15 For ’15: The Quarterback Battles

    While spring drills are employed for myriad things, absolutely nothing riles up a fan base more than a good old-fashioned quarterback competition. Sure,

    March 1, 2015

    While spring drills are employed for myriad things, absolutely nothing riles up a fan base more than a good old-fashioned quarterback competition. Sure, there may be openings all over the depth chart, but when multiple players are vying to become the face of the offense, it has a knack for commanding maximum attention. 

    Coach speak would have you believe that every job is up for grabs this time of year. Technically, that might be true. Realistically, there are a finite number of battles that will truly be heated during the months of March and April … and will genuinely impact the playoff hunt. It’s during this time of the year that edges are secured, jobs are seized and young stars begin to introduce themselves to an otherwise unaware public. 

    15. Boise State 
    There are holes in the backfield. But if Bryan Harsin can plug them between now and the opener, the Broncos just might be deep enough everywhere else to run the table in 2015. 

    RB Jay Ajayi and QB Grant Hedrick were seminal components of last season’s 12-2, Fiesta Bowl-winning squad. Phoenix’s Ryan Finley was the backup as a redshirt freshman, and he’s preparing as if he’ll be the next in line. Boise State, though, landed heralded recruit Brett Rypien, who’s already on campus preparing for spring drills. And since offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is off to Notre Dame, all of the contenders will be working with a clean slate. 

    14. Texas 
    Just how ready is Jerrod Heard to lead the Longhorn offense? 

    Charlie Strong was unable to land five-star recruit Kyler Murray on Signing Day, leaving Heard, a redshirt freshman, to duke it out with returning starter Tyrone Swoopes. It’s unlikely Swoopes will bloom into a franchise-type quarterback in Austin, which will put a premium on either developing Heard in a hurry or landing a proven transfer who can play in 2015. Yeah, Strong has UT headed in the right direction in Year 2, but the coach is going to encounter a hard ceiling if the program’s quarterbacks continue to be a liability. 

    13. Louisville 
    Few coaches in America do a better job of tutoring quarterbacks than Bobby Petrino. Good thing, too, because his Cardinals are facing some tough choices this fall. 

    Louisville used three quarterbacks a year ago, thanks to injuries. Will Gardner was only modestly effective in his seven starts before a knee injury created an opportunity for touted true freshman Reggie Bonnafon. Even third-stringer Kyle Bolin had a moment in the thrilling win over Kentucky, throwing three touchdown passes. While Bonnafon’s numbers were predictably pedestrian, he flashed enough potential to briefly sideline a healthy Gardner. The Cards harbor a talented team, aided by high-profile transfers, but winning the ACC hinges on the play of the quarterbacks. 

    12. Oklahoma State 
    A strong 2014 finish could propel the Cowboys into Big 12 sleeper territory, much the way TCU did last year. But first, Mike Gundy must be sure his precocious rookie is ready to become the face of the program. 

    Gundy has what’s often referred to as a good problem, a preponderance of veterans at one position. In fact, Oklahoma State is the other OSU that’s welcoming back three quarterbacks with starting experience, Mason Rudolph, Daxx Garman and J.W. Walsh. Walsh began 2014 in the lineup, but was lost for the year to a Week 2 foot injury. Garman came off the bench to throw for 2,041 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games before suffering his own injury. However, all of the excitement in Stillwater is being reserved for Rudolph, who begins spring No. 1 on the depth chart after burning his redshirt to lead the Pokes to season-ending upsets of Oklahoma and Washington. 

    11. Ole Miss 
    Someone in Oxford is going to have access to a potentially dominant corps of receivers. But who? 

    Laquon Treadwell is working his way back from a serious injury. Super-sized Washington transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow is eligible. Evan Engram is a Mackey Award favorite. Now, the Rebels must decide who’ll be delivering them the ball. East Mississippi Community College—and Clemson—transfer Chad Kelly makes sense, with a skill set similar to the Rebel he’s trying to replace, Bo Wallace. However, he’s new to the program and he’s shown an inability to stay out of trouble. Kelly will spend this offseason trying to keep his nose clean—and fend off the challenges of sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, a pocket passer and a dual-threat, respectively. 

    10. LSU 
    Les Miles will stage a heated competition between junior Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris … again. 

    The Tigers struggled behind center last season, a familiar problem during the Les Miles era. The team ranked 116th nationally in passing, and neither Jennings nor Harris performed with any sustained consistency. While Harris has the higher ceiling, it’s up to both he and the coaching staff to be sure that he’s ready to fulfill his potential in Year 2. If not, LSU will again be monotone on offense, preventing the program from competing for an SEC title and more. The Tigers return a ton of young talent to both sides of the ball, but someone must light a fire beneath the passing attack. 

    9. Oklahoma 
    New coordinator Lincoln Riley is bringing the Air Raid back to Norman. His first big decision will be to anoint a triggerman to operate the offense. 

    Trevor Knight, hyped incessantly during the offseason, was a major disappointment in 2014. He missed time, played miserably in the bowl loss to Clemson and finished with just two more touchdown passes than picks. Knight must now show he can handle competition, because unlike a year ago he’s going to get pushed hard. Not only did Baker Mayfield run the system while at Texas Tech, but he was also courted by Riley to transfer to East Carolina a little over a year ago. And Mayfield impressed throughout his one season on the Sooner scout team. 

    8. UCLA 
    Youth or experience? It’s the debate that will rage on throughout this offseason in Westwood. 

    UCLA is basically 2014 Clemson. A year ago, Dabo Swinney knew that the future belonged to Deshaun Watson, but he had a senior, Cole Stoudt, on hand as a safety net. For the Bruins, Josh Rosen is Watson, while Jerry Neuheisel will be playing the part of Stoudt. The five-star Rosen is on campus already, and he’s more than capable of becoming Brett Hundley’s heir provide he develops quickly enough. But don’t sleep on Neuheisel, the heroine of last September’s Texas win. The junior has a great feel for the game, and teammates love being in the huddle with him. 

    7. Georgia 
    New coach. New coordinator. Intriguing season ahead in Athens for the offense. 

    In January, Mark Richt lured Brian Schottenheimer out to the NFL to replace Mike Bobo and pilot the Bulldog offense. The offensive staff’s most visible objective during the offseason will be to settle on a successor to Hutson Mason from a quartet of unproven players. Sophomore Brice Ramsey has the best arm and a slight edge in experience, attempting 39 passes a year ago, so he’s the early Dawg to beat. But Schottenheimer will be a new set of eyes, so it’d be premature to count out junior Faton Bauta and rookies Jacob Park and Sam Vaughn. 

    6. Notre Dame 
    A blue and gold can of worms was pooped opened when Malik Zaire got the first start of his Irish career in the Music City Bowl. 

    Everett Golson was the starter for every regular-season game, but a shaky and turnover-prone second half prompted Brian Kelly to audition his rookie. And Zaire, the dual-threat southpaw, responded by copping game MVP honors. Now what? Kelly believes he can win with both quarterbacks, which is a luxury for a coaching staff. And he absolutely wants both in South Bend, which will require some juggling and ego-soothing. If Kelly can somehow maximize the skill sets of both quarterbacks, Notre Dame’s chances for making a title run improve significantly. 

    5. Oregon 
    Just because the Ducks have added a splashy free agent against does not mean that the competition to replace Marcus Mariota is over. 

    New to Eugene this summer will be Vernon Adams, the Eastern Washington playmaker who threw 90 touchdowns, including nine versus two Pac-12 teams, over the last two seasons. He appears tailor-made for Mark Helfrich’s attack. But Jeff Lockie doesn’t figure to fade away quietly. Mariota’s backup the past two seasons has a firm grasp on the system, which he was recruited three years ago to run. Lockie must maximize his opportunities this spring, because Adams will be on campus shortly after earning his EWU degree in May. 

    4. Baylor 
    Some lucky Bear is about to get the keys to a failproof offensive attack. 

    Since Art Briles arrived in Waco in 2008, quarterbacking Baylor has been one of the plum gigs in college football. A Heisman has been won, records have been smashed and NFL portfolios have been built. The graduation of Bryce Petty will result in a new era in the backfield, led by either junior Seth Russell or ballyhooed true freshman Jarrett Stidham. Russell vs. Stidham will be a classic case of experience against unbridled potential. In the end, the name on the jersey really won’t matter. Unheralded Nick Florence accounted for 43 scores in this attack three years ago, so significant dips in team output should not be anticipated in 2015. 

    3. Florida State 
    Life after Jameis Winston begins this spring in Tallahassee. 

    The Seminoles are one of two teams that’ll be replacing a former Heisman winner this fall. Winston didn’t lose a regular season game during his two-year tenure, and could be the first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, so his departure is devastating. And since as many as five ‘Noles will be competing to supplant him, the staff might take a two-step process before determining a pecking order. Step 1 will be to take stock of the holdovers in March. Sean Maguire was last year’s backup, starting the Clemson game, but redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino and true freshman Deondre Francois were four-star pickups in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

    2. Alabama 
    Jake Coker gets a do-over in his quest to be the Crimson Tide starting quarterback. 

    When Coker transferred from Florida State a year ago, conventional wisdom suggested it was just a formality that he’d be named AJ McCarron’s successor under center. Blake Sims, though, had very different plans, relegating the former ‘Nole to a season-long seat on the bench. But Sims has graduated, and Coker has benefited from a full season working with Lane Kiffin in Tuscaloosa. Still, Coker will have to eliminate last year’s inconsistencies to beat out eager Tide backups Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Last season was proof that jumping the gun on Nick Saban’s quarterback choice is a fool’s pursuit. 

    1. Ohio State 
    Columbus, Ohio. Quarterback competition central this offseason. 

    Hyperbole aside, this genuinely might be the most compelling and anticipated QB derby in college football history. And why not? Assuming everyone remains a Buckeye, the competition will involve a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year (Braxton Miller), a fifth-place Heisman finisher (J.T. Barrett) and the guy who led Ohio State to the national championship (Cardale Jones). In a classic case of an embarrassment of riches, the only way the Buckeyes truly suffer is if more than one player opts to transfer. Last year, injured body parts tested Urban Meyer. In 2015, bruised egos could be his biggest offseason headache. 


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