It’s easy to appreciate the magic of the 2019 college football season, especially now. It seems a lot longer than four months ago that LSU’s Joe Burrow was torching Clemson to put an exclamation point on perhaps the greatest single season by a quarterback.
As June edges closer, and there start to be signs of hope for college football — or at least players returning to practice facilities — it’s a good time to size up the quarterback candidates who could make their own magic this season.
Here are the biggest QB questions across the country:
Who will have the pressure of following Joe Burrow’s all-time season at LSU?
Joe Burrow arrived as an outsider from Ohio and left as Joe Burreaux, a national champion, Heisman Trophy winner and the pride of the bayou. Myles Brennan, who’ll get first dibs on the starting spot, is from Mississippi, just across the state line, but already has the Louisiana cred. He’s a member of the Brennan family that owns legendary New Orleans restaurants such as Commander’s Palace (where Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme both served as chefs), Brennan’s and Mr. B’s Bistro. The junior QB understands the pressure of a family name.
But this is a different kind of pressure. Last year alone, Burrow beat seven top-10 teams, completed 76.3% of his passes for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns with just six interceptions, and became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Brennan, who has gone 42 of 70 for 600 yards and two TDs while appearing in 17 games for the Tigers, will take over without passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who departed for the Carolina Panthers and was replaced by Scott Linehan. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger remains.
Can Georgia fix its passing game?
Georgia had two tackles (Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson) drafted in the first round, running back D’Andre Swift picked in the second and guard Solomon Kindley picked in the fourth. But despite the strength up front last season, quarterback Jake Fromm had a frustrating stretch of five straight games in which he completed less than 50% of his passes. He then bypassed his senior season and declared for the NFL draft. Kirby Smart replaced playcaller James Coley with former Tampa Bay Bucs head coach Todd Monken, who last was a college coordinator at Oklahoma State in 2011-12, meaning the Dawgs will have their third OC in three seasons.
Monken will get a boost with the arrival of Jamie Newman, a 6-4, 230-pound grad transfer from Wake Forest, who was second in the ACC in total offense last season (286.8 ypg). Newman threw for 2,868 yards last season and was third in the conference in TD passes with 26, while also rushing for 574 yards.
The Dawgs added another new face on Thursday when JT Daniels, who started at USC as a freshman, announced he was transferring to Georgia with three years of eligibility remaining. But he’d have to get a waiver to be eligible this season.
Georgia made a national title appearance in Fromm’s freshman year and has been on the cusp of breaking through. Can a new-look offense get the Dawgs over the hump?
Who’s replacing Shea Patterson at Michigan?
Shea Patterson produced more passing touchdowns (22 and 23) in each of his two seasons in Ann Arbor than any Wolverine had in the prior 10 seasons. Now there’s a battle shaping up to replace him led by Dylan McCaffrey, who was Patterson’s backup last season.
There’s not much game experience. McCaffrey has completed 10 of 20 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown, while junior Joe Milton was 3-of-7 for 59 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks ago, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said the Wolverines are “nowhere near to having a front-runner” for the job.
They’re both staying sharp with some star-studded company during the coronavirus lockdown, though. Milton is working out with former Michigan star Devin Gardner, while McCaffrey is training with his brothers, including Christian, the Carolina Panthers’ All-Pro, and Luke, 19, a sophomore quarterback at Nebraska. Milton is also throwing passes to his 51-year-old dad, Ed, a receiver who won three Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers. This one will heat up when they get back to campus.
Who’s the best small-school quarterback?
Mel Kiper Jr. explains why North Dakota State QB Trey Lance could be selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.
North Dakota State’s Trey Lance had an incredible season as a redshirt freshman, setting the NCAA record for most passing attempts (287) without an interception. He threw for 2,786 yards with 28 touchdowns, rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs and led NDSU to its third straight FCS title. He also became the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award as the best FCS player. Fellow NDSU alum Carson Wentz went No. 2 overall in 2016, and Todd McShay has Lance on a similar trajectory, projecting him as a top-five prospect in next year’s draft, in the mix with Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. If the schedule holds up, we’ll get a chance to see Lance try to play giant slayer. The Bison open the season Sept. 5 in Eugene against a top-10 Oregon team.
Who is the next superstar at Oklahoma?
Jalen Hurts had pretty tough standards to live up to following Heisman Trophy wins by former Oklahoma QBs Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Hurts, the Alabama transfer, averaged an FBS-best 11.3 yards per pass attempt, while his 53 touchdowns responsible for was second most in the FBS (behind Burrow’s 65) and third in Oklahoma history for a single season (2008 Sam Bradford, 55; 2018 Murray, 54).
Hurts also led the team with 1,298 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns and finished second in the Heisman race to Burrow. We’ve given up on any gnashing of teeth when it comes to Lincoln Riley’s newest quarterback. But consider that Spencer Rattler was ESPN’s No. 1 dual-threat QB recruit in the 2019 class — and spent a redshirt year in Riley’s system — unlike Hurts. Rattler already has 28-1 Heisman odds (Murray started at 40-1).
Can Mac Jones keep Alabama’s offense humming?
Like Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa quickly became a legend. He won a national championship at Alabama, coming off the bench against Georgia as a freshman. In 24 career starts over three seasons, he ended up third in career passing yards for the Crimson Tide (7,442), first in touchdown passes (87) and had the highest career Total QBR (93.5) since ESPN began measuring it in 2004. Mac Jones, his replacement, already has led one Alabama team to a championship — as a coach in sorority intramurals.
More importantly, Jones went 3-1 as a starter last season following Tagovailoa’s hip injury, and in that span he had the second-best QBR in the FBS (92.7) since Week 9 just ahead of Trevor Lawrence’s 92.1 and behind Joe Burrow’s 96.0. With star wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle returning, Jones won’t be hurting for weapons.
Star recruit Bryce Young, the No. 1 QB in last year’s ESPN 300, enrolled in January with the intention of pushing Jones for the starting job, but missed out on spring reps with campus closed and will have to make up for lost time. With star wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle returning, neither quarterback would be hurting for weapons.
What will life be like after Justin Herbert at Oregon?
In the past eight seasons, Oregon has had just three full-time starters at quarterback: Marcus Mariota from 2012 to ’14, Vernon Adams Jr. in 2015 and Justin Herbert from 2016 to ’19. Like Mariota, Herbert finished with more than 10,000 yards passing for his career, including career highs of 3,471 yards and 32 TDs last season. His likely successor is Tyler Shough, who spent two years behind Herbert.
But there is a little intrigue among the quarterback situation after the more mobile Anthony Brown recently joined the Ducks as a grad transfer from Boston College.
Following the departure of Marcus Arroyo to become UNLV’s head coach, Ducks coach Mario Cristobal hired Joe Moorhead, who had been dismissed as Mississippi State’s head coach following last season’s Egg Bowl fiasco.
Moorhead has made it clear he considers the quarterback run a part of his offense, and his offenses in Starkville back that up. Mississippi State quarterbacks Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader combined for 196 carries for 968 yards and 10 TDs. In 2018, QB Nick Fitzgerald was the team’s leading rusher, carrying it 221 times for 1,121 yards and 13 TDs.
At 6-5, 220 pounds, Shough hasn’t often been asked to fill that role (he averaged 2.0 yards per carry on 103 rushes in high school), but he says he’s been working on that part of his game. Brown passed for 4,738 yards in three seasons at Boston College but was used occasionally in the running game with 423 yards in that span, including this 43-yarder against Miami.
Will K.J. Costello help Mike Leach get his offense up to speed in Year One?
Mike Leach left Washington State for a return to the SEC at Mississippi State. The last time he was seen around these parts was 1997-98, when he served as offensive coordinator at Kentucky under Hal Mumme. In the Air Raid’s first test on the major-college level, they set six NCAA records, 41 Southeastern Conference records and 116 school records in 22 games.
With Stanford transfer K.J. Costello — a top-20 overall recruit in ESPN’s 2016 class rankings — under center, this might also be the first time that Leach has had such a heralded recruit to run his offense since Tim Couch in the late ’90s. Unlike some of the offenses under new coaches, we know exactly what we’ll get here. Costello’s career highs at Stanford came in the 2018 season with 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Every Washington State quarterback since 2013 posted higher passing totals in both categories, including Anthony Gordon, who threw for 5,579 yards and 48 TDs last season. Leach will have to install his offense despite the absence of spring practice, but it’s deceptively simple. And he’s had up-close knowledge of Costello, whom he faced twice in the Pac-12, including a 41-38 Wazzu victory in 2018. Costello threw for 323 yards and 4 TDs in a duel with Gardner Minshew (also a one-year transfer who ended up leading the nation in passing yards per game that season).
In Oxford, Lane Kiffin also inherits a solid quarterback situation in his return to the SEC. In Kiffin’s final season as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2016, Jalen Hurts had a QBR of 57 in 14 starts and ran for 922 yards as the team averaged 38.8 points per game. Hurts was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Last season, Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee had a QBR of 60 and ran for 970 yards in just eight starts.
Kiffin hired UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, a former Art Briles assistant at Baylor, after his Knights offense averaged 536.6 yards and 43 points per game. Lebby will utilize Plumlee’s athletic ability. UCF and Oklahoma were the only teams to average more than 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing last season.
Can D’Eriq King bring some excitement back to The U?
D’Eriq King’s route to Miami has been full of twists. A record-setting high school quarterback (he broke Kyler Murray’s career TD record in Texas’ biggest classification), he played wide receiver some as a freshman at Houston, including a game in which he threw for a touchdown, caught another and returned a kickoff for a third. Last season, King’s streak of consecutive games with both a rushing and passing touchdown reached 15, which broke Tim Tebow’s FBS record.
Then under first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, King made news when he opted to redshirt to save a year of eligibility rather than play during a rebuilding season, before opting to transfer to Miami in January. Since the start of the 2017 season, among QBs with at least 20 starts, King’s 79.2 total QBR ranks No. 9 in FBS. Miami’s team QBR in that span: 52.3, which ranks No. 83. Along with new coordinator Rhett Lashlee (formerly of SMU, which averaged 41.8 ppg last season), King gives new life to an offense that was humiliated in a 14-0 shutout by Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.
What will Washington’s offense look like after Jacob Eason?
Under Chris Petersen, Washington had a 2,500-yard passer for five straight seasons. Jacob Eason’s 3,132 yards last season were fourth most in school history. But following Petersen’s stunning resignation in December, the Huskies will have a new name at more than just QB. Former defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake took over and hired Jacksonville Jaguars assistant John Donovan — James Franklin’s former offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt and Penn State — to run an “aggressive pro-style offense.”
With no spring practice, sophomore Jacob Sirmon, redshirt freshman Dylan Morris and true freshman Ethan Garbers are all fighting for playing time in Donovan’s new offense. Sirmon, who entered his name in the transfer portal last season but later pulled it back, is the only one with any game experience, with a total of three pass attempts in three appearances. This race is very much in wait-and-see mode.