For most college football programs, preseason camp is right around the corner. Every program has competition for starting spots, but the quarterback position always attracts the most attention. Below, we’ve detailed the quarterback battles for some of the country’s top programs and predicted who we think will emerge as the starter.
Arizona State: Dillon Sterling-Cole vs. Jayden Daniels
Sterling-Cole, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound redshirt junior, has waited his turn behind three-year starter Manny Wilkins, serving as the backup in both 2016 and 2018 while taking a redshirt in 2017. He has seen the field in six games (one start), completing 28-of-57 passes for 388 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions with the vast majority of that action coming in 2016 when Wilkins was injured.
Three freshmen quarterbacks enrolled early for Arizona State: Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and Ethan Long. All three participated in spring practice, but reports out of Tempe point to Daniels as Sterling-Cole’s main competition for the starting job. Daniels, a four-star recruit out of Southern California, was the crown jewel of Herm Edwards’ 2019 recruiting class. He had a prolific high school career, showing both the ability to excel in the pocket and his athleticism to escape when things break down. Even if he doesn’t win the job, he could quickly prove to be ASU’s quarterback of the future.
Prediction: Sterling-Cole. I’d expect ASU to play it safe at first and go with Sterling-Cole to start the year, but having Kent State and Sacramento State on the schedule in Weeks 1 and 2 will give Daniels the chance to get his feet wet. A trip to Michigan State follows in Week 3. If Edwards believes Daniels gives him the best chance to win, don’t be surprised if he quickly makes a switch. He proved last fall that he is not afraid to throw true freshmen into the fire.
Arkansas: Ben Hicks vs. Nick Starkel
After a disastrous first season in Fayetteville, Razorbacks coach Chad Morris turned to a familiar face to help give his quarterback room a boost. In three seasons at SMU, Ben Hicks became the program’s all-time leading passer, throwing for 9,081 yards, 71 touchdowns and 34 interceptions. His first two seasons were under Morris’ tutelage and he has reunited with his former coach as a graduate transfer for his final season of eligibility.
After bringing in Hicks, Morris brought in a second graduate transfer in Nick Starkel, formerly of Texas A&M. Starkel opened the 2017 season as A&M’s starter, but injured his leg in Week 1, opening the door for Kellen Mond. He ended up playing in 11 games during his time with the Aggies, throwing for 1,962 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions. Starkel has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Prediction: Hicks. Starkel may have the experience of playing against SEC competition, but Hicks has the edge because of his familiarity with Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock. Hicks also has the benefit of going through spring practice at Arkansas, while Starkel had to finish out his degree in order to be immediately eligible. No matter who plays, both Hicks and Starkel are significant upgrades over what the Hogs played with in 2018.
Auburn: Bo Nix vs. Joey Gatewood
Nix, a 6-foot-2, 207-pound true freshman, arrives at Auburn with high expectations. The son of a former Auburn quarterback, Nix was a five-star recruit out of Pinson, Alabama, who set multiple individual records on the way to consecutive state championships. At No. 29 overall in the 2019 class, Nix is the highest-rated high school QB to sign with Auburn since Jason Campbell. Nix enrolled early to take part in spring practice and has the reputation of an accurate passer who can extend the play when things break down.
Gatewood has a year under his belt in the Auburn program, but took a redshirt last fall after breaking his thumb early in the year. He ended up seeing action in one game, mop-up duty late in Auburn’s 63-14 Music City Bowl demolition of Purdue. Like Nix, Gatewood was a high-profile recruit with the ability to beat you with his arm and his legs. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds, Gatewood is bigger than Nix and is also considered more of a dual-threat than Nix. He could give Gus Malzahn a dimension to his offense he hasn’t had since Nick Marshall.
Prediction: Gatewood. It would not be a surprise to see both Gatewood and Nix play quite a bit this season, but Gatewood’s year in college and his ability as a runner may give him a slight edge heading into a high-profile opening game against Oregon.
Florida State: James Blackman vs. Alex Hornibrook
Blackman was thrust into a tough situation in 2017 as a true freshman after Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Blackman had his ups and downs and ended up finishing the year with respectable numbers: 2,230 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on 58.2 percent throwing. Francois returned in 2018 and Blackman faded back into a backup role. Now, with Francois booted from the program, Blackman appears to be in line to return to the QB1 spot.
After Francois’ departure, Florida State was desperate to add any semblance of depth at the position. The Seminoles could have done a whole lot worse than Hornibrook, a graduate transfer who started 26 games over three seasons at Wisconsin. A 6-foot-4 lefty, Hornibrook showed flashes of promise (watch his performance vs. Miami in the Orange Bowl) but ultimately was too inconsistent and turnover-prone to be relied upon in big games.
Prediction: Blackman. The ceiling is higher for Florida State with a guy like Blackman who can push the ball down the field. On top of that, one of FSU’s biggest issues (there were many) last season was the offensive line. Hornibrook is effective when he has time to throw, but would be a sitting duck behind leaky pass-blocking.
Miami: N’Kosi Perry vs. Tate Martell
Perry split the starting job with senior Malik Rosier in 2018. Neither performed very well. In 11 games (six starts), Perry threw for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns but had just a 50.8 completion percentage with six interceptions. He has also dealt with off-field issues during his time with the program. Now a redshirt sophomore, Perry was the team’s most effective quarterback during the spring and worked well with new offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
Manny Diaz scoured the transfer market once he got the head-coaching job and plucked Martell from Ohio State. Martell was Dwayne Haskins’ backup last fall but was compelled to transfer after new OSU coach Ryan Day brought in Justin Fields from Georgia. Martell was a four-star recruit who Rivals ranked as the second-best dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class. A redshirt sophomore, Martell was granted a waiver for immediate eligibility. He struggled a bit in the spring, especially when asked to go under center.
Prediction: Perry. Though there was a bunch of hype surrounding Martell, Perry’s experiences last year and performance in spring ball should give him the edge, especially with a high-profile opening opponent like Florida. Of course, this is dependent on Perry staying out of trouble. He is running out of chances.
Mississippi State: Keytaon Thompson vs. Tommy Stevens
After two years as Nick Fitzgerald’s backup, Thompson was the clear No. 1 quarterback for Joe Moorhead during spring practice. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Thompson has had plenty of action (including two starts) the last two seasons, but has struggled with accuracy. He has thrown for 846 yards and eight touchdowns, but at just a 47.6 percent clip. He also has 672 yards and 10 scores rushing. But Moorhead clearly wanted more competition for the job, so he brought in a familiar face.
Stevens stuck it out for three years behind Trace McSorley at Penn State, but decided to part ways when he wasn’t assured the starting job coming out of spring. Stevens always showed flashes when PSU put him in the game, and now he has reunited with Moorhead, who coached Stevens as PSU’s offensive coordinator for two seasons. At PSU, Moorhead loved to attack defenses downfield. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stevens could prove to be more of a fit for Moorhead’s preferred schemes than Thompson.
Prediction: Stevens. Though Moorhead has been adamant that the competition is an open one, Stevens didn’t transfer just to be a backup again. MSU struggled with its passing attack last fall and Moorhead knows he has to be more dynamic with his offense to compete in the rugged SEC West. Thompson can play, but Stevens brings more of an all-around game. He’s got a big arm and is a physical, downhill runner.
NC State: Matt McKay vs. Devin Leary
With Ryan Finley’s eligibility expiring, NC State’s longest-tenured QB is redshirt sophomore Matt McKay, who served as Finley’s backup last fall. A three-star recruit in 2017, McKay saw action in six games in 2018, completing 7-of-8 passes for 87 yards with 36 yards and a touchdown rushing. Most local reports gave the 6-foot-4, 214-pound McKay the leg up in the competition exiting spring practice after a strong spring game performance, but the competition will carry on into August.
Leary was one of the jewels of NC State’s 2018 recruiting class. A four-star prospect out of New Jersey, Leary took a redshirt in his first year on campus and is going to push McKay for the spot at the top of the Wolfpack’s depth chart. At ACC media days, head coach Dave Doeren complimented Leary’s arm strength and said he was “one of the best young passers” he’s ever been around.
Prediction: McKay. NC State has not started a quarterback it signed out of high school since Mike Glennon. McKay would buck that trend. He looked comfortable in the lead role throughout the spring and his experience and mobility give him the edge over Leary.
Oklahoma State: Dru Brown vs. Spencer Sanders
Brown spent two years as the starter at Hawaii before transferring to Oklahoma State last year with his eyes on the starting job vacated by Mason Rudolph. Instead, Brown, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, was beaten out by fifth-year senior Taylor Cornelius and took a redshirt. Brown, who combined for 5,273 yards, 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions at Hawaii, is now a fifth-year senior himself with one final season to start for a power conference team.
Sanders, the 2017 Gatorade Texas Player of the Year, is one of the highest-rated prospects Mike Gundy has landed during his time at OSU. A 6-foot-2, 195-pounder with a strong arm and explosive running ability, Sanders redshirted in his first year on campus but has been hyped as the quarterback of the future since the time he committed to the Cowboys. Now he’s got a chance to take the starting job and hold it down for years to come.
Prediction: Sanders. Gundy swears the two are neck and neck entering preseason practice, but I have a hard time believing he can keep a talent like Sanders off the field. Brown may be the more experienced (read: safe) option, but he’s not the highest upside option. Brown is a valuable guy to have in your program. He can undoubtedly step in and do the job. But a guy like Sanders can elevate the Cowboys back toward the top of the Big 12.
TCU: Alex Delton vs. Justin Rogers vs. Michael Collins vs. Max Duggan
After two years of splitting time with Skylar Thompson at Kansas State, Alex Delton decided to try something new. He first committed to UTEP as a graduate transfer but soon found an opportunity to stay in the Big 12 at TCU. Delton played in 20 games at KSU, making six starts, but was most often featured as a runner. For his career, he is 96-of-171 for 1,202 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions through the air with 868 yards and 11 scores on the ground.
Rogers, a top 100 recruit, was a big-time get for TCU, but he is still working his way back from a significant knee injury suffered as a senior in high school. At Big 12 media days, TCU coach Gary Patterson said Rogers’ health is “about 90 percent.” Rogers participated in spring ball but is still experiencing some difficulties with a nerve in his leg. He’s the most talented quarterback on the roster, but the health question still lingers.
Collins, a transfer from Penn, started four games for the Horned Frogs last fall after injuries started piling up. However, Collins joined his injured teammates late in the year vs. Baylor and missed spring practice. He’s now “full speed,” Patterson said, so he will be in the mix for the starting job. Collins threw for 1,059 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 56.4 percent of his passes.
Duggan is the one true freshman of the bunch. A four-star recruit out of Iowa, Duggan chose TCU over both in-state Power Five programs, as well as an array of other big-time programs. After making the commitment to TCU, Duggan enrolled early and participated in spring practice.
Prediction: Delton. Delton feels like the safest choice to begin the season, but his limitations as a passer could spur the coaching staff to make a move sooner than later. Playing an FCS opponent in Week 1 will give the coaching staff the opportunity to see how these guys respond in game situations, so expect the competition to extend into the season.
Washington State: Anthony Gordon vs. Trey Tinsley vs. Gage Gubrud
A fifth-year senior, Gordon arrived at WSU in 2016 as a junior college transfer. Since then, he has been a backup behind Luke Falk in 2016 and 2017 and in 2018 behind Gardner Minshew. After seeing action in two games last fall, Gordon went 21-of-30 for 234 yards, three TDs and an INT in WSU’s spring game.
Like Gordon, Tinsley landed in Pullman in 2016 as a JUCO transfer. His main contribution has been as the team’s starting holder the past two seasons. He also made two appearances at QB last fall. Tinsley was 11-of-21 for 155 yards, one TD and two picks in the spring game.
Like he did last year with Minshew, Mike Leach brought in another graduate transfer quarterback. This year, it’s Gage Gubrud, who arrives after a record-setting career at Eastern Washington, an FCS program. In 28 starts at EWU, Gubrud threw for 9,984 yards and 87 touchdowns. Gubrud has been around the program for most of the offseason, but he missed most of spring ball with a foot injury.
Prediction: Gubrud. Gordon and Tinsley have been around the program for years and know Leach’s Air Raid system, but if Leach was confident they could perform at a high level he would not have brought in a grad transfer for a second straight season. Gubrud put up eye-popping numbers in the Big Sky Conference. Provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t make a smooth transition into Leach’s offense just like Minshew did a year before him.
West Virginia: Austin Kendall vs. Jack Allison
Austin Kendall backed up two eventual Heisman Trophy winners during his time at OU — Baker Mayfield in 2016 and Kyler Murray in 2018 — and took a redshirt in 2017 when Murray was Mayfield’s No. 2. Not thrilled with the idea of sitting behind Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts in 2019, Kendall left Oklahoma but stayed in the Big 12, landing at West Virginia. WVU’s new coach, Neal Brown, recruited Kendall’s brother when he was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky, so WVU became a natural fit for Kendall.
Allison transferred to WVU after beginning his career at Miami. He was a four-star recruit in the 2016 class, redshirted his lone season with the Hurricanes and then sat out another year after his transfer. He was the main backup behind Will Grier last fall and was forced into game action when Grier decided to skip the Camping World Bowl. It did not go well. In a 34-18 loss to Syracuse, Allison completed 17-of-35 passes for 277 yards and an interception. And those stats don’t indicate how much he struggled.
Prediction: Kendall. Kendall had to have learned a few things playing behind No. 1 picks like Murray and Mayfield under the coaching of Lincoln Riley. The upcoming season has rebuild written all over it for WVU. It would be worthwhile for the Mountaineers to establish something in Brown’s first season before trying to make a jump up the Big 12 standings in Kendall’s senior season.
Wisconsin: Jack Coan vs. Graham Mertz
While Hornibrook dealt with concussion issues last fall, Coan saw quite a bit of action for the Badgers. He played in five games, starting four, but mostly was limited to handing the ball to Jonathan Taylor. When he did throw the ball, the UW coaching staff kept things ultra-conservative. Coan completed 56-of-93 passes for just 515 yards. That’s 5.5 yards per attempt. Still, he was able to lead UW to wins over Purdue and Miami in his last two starts.
The highest-rated quarterback Wisconsin has signed in the Rivals.com era, Mertz arrived in Madison in January for spring practice and quickly showed what he can do. He’s got a strong arm and is accurate, but he’s still a true freshman. He was brought along somewhat slowly and will now get the chance to push Coan for first-team reps during preseason practice.
Prediction: Coan. Coan was the first-string quarterback throughout the spring after ending 2018 as the starter. The coaching staff spoke highly of his spring performance, even with Mertz and a few other contenders nipping at his heels. But if Coan’s improvements in practice don’t translate to games, Mertz could see the field in September, even in a two-QB system like the one the Badgers used in 2016.
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