QB Battles Still Completely Up in the Air Following Spring Practices

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

QB Battles Still Completely Up in the Air Following Spring Practices

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Sorting through what really is a quarterback "battle" and what's otherwise a ploy to keep talented options and depth from entering the transfer portal is difficult in today's college football world.

    But in 2021, there is still a true abundance of actual, real-life competitions even with spring practice almost completely in the rearview mirror across the country. In some instances, even favorites for the position are finding themselves in the midst of thick competitions.

    Things seem more settled at Alabama, Florida, Oregon and Texas A&M, so you can cross those off the list—no matter what their coaches are saying. Bryce Young was a revelation for the national champion Crimson Tide this spring, while Emory Jones feels like a lock for the Gators.

    There is still some mild competition, but Anthony Brown is the clear starter for the Ducks right now. Haynes King is far ahead in the race to replace Kellen Mond for the Aggies. Utah has found its guy with transfer Charlie Brewer, too.

    Other teams aren't so lucky, including the defending national runner-up. They're still sorting through things, so let's take a look at some of the remaining races.

Arizona Wildcats

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Jedd Fisch's first year at Arizona isn't going to be easy as he sets out to rebuild everything torn down by the two previous failed regimes, but getting the quarterback spot right would be a big start.

    The Wildcats have a couple of capable options, even though several quarterbacks bolted for the transfer portal. Those who left include last year's starter Grant Gunnell, who wound up at Memphis.

    Will Plummer and Washington State transfer Gunner Cruz are the top two options right now, and they will exit the spring neck-and-neck in the battle to win the job.

    Fisch told Arizona Desert Swarm's Brian J. Pedersen that reading defenses and running through progressions are the two main places he'd like to see Plummer and Cruz improve, but both have upside. Plummer was an Elite 11 participant in high school who played some as a freshman. Cruz is a 6'5", 217-pound player who got on the field at Washington State a year ago, too, in limited action.

    Fisch is a noted developer of quarterbacks, so he is going to coach up whoever wins the job.

    Don't be surprised if the Wildcats are a little better at the position than expected, even if this spring has included some ups and downs. The position has a long way to go according to Arizona quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty.

    "There’s been a lot of good and bad, but we are still in the process now and is still under construction," Dougherty told the Daily Wildcat's Ryan Wohl. "We have seen a ton of improvements out of these guys. There have been leaps and bounds, and they are starting to grasp the offense."

    This one will be waged far into fall.

Florida State Seminoles

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    Phil Sears/Associated Press

    With all the buzz surrounding high-profile UCF transfer McKenzie Milton, you'd think it may put a little added pressure on Florida State coach Mike Norvell to give him a nod for the starting job.

    That's not the way things work in big-time college football.

    Though it would be a fantastic story if Milton won the job for the Seminoles after a two-year hiatus while recovering from a gruesome right knee injury, it's about winning football games in Tallahassee. While he is definitely still in the mix to win the job, it won't be handed to him.

    Jordan Travis, the incumbent starter, reportedly had a great spring, according to Tomahawk Nation's Pete Kostidakis. Talented underclassman Chubba Purdy isn't going away, either. Tate Rodemaker is still in the mix, too.

    In other words, it's still a good, old-fashioned battle.

    "It is exactly what we wanted," FSU offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham told the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Murschel. "We brought in a guy with a ton of experience, a guy who understands what it takes to be successful in McKenzie Milton, and we paired him with a young group, and McKenzie has raised the bar in our quarterback room. The standard that McKenzie holds for himself has raised the bar of our room. It’s raised the bar of Jordan, Tate, Chubba and Geno, everybody by how he attacks every day and his competitive nature."

    It's been too long since the 'Noles were good, and Norvell has amped up the talent in the quarterback room. Now, it's just about picking the right guy.

Baylor Bears

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    When Charlie Brewer bolted Baylor for Utah, he left a large void at the quarterback position.

    On one hand, it's probably good for second-year coach Dave Aranda's young program to look to the future in a competitive Big 12. On the other, neither Jacob Zeno nor Gerry Bohanon could beat him out the past couple seasons, so it's logical to think there will be a large dropoff at the position in 2021.

    Still, they're moving forward with what they've got while Brewer is thriving for the Utes this spring.

    Bohanon is the most experienced and a powerful running threat, while Zeno showed flashes two years ago in Baylor's Sugar Bowl run, flashing his big arm in important postseason reps. Neither has seized the gig so far.

    "The only way I know how to do it is to give it a true competition," Baylor quarterbacks coach Shawn Bell told the Waco Tribune's John Werner. "So every single rep, everything we do in the offseason, everything we do in the weight room, everything we do from throwing the ball to handing off the ball, everything’s a competition. I think they feel that, and I think that excites them."

    Nobody is expecting this year's Bears to suddenly return to the conference-competitive form they showcased under Matt Rhule in 2019, so there's time to sort out the race. But somebody needs to prove he is capable of leading the team back to being a threat.

LSU Tigers

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Before Myles Brennan was putting together a nice season replacing Joe Burrow before abdomen and hip injuries derailed him just three games into the campaign. He'd thrown for 1,112 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions, more than doing his part as LSU rebuilt.

    After he went down, so did the production at the quarterback position as a duo of talented freshmen—Max Johnson and TJ Finley—took over and endured bumps along the way for a 5-5 Bayou Bengals team.

    With Brennan back, you'd think he'd run away with the job this spring. But that, apparently, hasn't happened.

    Still, he is right in the thick of it. While coach Ed Orgeron won't say it, most of the reports read like Johnson (the son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson and nephew of Mark Richt) is his primary competition. Whatever is the case, LSU isn't budging on the battle.

    "We come off the field and one day Garrett can be the best quarterback then the next day is TJ then the next day was Myles then the next day was Max," Orgeron told Tiger Details' Julie Boudwin.

    There's always relentless heat in the SEC, especially after falling to .500 following a national title. So, you know Orgeron is going to take his time to find the right guy. Brennan should seem like the favorite, but Johnson could win the gig or even Finley could emerge.

    It's still a long way to go before the season starts.

Michigan State Spartans

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    When starter Rocky Lombardi transferred to Northern Illinois, Michigan State's quarterback race got a little tighter and a bit smaller.

    The Spartans haven't had a consistent quarterback in a long time, probably since Brian Lewerke was an underclassman. It's important coach Mel Tucker fixes the position if they're going to take another step forward in the Big Ten.

    Right now, the race is between Payton Thorne and former Temple starter Anthony Russo. Both guys have much more to offer than the one-dimensional Lombardi, but neither have proven much in the Power 5.

    Thorne is a third-year sophomore who showed flashes a season ago in some starting action, especially in a nice game against Penn State where he threw three touchdown passes. Russo had some big games for the Owls, but the graduate transfer isn't promised the job, either.

    "I think the most important thing in any competition, especially at the quarterback position, is just understanding at the end of the day, we're one team, we're one heartbeat,” Russo said, according to the Detroit Free Press' Chris Solari. “We all have that one, same goal of winning a Big Ten championship. And bringing Michigan State back to where it has been in the past. I think just reminding ourselves that although we are competing with one another, we're there to make each other better.

    Tucker has other talented underclassmen who could contend, but it feels like a Thorne-Russo battle right now.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    There aren't too many things more fun than a Mike Leach quarterback battle.

    You know whoever wins the job is more than likely going to throw for a lot of yards, that is, if the Air Raid winds up working in the SEC. It didn't get off to a high-flying start a season ago, but Leach welcomed a bunch of recruits and he's trying to rebuild the Bulldogs in Starkville.

    It appeared Will Rogers would be the far-and-away favorite to win the job after unseating K.J. Costello a season ago and showing flashes as a true freshman. But Leach went out and restocked the pantry, including getting graduate transfer Jack Abraham.

    The former Southern Miss starting quarterback has added much-needed competition this spring and has every opportunity to win the job. Abraham completed 23-of-34 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

    “I thought he came out and played tight initially, then I thought he got better as he began to relax a little bit,” Leach told the Daily Journal's Dalton Middleton. “He’s progressed. I think the quarterback position is wide open. Whoever can move the ball down the field the best is in the end going to be the quarterback here.”

    Former 4-star prospect Sawyer Robinson is talented and on campus, too. Heading into summer, the gig is still up in the air.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Once Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan decided he was going to end his collegiate career in South Bend, he became the heavy favorite to win the starting job for the Fighting Irish.

    While replacing Ian Book isn't going to be easy for anybody, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is entering a season without a quarterback on his roster who has had any real reps for the Irish. That makes Coan's experience as a multi-year Power 5 starter invaluable.

    Coan is doing nothing to damage those expectations this spring, but he is receiving competition from Book's backup from a year ago, Drew Pyne. So much so, that the job is still not settled. 

    Is Coan still the favorite? Most likely, yes. But it's worth mentioning the strides Pyne is making.

    “Drew, from the moment he stepped in here last year until now has been just an absolute burst of energy for the group,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees said, according to SI.com's Bryan Driskell. “He sets the tone in terms of the way he is vocal, brings energy, not just to the quarterback group but to the rest of the offense. The joy to play this game is evident every time you watch Drew.”

    Competition makes everybody better and Pyne's emergence should let Notre Dame fans know that if Coan ultimately wins the job, it's because he earned it.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    The most high-profile quarterback battle in the country isn't being waged in South Bend (though that's a major one, too).

    Instead, the race to replace Justin Fields for the national runner-up Ohio State Buckeyes is one the college football world is watching intently.

    Whoever wins that job is going to inherit arguably the best group of pass-catchers in the country, led by Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. So, there's an embarrassment of riches in Columbus. They just need somebody to get them the ball.

    Coach Ryan Day wouldn't say a year ago that true freshman C.J. Stroud was Fields' primary backup, but he was the first signal-caller off the bench when limited game reps were available. Fellow 2020 freshman Jack Miller played sparingly, too.

    Now, they've added 5-star freshman Kyle McCord to the mix and the trio are duking it out trying to win the job. Day was mum throughout the spring on who may have a leg up.

    Lettermen Row's Pete Nakos compiled quotes from multiple players and coaches about the QB battle. But who's going to win the job? Nobody comes out and says anything other than indicate they're all playing well, talented and the team would get behind whoever it is.

    Nakos' colleague Austin Ward seems to think Stroud made the best impression in the spring game, completing 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Cleveland.com's Nathan Baird gives Stroud the current nod, too.

    Since Stroud was the first quarterback off the bench for the Buckeyes a season ago, perhaps he should be considered a frontrunner. However, Day and crew have pretty strong poker faces thus far.

Tennessee Volunteers

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    Matt Gentry/Associated Press

    If you followed Tennessee's spring practice, you'd know new coach Josh Heupel is all about learning to play extremely fast on offense and finding capable playmakers on defense.

    Yes, the quarterback battle is important, but the Vols have so many questions following the firing of Jeremy Pruitt that it's hard to focus on just one position.

    Even so, nobody has any idea who is going to take the first snap behind center in the fall, and that may not be a bad thing. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker is a dual-threat signal-caller with Power 5 starting reps who did nothing to damage his chances this spring.

    Incumbent Harrison Bailey may not fit Heupel's system perfectly as a pure drop-back passer, but Heupel has experience working with pocket passers. As Missouri's offensive coordinator, Heupel helped mold Drew Lock into a second-round pick.

    Brian Maurer showed flashes this spring. While freshman Kaidon Salter was suspended indefinitely prior to the team's first spring practice, his future could be bright, too.

    According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Mike Wilson, Michigan transfer Joe Milton is heading to Knoxville, too, to further muddy the waters of the race. Milton has a ton of ability, but never really put everything together in Ann Arbor.

    For all the Vols' flaws, Heupel's offenses have put up points no matter where he's been in the past. The key to that is finding the right quarterback. While the new coach is keeping everybody guessing, there certainly are plenty of intriguing options on Rocky Top.

Texas Longhorns

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    After Casey Thompson's incredible second half of the Alamo Bowl win over Colorado, he looked like a near lock to begin the season as Texas' starting quarterback.

    Then the Longhorns went and fired Tom Herman, hired Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to replace him and everybody got thrown into disarray when it comes to replacing Sam Ehlinger.

    Thompson still has a firm shot to win the job, but Hudson Card has enjoyed a strong spring, too, and it's still a full-fledged battle to see who is going to get to run Sarkisian's fun, high-flying offense.

    Whoever wins the job is going to have another electrifying playmaker to throw to as former Michigan 2021 class jewel Xavier Worthy changed his mind and decided to head to Austin for his college days, according to ESPN.com's Dave Wilson.

    Inside Texas' Ian Boyd theorizes (via Longhorns Wire's Cami Griffin) that Card is a better fit for what the new coach wants to do schematically. Either way, new coordinator Kyle Flood has two strong options.

    Few fanbases are more, well, fanatical than Texas', and with a budding megastar in Bijan Robinson ready to break out at running back, finding the right signal-caller is essential to a big first year for Sarkisian. It's going to be big news until somebody is named and the microscope will be unmoving afterward.

    Thompson's big bowl performance was obviously noteworthy, but that alone isn't going to win him any jobs. He—just like the other competitors alongside him—is going to have to earn it.

Washington Huskies

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Dylan Morris led a Washington team that, in a normal season, would have represented the Pac-12 North in the championship game, but COVID-19 derailed those hopes. He did so as a first-year starter and a redshirt freshman.

    So, why do the Huskies have a wide-open competition this spring?

    It's mainly because Morris was just average his first year on the field, and while he has reportedly improved a great deal and should be considered a favorite to win the job, there are plenty of other talented options for coach Jimmy Lake.

    Five-star freshman legacy Sam Huard is on campus. Sixth-year senior transfer Patrick O'Brien, who previously played at Colorado State, earned the first starting reps of the spring.

    Lake told the Seattle Times' Mike Vorel this year's quarterback room is "more talented by far" than last season's.

    "You see [O'Brien] out there. He’s making the plays," Lake said. "He's getting in the playbook. He's digesting it really, really well. He's playing quicker than a freshman would play coming into a system like this. He's been around some similar systems, so he’s able to operate a little bit quicker and pull the trigger a little bit quicker, and you’re able to see that out there. I’m really happy with his progression."

    Morris ultimately may win the job, or Huard may be too talented to keep on the sideline. O'Brien has obviously turned heads, too. But this isn't anywhere near finished. It's going to be an interesting race to watch.

Washington State Cougars

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Other, more high-profile quarterback battles are being waged around the country, but there aren't many more interesting than the one going on in Pullman, Washington.

    Coach Nick Rolovich has such a diverse group of players with so many skill-set differences, whoever wins the job to run his run-and-shoot offense is going to be trying to rebuild a program that struggled in its first year without Mike Leach as head coach.

    Cammon Cooper is a former 4-star prospect who signed with Leach's Cougars, and he has looked strong this spring, trying to hold off former Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano. The latter had a topsy-turvy career in Knoxville, mingling beautiful throws with program-crippling interceptions.

    Cooper is a smooth and exciting prospect, and Guarantano has a bunch of Power 5 reps under his belt. Either one of them likely could run Rolovich's offense, but neither is running away with it.

    Then there is last year's starter, Jayden de Laura, who was suspended for the spring after being arrested for a DUI.

    While he obviously took a step back in the competition because of the missed time, the more dual-threat oriented de Laura handled the suspension "incredibly," Rolovich told the Spokesman-Review's Theo Lawson, so expect him to be in the mix soon.

    It's anybody's guess who Rolovich will roll out there come September, but he has quality options, nonetheless.


    Recruit rankings via 247Sports. Stats via CFBStats and Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.