Starting QB jobs up for grabs at multiple ACC programs
As the ACC welcomes Louisville and says goodbye to Maryland, the league — coming off of Florida State’s national championship last season — is riding the wave of positive momentum.
But next year? Well, it could be rough yet again for every team not named Florida State.
Of the ACC’s 14 full-time football members, 10 will definitely have a new starting quarterback this coming season. There will be uncertainty at that spot at every school except Florida State, which returns Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston for his redshirt sophomore season. And so understandably, the league’s head coaches fielded plenty of questions about the quarterback spot during a teleconference to wrap up spring football on Wednesday.
Duke is the only other school returning a player that should start all of the Blue Devils’ games this year in rising senior Anthony Boone, but even he will be in a different role in theory as quarterback Brandon Connette will transfer. When Boone was injured last year, Connette started quite a few games and even when Boone was healthy, the Blue Devils’ backup still played a big role in the offense.
With Duke backups Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme likely healthy, the real issue will come down to leadership.
"I’ve had a lot of conversations with (Boone)," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "Most of it is involved in the leadership at the position that’s involved. That’s a change. Anthony can’t get consumed with his own role, his own preparation. He’s our leader at quarterback, where he had kind of shared that with Brandon previously."
All the rest of the ACC’s spots at starting quarterback will be up for grabs, relatively speaking, or helmed by brand-new starters.
Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia are the only schools to return quarterbacks that have played at least 20 games. Virginia’s David Watford has the most returning starts of this group (12), but he’s being pushed by redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert, who played in seven games last year.
Both of them might end up being benched in favor of a younger option, as Virginia has been fruitlessly searching for a good option at quarterback for the entire Mike London era. Watford has 11 touchdowns to 19 interceptions in his 22-game career, while Lambert played in seven games a year ago and completed less than 50 percent of his passes for one touchdown and two interceptions.
London went through the spring with Watford and Lambert (and Matt Johns, the holder) at quarterback, though he will not name a post-spring starter until next week.
Arguably, UNC and Clemson have the best situations at the moment. But there’s still uncertainty there. Senior Cole Stoudt has seen action in 22 games throughout his career and has completed a high percentage of his passes for eight touchdowns and one interception, but that’s been largely in mop-up duty. How will he respond to being the guy?
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said that while Stoudt is the guy going into the fall, he’s going to be pushed by Deshaun Watson, who he called "as talented a freshman at any position that I’ve ever been around." And that’s saying something, considering superstar wideout Sammy Watkins just moved on to the NFL.
"Cole is our starter … but as I told him, he doesn’t have a lifetime contract," Swinney said. "It’s about performance now, and I know Deshaun Watson is going to continue to compete and see if he can win that job."
UNC returns Marquise Williams, who started five games last year after senior starter Bryn Renner was lost to a season-ending injury. Williams has played in 20 games, second only behind Stoudt and Watford, and is plenty experienced. But his situation is less than certain as he’s being pushed, and pushed hard, by redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky.
One would think that Williams would be the guy, but Trubisky has turned a lot of heads in the spring and looked like the better quarterback in the spring game, for whatever that’s worth — which is not a lot to UNC head coach Larry Fedora, who stuck to his pattern of being notoriously tight-lipped about position battles.
"I think there were certain days where we had one that would do better than the other, then the next day the other would compete," Fedora said of the quarterback battle. "I can tell you at this point, I do feel comfortable we’ve got two guys that we can win with. That’s a great feeling right there."
Syracuse returns its starter from a year ago in Terrel Hunt, so arguably the Orange are in a great situation, right? Hunt, a redshirt junior, started 10 of 12 games last year for the Orange when Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen didn’t end up being the answer.
So, is Hunt that answer? For the coming season, he probably is. But he’ll be pushed by the incoming youngsters, three of whom played (and played well) in the spring game. Right now, if Syracuse coach Scott Shafer’s quotes are any indication, Hunt is the guy. And he’ll likely be the guy until further notice.
"We have a young man with Terrel Hunt at the quarterback position that understands how key it’ll be that he takes full ownership of that offense and full responsibility for making sure those kids improve when no one is looking this summer," Shafer said. "I’ve been pleased with his progress as a leader."
Then there are the Florida transfer quarterbacks.
Graduate student Tyler Murphy was named the guy by Boston College after the spring, and his former assistant coach at Florida (now head coach at BC) Steve Addazio likes what he’s seen.
"Tyler established himself as the starter. He’s a veteran guy," Addazio said. "He’s a guy that has been in the heat of the battle. He’s got a lot of experience. It showed. He has tremendous pocket presence, throws the ball really well and is obviously very dynamic with his feet."
Murphy started six games after Jeff Driskell’s season-ending injury for Florida last season before going out with a season-ending shoulder injury of his own. All of his career games played and starts were both last season when Florida’s year was really coming apart, and he finished with 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions.
Addazio’s prior relationship with Murphy (he recruited him) certainly doesn’t hurt, nor could having an older option at quarterback as some of the younger ones develop.
The other Florida transfer is N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett. As the passing game struggled last year, Dave Doeren was forced to watch Brissett in practice, knowing how much the team could have used him. But now he’s anxious to get back after essentially two years off from live football. His 370-plus yards in the spring game seem to indicate that he’s more than ready. It’s just about live game action at this point.
He played in nine games at Florida, making three starts and throwing for 455 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions.
"It’s just a matter of getting a guy that has a lot of accolades just back into it because he didn’t play a lot at Florida," Doeren said. "He played some as a freshman and really none as a sophomore, and then he sat last year and played on (our) scout team. Got to get a lot of reps in him as we move forward into competition."
The Florida transfers are probably more of a sure thing than the backups not named Cole Stoudt taking over starting jobs. Right now, there are two poised to take the reins at their respective schools: Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh) and Will Gardner (Louisville).
Voytik got to show what he could do in Pitt’s bowl game after Tom Savage got hurt, completing 5-of-9 passes for 108 yards and led the Panthers to a 30-27 win. He took care of the ball and got it to Pitt’s numerous weapons, and he’ll still have plenty of those said weapons this year.
The Pitt offensive line in pass protection was a bit porous at times last year, but Voytik is more mobile than Savage was. If he can continue to — for lack of a better phrase — manage the game as efficiently as he did in the bowl game, Pitt should be just fine at quarterback.
Louisville’s Will Gardner, meanwhile, has much bigger shoes to fill. Teddy Bridgewater set all kinds of records in his career, and now it will be likely up to Gardner — a redshirt sophomore — to keep the positive momentum from last season going. If there’s good news for Gardner, it’s that first-year head coach Bobby Petrino is as bright an offensive mind as there is in college football.
Gardner was 8-of-12 for 112 yards and two touchdowns last season in seven games. He’ll have competition, just as he did in the spring, but Petrino says he’s likely the guy.
"He’s very competitive," Petrino said. "He certainly has the respect and the trust of all of his teammates and can make the different throws and move in the pocket."
Virginia Tech backup Mark Leal was supposed to be one of those backups to take over, but he was passed on the depth chart by redshirt freshman Brenden Motley this week.
Motley, plus Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (who will graduate from Texas Tech in the spring and have two years of eligibility remaining), will likely have a better shot at the job than Leal, although he’s obviously still in the mix.
"We’ll see how that ends up," Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said of his quarterback situation. "But that’s certainly the critical question for our football team right now."
Then there are the quarterback situations best described as … tenuous.
Miami and Wake Forest.
Miami lost its likely starter in Ryan Williams during the spring to a torn ACL, leaving redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen (the little brother of Carolina Panthers’ tight end, Greg Olsen) and redshirt sophomore Gray Crow to compete for the job.
"Kevin finished ahead of Gray Crow coming out of the spring," Miami coach Al Golden said. "Whoever is at the helm for us on Labor Day night we’ll have confidence in, we have to rally around. We’re not going to change who we are and how we operate."
There are two incoming freshmen that could push Olsen for the job, and it’s unlikely that Crow has a good shot at it beyond those three. None have any college experience whatsoever and while Brad Kaaya (a top-20 quarterback nationally according to Scout.com) and Malik Rosier (top 35) will provide competition, Olsen was the No. 4 quarterback in his class.
It’s very likely that Olsen will be the guy, and he’d better be ready. As he put it, he didn’t come to Miami to be a backup.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest has to replace Tanner Price and figure out a way to revive its anemic passing game under first-year head coach Dave Clawson with…
"It’s a work in progress," Clawson said. "I don’t think we’ve had a guy that’s taken control of the position yet, but in fairness to them, we’re still going through the installation part of it. … We’re going to have to perform at a much higher level once we get to the fall than we are right now."
The only quarterback on scholarship when Clawson arrived in Winston-Salem was redshirt sophomore Tyler Cameron, who has played in three games in his career.
The majority of his experience came against Florida State when Price was pulled after a beyond-ghastly early performance. Cameron didn’t fare much better, and his final 2013 (and career) numbers reflected that: 7-of-24 for 85 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
Clawson moved wide receiver Kevin Sousa back to quarterback for the spring, but the redshirt junior was moved from that spot for a reason. He has yet to throw a pass in college. His athleticism makes him an intriguing option, but there are a ton of question marks with whether his throwing motion is conventional enough for him to play at this level.
Still fewer question marks, though, than would surround a potential freshman starting at quarterback. And there are two incoming freshman that Clawson thinks could have a chance in Travis Smith and John Wolford. The way Clawson sees it, a fresh start means the system is as new to the upperclassmen as it is to the freshmen, so everyone’s going to have a shot at the job.
"Certainly we have two quarterbacks coming in that we recruited that we told those young men they’d have an opportunity to compete for the position, so we’re not going to be naming a starter at the end of spring football," Clawson said. "I think we’re too young in the system to do that. … We’re not in a rush to make the wrong decision. We’re going to let this thing play out."
Of course, the old saying is if you have two quarterbacks, you have none.
So if Clawson has four, he has, what, negative-two quarterbacks? Either way, he’s far from alone in that department.