Big CFB Programs with the Toughest QB Decisions Entering 2021

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2021

Big CFB Programs with the Toughest QB Decisions Entering 2021

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    As always, college football has cycled out some elite players, and several of them are quarterbacks in what is a deep NFL draft class at the position.

    While some programs that need to replace signal-callers have definitive favorites—such as Notre Dame, which will likely roll out Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan to replace Ian Book, Clemson in future star D.J. Uiagalelei to supplant Trevor Lawrence gone and Florida with longtime backup Emory Jones, who is set to replace Kyle Trask—others aren't so lucky.

    That includes the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, who have an elite recruit ready to go, but he hasn't proved anything yet (more on that later).

    In some cases, big programs have several capable players to trot out, and, in others, they have nothing but question marks. With spring practice around the corner, the picture will soon clear up significantly.

    To get ready for the wide-open quarterback derby, here is an in-depth look at some of the competitions that will feature on the radar.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Mac Jones didn't exactly come out of nowhere last year, but many expected the unheralded backup to Tua Tagovailoa to lose the job to true freshman Bryce Young.

    That never happened. Instead, Jones was a Heisman Trophy finalist for the national champions. Teammate DeVonta Smith, Jones' top target, won the award.

    Jones is headed to the NFL, so Young stands to be the beneficiary. The former 5-star recruit, who was the second-ranked player in the nation, certainly has the ability to shine as a dual-threat signal-caller for newly hired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien.

    But Young didn't wow anybody in limited action a season ago, and now he has to learn under a new coordinator and system.

    His toughest competition will be Paul Tyson, who has been in Tuscaloosa a year longer than Young and has the size, talent and arm strength to make the kind of sneaky impact Jones did. He's trying to develop his own name in crimson and white and not just be legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's great-grandson.

    So, while Young will be everybody's favorite to win the gig, it's not gospel. Coach Nick Saban has proved time and time again he will play the best player, so it will be a battle between two very different, inexperienced players.

Florida State Seminoles

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    One of college football's brightest stars in UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a severe knee injury against South Florida in November 2018.

    He missed two full seasons, so it's fair to wonder whether he will again be the fringe Heisman Trophy candidate he was with the Knights.

    If he is, it'll be as a Florida State transfer under coach Mike Norvell. If Milton can return to his pre-injury form, it will be fun to watch him run around and speed up the Seminoles' rebuild.

    If he's healthy, nobody will beat him out for the job. But that's a massive if.

    Florida State has some exciting young quarterbacks in the race, too. Chubba Purdy is the younger brother of Iowa State starter Brock, and he showed flashes in limited action as a true freshman in 2020.

    FSU's leading passer and rusher, though, was Jordan Travis, who was inconsistent but completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns with six interceptions while rushing for 569 yards and seven scores.

    Tate Rodemaker is the best pure passer of the bunch, which makes him stand out, too. We'll see if Milton is anywhere near the player he was—and who will win the job if he's not.

LSU Tigers

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    Before Myles Brennan suffered a lower body injury in October, he was doing a quality job of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, but he will never be that dynamic.

    Still, when Brennan is on, the Bayou Bengals have an experienced, steady game manager who completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions. If he's healthy, he will be the heavy favorite to win the job.

    But coach Ed Orgeron has stockpiled talent at the position, and though a duo of true freshmen had some hard times spelling Brennan a year ago, they each showed potential brilliance.

    TJ Finley is a big-bodied, strong-armed player who just needs to learn the offense and stop making mistakes. Max Johnson was the more polished of the two, which isn't difficult to believe considering his dad, Brad, is a former NFL quarterback and he is Mark Richt's nephew.

    When you throw in Garrett Nussmeier, the nation's ninth-ranked pro-style quarterback, a 4-star prospect and the son of Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier, that makes for a stout mixture of talent and acumen.

    Yes, Brennan is the favorite, but he's by no means the lock as LSU looks for somebody who can help it compete for another championship.

Michigan Wolverines

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    If talent were everything, Michigan quarterback Joe Milton would be a Heisman Trophy candidate.

    But the Florida native couldn't put everything together a season ago and Thursday announced he was leaving the Wolverines as a graduate transfer. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

    That muddies the waters for coach Jim Harbaugh in selecting a signal-caller in a pivotal season. Milton was expected to complete with Cade McNamara, incoming 5-star recruit J.J. McCarthy and Dan Villari this offseason.

    Milton completed 56.7 percent of his passes for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions. McNamara replaced him as the starter for the last game of the season but suffered a shoulder injury early. He completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 425 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions in 2020.

    McNamara isn't the biggest player, and he doesn't have the strongest arm, but he looked pretty good in a small sample size.

    McCarthy will play a major role in this race. He was the second-ranked pro-style passer and the No. 24 player in the nation. He also played at IMG Academy, so he faced some of the top high school talent in the nation.

    Villari—the lowest-rated signal-caller to sign with Michigan in the Harbaugh era, per Evan Petzold of WolverinesWire—was a 3-star recruit in the 2020 class, and the New York native redshirted last year. He could be an X-factor in the competition, but McNamara and McCarthy have a lot more potential.

    The quarterback room still has a lot of upside without Milton. The call will be a tough one for Harbaugh, but there are good options.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    The moment Ryan Hilinski revealed his transfer destination was Northwestern, the former South Carolina signal-caller became the favorite to start.

    Coach Pat Fitzgerald went the transfer route in 2020 too, nabbing Peyton Ramsey from Indiana, and the Wildcats rode him all the way to the Big Ten Championship Game despite an uneven season by the graduate student, who is headed to the NFL.

    Hilinski is the obvious insert, having started for the Gamecocks as a true freshman and thrown for 2,357 yards with a respectable 11 touchdowns against five interceptions for an offense that wasn't terrific. But Mike Bobo came in as the offensive coordinator last year and replaced Hilinski with Collin Hill, and Hilinski looked elsewhere.

    There's no guarantee he will start after what will be an open race.

    What if another former top prospect emerges? That could be 5-star recruit Hunter Johnson, who signed with Clemson but was beaten out by Kelly Bryant and later left for Evanston.

    Johnson wasn't great in limited action in 2019, his last time on the field, throwing for 432 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions. Last year's primary backup to Ramsey, Andrew Marty, has some potential but has thrown for just 225 yards.

    So, Hilinski feels like the top choice. But let's see everybody on the field before declaring him the winner.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Jamie Schwabaro, Getty Images

    It's going to be tough, if not impossible, to replace a generational talent such as Justin Fields.

    He stepped in during coach Ryan Day's first full season, and he led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff in each of his two years, grasping the system and becoming one of the sport's biggest stars.

    Now, he's off to the NFL.

    Don't feel sorry for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have plenty of talent, led by 4-star recruits in C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III, who have an abbreviated season under their belts during which they watched and learned from Fields.

    Though neither got a lot of playing time, they both have ability. Stroud was a late addition in the 2020 class and is more of a dual-threat player who is a bit like Fields. Miller is more of a dropback passer but is by no means immobile.

    Then there is incoming 5-star freshman Kyle McCord, who landed just behind Michigan's J.J. McCarthy as the nation's third-ranked pro-style passer. The Philadelphia prospect was the No. 27 player in the country, and he will be a factor in this race.

    Per Eleven Warriors' Colin Hass-Hill, Day said he will use "game-like situations" to prepare all three. It's going to be an intriguing battle in perhaps one of the most talented quarterback rooms in the country.

Oregon Ducks

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    If you're a Pac-12 football fan, get ready for a whole lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position.

    Let's start with the two-time defending conference champion Oregon Ducks, who are in no better shape than the league's other teams that are searching for a signal-caller.

    When last year's starter, Tyler Shough, announced he was transferring, it flung a cracked door wide-open. Late in the season, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown replaced Shough at times and was effective as a change-of-pace, dual-threat option.

    Brown is back, and he will have the chance to hold off some talented youngsters.

    Leading the way is Ty Thompson, the highest-rated quarterback ever to commit to the Ducks. The top-40 prospect from Arizona is big and can sling it. He may be a true freshman, but he's going to get the chance to win the job. The 6'4" Thompson's mobility isn't discussed enough.

    Robby Ashford is a 4-star recruit from the 2020 class who decommitted from Ole Miss. Also, don't count out Jay Butterfield, even though he may not fit offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's history of dual-threat quarterbacks.

    Butterfield is a traditional dropback passer like Justin Herbert, and he will offer a different look. Anybody can win this competition, and it's going to be a tough choice to find the right player to keep UO on a championship level.

Stanford Cardinal

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    Chris Pietsch/Associated Press

    If you were surprised Stanford quarterback Davis Mills elected to leave Palo Alto for the NFL, join the club.

    Mills has a lot of ability but didn't look anything like a pro quarterback for the Cardinal.

    Now that he is gone, though, there is a lot of uncertainty for coach David Shaw. If it's between the players already on campus and the ones from the incoming class, it's anybody's guess who it will be.

    The top choice, at least on paper, is Jack West, a 6'4", 215-pounder who has started two games and completed 51.8 percent of his passes for 308 yards with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions.

    Tanner McKee is a wild card. The 6'6", 228-pounder from the 2018 class was the nation's No. 3 pro-style recruit and the country's 46th-ranked player. It could be just a matter of time before he is at the helm.

    Incoming freshman Ari Patu is a 3-star prospect with high upside who may not factor into the race unless he surprises a lot of people, but you should remember his name.

    This feels like it will come down to who wins the job between West and McKee unless Shaw pulls off a transfer surprise, and this is going to be a fun race to watch between two traditional pocket passers.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Uncertainty abounds on Rocky Top with a new head coach in Josh Heupel, who came to Knoxville from Central Florida, an internal investigation and a slew of roster defections after the debacle of an ending to the Jeremy Pruitt era.

    But the Tennessee Volunteers' cupboard is not exactly bare despite a 3-7 record last year.

    There are plenty of potential playmakers, including at quarterback. The Vols parted ways with Jarrett Guarantano, who transferred to Washington State after losing his job. Sophomore J.T. Shrout left for Colorado, too.

    But Tennessee added electrifying Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, who can win games with his feet and his arm and was a star for the Hokies for much of 2019 and part of 2020. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining and fits what Heupel did schematically at UCF.

    Don't forget Heupel mentored Drew Lock at Missouri, too, so freshman Harrison Bailey has a chance to retain the job he won at the end of last season and be the man in Heupel's system, too.

    Then there's incoming freshman Kaidon Salter, whom quarterback guru and former Super Bowl champion signal-caller Trent Dilfer compared to Deshaun Watson, according to the Nashville Post's Michael Gallagher.

    That's three talented options, and there's also Brian Maurer, who started four games in 2019 and was recruited by Heupel to UCF. This race will start from scratch, so anyone can win it.

Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The excitement in Austin is palpable and also warranted after Texas torpedoed Tom Herman in favor of Steve Sarkisian, who is coming off a brilliant season as Alabama's offensive coordinator.

    His first order of business will be to find the quarterback to replace stalwart Sam Ehlinger, who decided to try his hand at the NFL despite not being considered by scouts to be an early-round prospect.

    If the second half of the Alamo Bowl is any indication, sophomore Casey Thompson is next in line. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns to torch Colorado, and if he plays anything like that in the spring, he will run away with the job.

    Hudson Card won't just let him have it, though.

    The 6'2", 193-pound quarterback was a 4-star recruit in the 2020 class and the No. 59 player in the country. The Longhorns also have 3-star prospect Charles Wright entering the picture from the 2021 class, but it's doubtful he will be a factor.

    Thompson and Card are dual-threat options, and Sarkisian will have to adapt his scheme to that style after mostly developing pocket passers. It's also possible the Horns could hit the transfer portal.

    Right now, it looks like it's Thompson's gig to lose, though, in this new era of Texas football.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Jimbo Fisher's success at Texas A&M has been directly tied to the development of quarterback Kellen Mond, who was on the cusp of elite in 2020 and is headed to the NFL.

    Now, the Aggies have a deeper, more talented roster than at any time during Mond's tenure in College Station.

    Perhaps the favorite to win the job is Haynes King, a 6'3", 200-pound dual-threat quarterback who was the fifth-ranked player at his position in the 2020 recruiting class. He was Mond's primary backup in 2020, but he attempted just four passes.

    Zach Calzada is another name to watch, as he could be the biggest obstacle for King to overcome. He completed just 3 of his 12 passes in 2019 and didn't play last year. According to's Matt Zenitz, the Aggies are adding former Hawaii quarterback Zach Daniel to the mix, too.

    The wild card is electric dual-threat option Eli Stowers. He was the No. 30 player in a loaded 2021 crop from the Lone Star State and will have an opportunity, too.

    Fisher has plenty of options to keep his reputation of quarterback development going.

Utah Utes

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Last year, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham took transfer quarterback Jake Bentley, but it didn't exactly work out the way he'd hoped. Bentley was mediocre for the Utes and has transferred again, to South Alabama.

    Whittingham hopes another dip into the portal goes better.

    Former Baylor signal-caller Charlie Brewer has decided to play for the Utes, and his presence will make for an even more entertaining battle.

    Cameron Rising beat out Bentley for the starting job coming out of fall camp in 2020, but he only played one game before suffering a season-ending injury. The Texas transfer is out for the spring, according to UteZone's Steve Bartle, but he will have a shot to win the job again.

    Until then, Brewer will try to get a leg up. But he isn't the only candidate.

    Another former Longhorns signal-caller who has a ton of ability is Ja'Quinden Jackson, the nation's No. 73 player in the 2020 class and the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback. Of all the players in this race, he has the most ability.

    Peter Costelli, a 4-star recruit from California, is a top-250 player and one of the highest-ranked prospects to ever commit to the Utes. It will be fun to watch him develop.

    While Cooper Justice doesn't figure to factor in too much, the freshman is 6'6" and has a future under Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, or he could be a good player at another program.

    This quarterback room is deep and loaded.

Washington Huskies

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    The biggest "say what?" on this list, at least on the surface, may be Washington. After all, Dylan Morris won the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2020 and led the Huskies to a 3-1 record. They would have played in the Pac-12 Championship Game had COVID-19 issues not kept them out.'s Dan Raley noted the 6'0", 200-pound Morris was the smallest quarterback to start for the Huskies in three decades. But while Morris won, he wasn't exactly sterling.

    He threw for 897 yards and four touchdowns with three interceptions, and he's going to have some competition this spring and otherwise.

    Colorado State graduate transfer Patrick O'Brien put up some big numbers for the Rams (2,803 passing yards in 2019), so don't discount him.

    But the biggest playmaker on the list is incoming 5-star freshman Sam Huard, the nation's No. 11 prospect, top-ranked pro-style passer and a can't-miss from Bellevue, Washington, whose UW bloodlines run deep.

    The son of Huskies legend Damon, who played in the NFL, and nephew of Brock, who also was a Husky and a pro, will make things interesting right away. He will have the spotlight squarely on him from the start, and though he hasn't played since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, he's talented enough to win the job.

    Morris is the favorite, but it's no slam dunk.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.


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