surprising decision by Stevens to put his name into the transfer portal in late April. Technically, Stevens could still change his mind, remain with the Nittany Lions and win the job. But that seems unlikely at best.
Assuming it's down to just Clifford and Levis, it's a duel that may well last until Week 3. Penn State opens with home games against Idaho and Buffalo, so it should have the luxury of trying out a few different looks in blowouts.
If last year is any indication, that's good news for Clifford. In the three games that Penn State won by at least 39 points—Pittsburgh, Kent State and Illinois—he completed all five of his pass attempts for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Clifford also got the start in the Blue-White Game and was given nearly three times as many pass attempts (19) as Levis (seven). Maybe that means nothing, but it seems like he's the favorite now that Stevens is (presumably) leaving town.
The Prediction: Clifford starts Week 1, and Levis gets a lot of reps in the first two weeks. But Clifford locks down the gig by the time Penn State faces Pittsburgh on Sept. 14.
The Battle: Darriel Mack Jr. vs. Brandon Wimbush vs. Quadry Jones vs. Dillon Gabriel
As McKenzie Milton continues his recovery from last year's horrific leg injury, Darriel Mack and Brandon Wimbush figure to be the two main guys battling for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Quadry Jones and true freshman Dillon Gabriel might be in the mix if either one really impresses during fall camp, but it's hard to imagine Josh Heupel would bypass two experienced options to hand the reins to a freshman. Stranger things have happened, though.
Neither Mack nor Wimbush looked good in UCF's spring game. Mack had a pair of touchdowns, but he only completed 43.4 percent of his passes. Wimbush finished at 40 percent and was sacked half a dozen times. Neither is out of the ordinary for either quarterback, as Mack went 51-of-100 last season, and Wimbush was a career 50.5 percent passer in three years with Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, Jones had the highlight of the day with a deep touchdown pass that went more than 70 yards. Maybe he has a shot in this race after all.
However, spring-game stats aren't as relevant as when and with whom the quarterbacks play, and Mack and Wimbush seem to have the top two spots on the depth chart locked down. Moreover, it's probably Mack's job to lose, given how remarkable he was in the AAC championship win over Memphis this past December (348 passing yards, six total touchdowns).
Still, Wimbush didn't leave a backup job just to settle into another one in a warmer climate. He'll give Mack a legitimate fight. And considering they're both relatively inaccurate dual-threat quarterbacks, the Knights could use them equally.
The Prediction: Mack starts against both Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic, but Wimbush takes at least 30 percent of the snaps in those games, too. Heupel uses those first two contests as an extended audition to figure out who he trusts the most for the big games against Stanford and Pittsburgh.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The Battle: Hendon Hooker vs. Quincy Patterson vs. Ryan Willis
When starting quarterback Josh Jackson suffered a broken leg in the third game last season, Virginia Tech's ACC championship dreams went up in smoke. The Hokies lost that contest and five of the next seven. They had to schedule an emergency makeup game against Marshall at the end of the year just to become bowl-eligible.
The hope was that he'd return at full strength for the 2019 campaign, but Jackson instead transferred to Maryland, inciting this battle for the starting spot.
The obvious front-runner is fifth-year senior Ryan Willis. The 2017 Kansas transfer took over for the final 10.5 games of last season, amassing more than 3,000 combined passing and rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. In the spring game, Willis threw for 192 yards and three touchdowns.
The Hokies had a losing record while he was the starter, but let's not pretend that was all his fault. The defense allowed at least 31 points in seven of those 10 games.
Still, there's plenty of room for improvement, considering Willis completed just 58.5 percent of his pass attempts and barely averaged 250 passing yards per start. Hendon Hooker might be able to provide that improvement. The 2017 4-star recruit lacks experience, but the dual-threat quarterback had ridiculous numbers in high school. In three seasons, he had more than 9,000 yards and more than 100 touchdowns between throws and runs.
Quincy Patterson is the wild card but the one most likely to become a short-yardage Wildcat specialist. At 6'4" and almost 250 pounds, he is a tank. Patterson saw a little bit of action last season, rushing for 25 yards.
The Prediction: Willis gets the start in the season opener at Boston College, but he'll do so with a short leash. If it looks like Willis is headed for one of the duds that he had late last season against Miami and Virginia, Justin Fuente will give Hooker a shot. But this should be Willis' job to lose.
The Battle: Jack Coan vs. Graham Mertz vs. Danny Vanden Boom vs. Chase Wolf
Alex Hornibrook surprised all of us by transferring from Wisconsin to Florida State this past winter. The lefty was frustrating throughout his three seasons with the Badgers, looking like a phenom in one game and looking like he had never seen a playbook in the next. Good Hornibrook could lead Wisconsin to the cusp of a national championship. Bad Hornibrook would get torn to shreds by worse-than-average defenses.
But Wisconsin doesn't have either Hornibrook any longer, and it's hard to say who is most likely to take his place behind center.
Were it up to Wisconsin fans to decide this competition, Graham Mertz would've won the job the moment he signed with the Badgers.
At a program that has thrived on turning unheralded recruits into All-Americans, Mertz is an unusual luxury, rated as the No. 65 overall recruit. He is probably the most coveted quarterback Wisconsin has ever signed, and the Badgers faithful want to know ASAP if the strong-armed talent has what it takes to lead a team through the rigors of a Big Ten schedule.
A true freshman starting at quarterback for Wisconsin, though? Seems unlikely, although Jonathan Taylor has worked out quite nicely at running back since day one of his freshman campaign. Maybe the Badgers will give Mertz a real chance to win this job right away.
If not, Jack Coan becomes the heavy favorite. The rising junior got a fair chunk of playing time last year when Hornibrook was sidelined with a concussion. Coan wasn't great during that time—particularly in the loss to Penn State—but challenging experience is better than no experience, right? He received most of the first-team reps throughout spring practices and looks like the guy to beat.
The Prediction: Coan starts the first two games against South Florida and Central Michigan without issue. But if he is anything less than perfect in the home game against Michigan on Sept. 21, all of Camp Randall Stadium will be screaming for Mertz to see the field. That will continue throughout the homestand until Paul Chryst finally relents and lets the freshman start against Kent State on Oct. 5. He keeps the job for the rest of the year.