QB battles: Picking winners for LSU, Texas, Alabama and other top jobs
Most college football programs have wrapped up spring practice, but that doesn’t mean all of the tough decisions coaching staff have to make have been decided.
At the center of most spring camps are the quarterback battles.
Let’s sort through the contenders for the top QB races and choose a winner after spring camp, knowing full well most of these competitions will extend well into August (and, in some case, into the season).
Contenders: Anthony Jennings (So.), Brandon Harris (Fr.), Hayden Rettig (RFr.)
Pick: Anthony Jennings
The young standout, Harris, generated quite the buzz after his performance in the spring game (11 of 28 for 195 yards and three touchdowns, despite being hurried by the first-team defense and being forced to throw the ball away at least five times).
QB guru Craig Nall of QB1 Sports — a former NFL teammate of mine who is still the Green Bay Packers’ record holder for most pass attempts in a season without an interception – has been working with the highly-touted freshman on his footwork from under center (three-, five- and seven-step drops, play-action bootlegs, etc.) since he did not use those mechanics much in the past. Harris is also working on putting touch on the ball and defensive recognition, among other details. “He is a dynamic player with a huge arm, incredible athleticism and an appetite for success,” Nall told me.
Nall noticed that Harris has gained a lot of respect from his teammates by performing well in his first spring and wouldn’t be surprised if he started in Week 1, which would certainly be the more buzz-worthy move for Les Miles. George Whitfield, another QB guru, has compared Harris to Jameis Winston.
However, the sense I get from speaking to those within the program is Jennings has an edge heading into fall camp. “At this point in time, Anthony is the leader in the competition because of the experience he has over Brandon,” one source said. “He’s a hard worker and has done everything he’s been asked to do.”
Jennings has almost 16 months in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s system and benefitted from enrolling in January before his freshman season (just like Harris did this year) and learning from NFL prospect Zach Mettenberger. He also got some game experience in short-yardage situations, executed a game-winning drive against Arkansas after Mettenberger was injured and, while he struggled, became only the third true freshman in LSU history to start a bowl game. All of that makes him a bit more prepared for the demands of college football.
“Remember this though: Les has never been afraid to use two quarterbacks,” the source said.
Is a two-quarterback system the answer for Miles? Maybe. In 2007, Miles used Matt Flynn with doses of Ryan Perrilloux to bring the national title to the bayou. But my pick in 2014 — at least to start the season – is Jennings.
Contenders: David Ash (Jr.), Tyrone Swoopes (So.), Jerrod Heard (Fr.), Max Wittek (possible transfer)
Pick: David Ash
Despite missing most of the 2013 season due to concussion symptoms, Ash was the likely starter entering 2014 – and then he suffered a foot fracture in spring camp that required surgery.
The good news for Ash: He’s expected to be back in time for fall camp, and even with the serious concerns about how his head will hold up this season, I still think he’ll win the Texas QB job to start the year. Former Longhorn and NFL wide receiver Jordan Shipley, whose younger brother Jaxon is currently at Texas, has spent a lot of time throwing the ball around with Ash and raved about his potential when healthy.
“I’ll say this about him: He throws the ball as well as, or better than, anyone I’ve caught from,” Jordan told me. “I’ve played with Colt [McCoy] and Carson [Palmer], and just from a throwing standpoint, he’s got an advantage over anybody I’ve ever played with. He throws a really tight spiral with a lot of rotation – an extremely catchable ball.”
Ash has had plenty of mental reps. Given his latest injury, his biggest challenge will be getting into game shape. Riding a bike or doing pool workouts aren’t as physically taxing, obviously, as what you’re subjected to on the gridiron. If all goes well, Ash will be full-go sometime in August.
If all doesn’t go well, the door is open to Swoopes. At 6-4 and 245 pounds, he has the physical potential that excites Longhorn fans, but it was evident in the spring game that Swoopes is not yet the caliber of quarterback who should start at Texas. There were overthrows, underthrows and poor decisions despite his stats (17 of 30, 229 yards, three TD’s – two came on a Hail Mary and a screen – and one interception against the second-team defense). Swoopes has loads of potential and several months to study film and fine-tune before fall camp arrives. If he becomes a more accurate passer and better decision-maker, he’ll make the coaching staff’s decision more difficult.
The wild cards here are Heard, a highly-touted freshman who will arrive this summer, and USC transfer Max Wittek, who has Texas on his list of potential destinations. But with less exposure to Texas’ new offense via spring meetings and practice sessions, it’s unlikely either would come in and start Week 1.
At this point, Ash is the best pick. With a likely improved defense and an offense that will utilize heavy doses of a power run game, play-action, bootlegs and screens, having a quarterback who won’t turn the ball over and can move the chains should be the goal. Ash is that guy while still offering some untapped upside. “If he stays healthy, I think he will be someone who can blow people away,” Shipley said.
Contenders: Connor Brewer (RSo.), Jerrard Randall (RJr.), Jesse Scroggins (RSr.), Anu Solomon (RFr.)
Pick: Jesse Scroggins
Believe it or not, Arizona is the only Pac-12 school that doesn’t return its starting quarterback from 2013. In fact, this will be the third time in three seasons that Arizona will have a new starter at the position. It makes the numbers the Wildcats have put up in Rich Rodriguez’s dynamic offense the past couple of seasons that much more impressive.
Scroggins, the fifth-year senior who started his collegiate football journey at USC, had the opportunity to earn the starting job last year over BJ Denker but fell short. With a noticeably higher level of focus and discipline, it appears Scroggins is earning the opportunity to start now.
“Jesse knows it’s his time to step up,” co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who’s known Rodriguez for more than 20 years and played QB for him at Glenville State, told me. “Is he ready? Not yet, but he made huge strides. Through the whole spring, the one guy that made that big push was Jesse. He proved that he belonged.”
The quarterback position is demanding in Tucson. It is extremely timing-oriented when it comes to footwork and fundamentals, and a firm grasp of the scheme is paramount. Smith said, “There are so many options that one play can hold, so you need a guy that’s smart – cerebral – who can make quick decisions. On every play, our kid is reading somebody on the defense and he needs to make the decision to hand it off, or pull it then run, or pull it then throw. All this has to be determined quickly.”
Scroggins is a big kid (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) with more than enough talent to be productive for the ‘Cats this season. “He has always had the talent,” Smith said. “He just needed to get the offense down. He has tons of arm talent – an NFL-type arm.”
Scroggins may not be as elusive of a runner as some of the other contenders – which is important in Arizona’s scheme – but Smith noted he has enough mobility to be effective in the Wildcats’ zone read. While going with Scroggins would mean Rich Rod would have another new QB next season, I think he’s the guy who gives Arizona the best chance to win in 2014.
A few notes on the other candidates:
Randall transferred to Arizona in the spring after two seasons at LSU and a 2013 campaign at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Athletically, he has everything you could want in someone operating an up-tempo read option scheme but could benefit from more time to develop. “Jerrard might be the most talented kid of all of them,” Smith told me. “He can run and has a cannon for an arm. [He’s] still learning – swimming a bit – but once he has it all figured out, he’s going to be special. He reminds you of a Denard Robinson but bigger. He’s not as fast, but he has that type of elusiveness and throws it better.”
Solomon also offers intriguing athleticism, and he’ll be a dynamic playmaker when he learns how to flip the switch from his natural laid-back demeanor when it’s time to compete. “He’s a guy with a lot of ability who led his teams at Bishop Gorman High School to a 57-3 record and won four state titles – he’s just a winner,” Smith said. “We are really excited about him.”
Brewer transferred to Arizona from Texas before last season. He doesn’t stand out athletically compared to the other names here, but Brewer brings some intangibles along with his skill set that Smith likes. “He is very smart and very heady,” Smith said. “He is very accurate as a passer. I think he’s still learning, but he’s coming into his own and has his best ball ahead of him.”
Alabama Crimson Tide
Contenders: Jacob Coker (RJr.), Blake Sims (RSr.), Cooper Bateman (RFr.)
Pick: Jacob Coker
In Alabama’s spring game, Sims and Bateman were far from being the efficient and stable QB that Crimson Tide fans learned to appreciate with A.J. McCarron, and both failed to gain an advantage over Coker, who won’t arrive until this summer.
In most situations, a transfer is far behind when it comes to learning an offensive scheme. But compared to the other options, Coker is not far behind and will be in the same position as the others this summer in trying to learn new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s scheme. Each candidate will have a few short months to grasp the new terminology and philosophies.
Sims is not the prototypical Crimson Tide signal-caller, as a dual-threat quarterback who would be most effective running an offense with the read option, bootlegs and sprint-outs at the top of the call sheet. Kiffin’s pro-style offense would have to be custom-tailored to best suit Sims’ abilities, and, presumably, that’s not what the staff prefers to do.
Coker, who backed up Jameis Winston at Florida State, is a 6-5, 230-pound prototypical pro-style quarterback, who spent all of last season running the Seminole scout team versus arguably the nation’s best starting defense. Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was the orchestrator FSU’s defense last season and told me during a conversation last week that Coker has a lot of talent and a chance to be really good.
To me, this points to Coker being chosen to conquer the unenviable task of replacing McCarron. After spending 2013 in the shadow of a Heisman Trophy winner, he’ll be chomping at the bit to roll for the Tide.
Texas A&M Aggies
Contenders: Kenny Hill (So.), Kyle Allen (Fr.)
Pick: Kyle Allen
There is not a lot to go on when making this pick, but it’s still fun to wonder who will replace Johnny Manziel, one of the most exciting college football players of all time.
Had Matt Joeckel not transferred to TCU, he would have been my top choice to replace Manziel. But the fact he transferred leads me to believe coaches indicated to Joeckel it was unlikely he’d beat out Hill or Allen. If that’s the case, then who was the one getting most of the love?
Hill doesn’t have a lot on tape with his limited snaps at Texas A&M, but he’s probably the front-runner at this point, although his current suspension related to his arrest for public intoxication muddies this situation. On the field, Hill is a dual-threat passer talented enough to start, but no head coach would choose to worry about the person occupying his team’s most important position if there’s another viable option. Hill needs to get focused fast, because Kevin Sumlin does have another option in Allen.
A highly-touted freshman who enrolled early and competed this spring, Allen is smart and likely possesses the most upside as one of the elite pro-style quarterbacks in his class. By September, he will have had six or seven months of elite-level performance and nutrition training with the Aggies, so I estimate he will have added 15-20 pounds to his 6-3, 200-pound frame by the time the season begins.
I have only seen Allen’s high school tape, but he at least appears to have all the tools needed to compete at the highest level of college football. Check him out:
After the flash and dazzle that Manziel brought in an up-tempo, no-huddle scheme over the last couple seasons, it’s tough to imagine a pro-style attack from Texas A&M. But Allen would benefit from running that system and, as evidenced by his 4.0 high school GPA, has the mental capacity to study and be disciplined. In an equal race between Allen and Hill, I’d take the freshman.
Reasonably safe starters to keep an eye on
Contenders: Cole Stoudt (Sr.), Deshaun Watson (Fr.)
The starter: Cole Stoudt
Dabo Swinney told Fox Sports a few weeks ago that Stoudt would be Clemson’s starting QB to begin the season. “Cole has been humbly and patiently waiting his turn to take the reigns from Tajh Boyd,” Swinney told me. “He has never once complained. He has always been ready anytime we’ve needed him. He’s earned it, and he is our clear-cut starter.”
At 6-5 and 205 pounds, Stoudt is a prototypical pocket passer who – despite serving in a reserve role the last three years– has taken a lot of snaps in Chad Morris’ offense, showing incredible accuracy and wise decision-making. His 79.7 completion percentage ranked first among FBS quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts in 2013. Clemson plays UGA and FSU within the first three games of the season, so Stoudt’s experience give him an addition edge over the freshman Watson, a future star.
If Stoudt doesn’t perform, however, Watson will get a look in a revamped Clemson offense that has to replace receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Look for Clemson to use its tight ends more in 2014, in addition to leaning on a running game that Swinney said has “more depth and diversity [than] we’ve ever had.”
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Contenders: J.W. Walsh (Jr.), Daxx Garman (Jr.), Mason Rudolph (Fr.)
The starter: J.W. Walsh
Walsh took some bumps and bruises as he split starting duties with Clint Chelf last year. Many criticize his arm strength, but it is good enough to get the job done. His main issue has been poor decision-making. A year wiser and another year of erudition within the system, I expect to see Walsh making better decisions for the Cowboys in 2014.
However, if Walsh struggles to protect the ball and keep the chains moving, Mike Gundy will make a switch. Garman is said to be able to make all the throws on the route tree, and through film study, 7-on-7 drills and fall camp, he has about four more months to further develop. He could make for a viable alternate plan.
Confidence is key at the quarterback position, so it would be ideal for the future of the program if Walsh can produce and Garman can stay healthy. That would allow for the young and talented Rudolph to redshirt and develop into the Cowboys’ QB of the future.
Contenders: Cody Kessler (Jr.), Max Browne (RFr.), Jalen Greene (Fr.)
The starter: Cody Kessler
Unlike the start of the 2013 season, USC has its leader at quarterback. No drama. No insecurity. No uncertainty. New head coach Steve Sarkisian announced in April that Kessler will be the starting quarterback. Now Kessler can enter this season focused and with confidence, knowing that he has full support from his coaches and teammates.
Browne has plenty of time leading into fall camp to continue to grow and prove that he can be a leader both on and off the field, and Sarkisian has said publicly that Kessler’s job is still open for the taking if he doesn’t perform. Ideally for Trojan fans, though, Browne remains in the stable with four years of eligibility remaining while Greene redshirts this season. Of the QB jobs listed here, this one is probably the most firm entering the season.
Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He’s currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXsports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.