Our second installment of the college football Most Intriguing lists for 2018: The 25 Most Intriguing Quarterbacks, starting with three either/or decisions that could go a long way toward shaping the race for the national championship:
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama. Simply put, nobody has ever done what Tagovailoa did last season — bouncing off the bench in the second half of the national title game as a true freshman and leading a stirring comeback victory, capped by a dramatic walk-off touchdown bomb. But those heroics haven’t yet solidified the starting job for his sophomore season at Alabama. Assuming he wins the job, Tua will have to show he’s more than a one-half wonder.
1a. Jalen Hurts, Alabama. The forgotten man in the wake of The Tua Show. In surprising comments given the nature of Nick Saban’s Process Machine, Hurts made it clear earlier this month that he hasn’t been pleased with the way he’s been handled by the Alabama staff since being benched in the championship game. If Hurts doesn’t win the starting job, the transfer market immediately will be red-hot for his services — but his passing production dropped off dramatically as the 2017 season wore on.
2. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson. One college head coach told me this summer Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect he’s ever seen. Early reports out of Clemson fall camp don’t make that sound like hyperbole — he is pushing incumbent starter Kelly Bryant, and is widely expected to take the job and be the man for the majority of the season. He could be a three-year star for the Tigers before becoming the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
2a. Kelly Bryant, Clemson. Then again, maybe Bryant will stop the freshman hype train in its tracks for a second straight year. He wasn’t supposed to keep the starting job last year, then he did — running off five-star Hunter Johnson in the process. Bryant had a great junior season but had his limitations exposed by Alabama in the College Football Playoff, producing just 143 yards of total offense on 55 plays.
3. Jake Fromm, Georgia. Had a true freshman season beyond anyone’s wildest expectations — but will it be enough to guarantee him a starting spot as a sophomore? Fromm took the job from Jacob Eason and led the Bulldogs to a 13-2 record, an SEC championship and the College Football Playoff title game. He threw 24 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions, seemingly solidifying his place for the next two years. But then Georgia signed a superstar recruit …
3a. Justin Fields, Georgia. Fields is that superstar recruit. He arrived in Athens for spring semester and went through spring drills, showing the talent to push Fromm from the start. Coach Kirby Smart will play the athletic, strong-armed Fields — but it’s just a question of what situations, when and how long. And then what happens if Fields tears it up.
4. Shea Patterson, Michigan. The most important transfer in college football, having negotiated some contentious times after leaving Mississippi and gaining immediate eligibility in Ann Arbor. Now all he has to do is ignite the Wolverines’ anemic passing game, lead some of the big victories the program has been lacking in recent years and solidify Jim Harbaugh’s job status. No big deal.
5. Kyler Murray, Oklahoma. Signed a multimillion-dollar baseball contract this summer, but chose to stick with the pointed ball for one more season. The job: replacing Heisman Trophy winner and NFL No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. Murray was a mop-up man last year, but the numbers were pretty outrageous: 10 yards per carry, 86 percent passing accuracy and a 277 pass-efficiency rating. If he’s really good in Lincoln Riley’s offense, Oklahoma should again be really good as well.
6. Trace McSorley, Penn State. Resourceful playmaker has been overshadowed the past two seasons by Saquon Barkley, and now the Happy Valley stage is his. Only thing is, he has to do it without stellar play caller Joe Moorhead, now the head coach at Mississippi State. But if the Fiesta Bowl performance without Moorhead is any indication, McSorley will continue to light up defenses.
7. McKenzie Milton, Central Florida. Those who watched the Golden Knights last year saw one of the most entertaining players in the sport — smart, confident and possessing a great improvisational flair. The only player in the FBS top 100 in total offense last year who topped Milton’s 9.28 yards per play was Baker Mayfield at 9.86 — and Mayfield didn’t go undefeated. Will Milton still be as good with coach Scott Frost gone to Nebraska?
8. Will Grier, West Virginia. Positioned to make a big push for the Heisman. As a transfer from Florida who missed a year because of a positive PED test, Grier had a big 2017 season with the Mountaineers — 34 touchdown passes and nearly 3,500 passing yards. The schedule is set for a fast West Virginia start —rebuilding Tennessee, Youngstown State, rebuilding North Carolina State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas — which could have Grier leading midseason Heisman polls.
9. Khalil Tate, Arizona. The midseason revelation of 2017 was this guy, a Lamar Jackson-like athlete who came off the bench after an injury to the starter in game five (what were you thinking, Rich Rodriguez?) and lit up the Pac-12. Tate ran for more than 550 yards in his first two games of extensive action, including an NCAA quarterback rushing record of 327 yards against Colorado. If new coach Kevin Sumlin uses him well and the rest of the team performs around him, Tate will be on the Heisman radar.
10. Joe Burrow, LSU. If Shea Patterson is the Instant Impact Transfer of the Year, Burrow is the runner-up. He’s migrating in the opposite direction — Big Ten to SEC — leaving Ohio State for an LSU program starving for quality quarterback play. Burrow has the element of the unknown going for him, having played sparingly for Urban Meyer (11 pass attempts last year), but also some likely rust from so much time on the bench. Expectations may need to be managed.
11. Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State. He’s the reason Burrow transferred. Some believe Haskins was the best QB on the Buckeyes roster last year, but he couldn’t get past beloved senior J.T. Barrett until leading the comeback victory over Michigan. Haskins should return the vertical threat to an Ohio State passing game that couldn’t seriously stretch the field for much of the past two seasons. Early reviews of his August camp have been sensational.
12. Justin Herbert, Oregon. The NFL is certainly intrigued by Herbert, a 6-foot-6 slinger who can also run pretty well. A broken collarbone curtailed his season — and the Ducks’ progress — last year, but Herbert was 6-2 as a starter with the team averaging 49.1 points and 517 yards in those starts. The junior could get the Mario Cristobal era off to a flying start on his likely way to being a very high draft pick.
13. Justice Hansen, Arkansas State. You can make a case that he’s the single most valuable player in the sport. Even Lamar Jackson didn’t have the ball in his hands as much as Hansen last year — he averaged nearly 52 runs or passes per game, and his 366 yards per game of total offense is tops among all returning players. Hansen passed or ran for 44 of Arkansas State’s 59 touchdowns last year as well.
14. Deondre Francois, Florida State. His patellar tendon injury in the opener against Alabama last year scuttled the Seminoles’ season. Then Francois’ relationship with new coach Willie Taggart got off to a stumbling start when he was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge in the spring. Francois served undisclosed internal sanctions and now appears to be in good graces with Taggart, who will need his QB to return to the form he displayed his freshman year in Tallahassee.
15. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo. Keep an eye on this developing talent — the NFL definitely will. Jackson went into high school in Muskegon, Michigan, at 5-foot-9, came out at 6-5 and is now listed at 6-7, 245 pounds. He’s got an arm and he can run, and some people are wondering whether he can be the Josh Allen of the 2019 draft. The biggest current question is durability after missing multiple games each of the past two seasons due to injury.
16. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin. There were times last season when the Badgers won in spite of Hornibrook, not because of him (his 15 interceptions were second most in the Big Ten only to pick machine Tanner Lee of Nebraska with 16). But Hornibrook settled down late in the season and led Wisconsin past Iowa and Michigan, and nearly past Ohio State in the league title game. If he steps up his game this season, Wisconsin is a legitimate national title threat.
17. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. The Baylor transfer gave the Tigers their best passing threat since Cam Newton, and the added offensive diversity helped Auburn to the SEC West title. With the loss of running back Kerryon Johnson and the return of a flush receiving corps, expect Stidham to move from a supporting role in the offense to centerpiece. One area of emphasis: getting rid of the ball and taking fewer sacks (11 against Clemson, six against Central Florida).
18. Jake Browning, Washington. For three years, he’s been the Huskies’ bellwether: when he plays well, they win; when he plays poorly, they lose. In victories, Browning has thrown 72 touchdowns and 13 interceptions; in losses the numbers are six TDs and 11 interceptions. (He’s never had a multi-TD passing game in a Washington loss.) With a very good team around him, this is Browning’s chance to go out on top and perhaps earn some NFL love on the way.
19. Drew Lock, Missouri. He’s got an arm that will dilate the pupils of NFL scouts, and at 6-4 has the size to go with it. With offensive coordinator Josh Heupel gone to UCF and Derrick Dooley arriving from the NFL, Lock presumably will get more pro-style reps this season to add to a résumé that already includes nearly 8,700 passing yards and 71 career TD passes. Can he also lead the Tigers back to SEC East contention in his senior season?
20. KJ Costello, Stanford. Bryce Love can’t do it all, which is where Costello comes in. With the position split between he and Keller Chryst last year, the Cardinal passing game was brutally ineffective far too often — 80 yards against San Diego State, 141 against awful Oregon State, 105 against Washington State — Costello emerged as the best option late in the year, and his continued development will be key to Stanford’s Pac-12 North title hopes.
21. Malcolm Perry, Navy. His ability to run Ken Niumatalolo’s option led the coach to move a senior QB who ran for 1,400 yards last year (Zach Abey) to wide receiver. That clears the way for Perry, who played slotback some and QB some while rushing for nearly 1,200 yards himself in 2017 — including 250 in a blizzard against Army. Perry averaged a whopping 8.6 yards per carry, making him a walking first down.
22. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. Last we saw of Fitzgerald, his leg was bent at an awful angle in the Egg Bowl last Thanksgiving night. But he’s recovered from a broken ankle and poised for a big senior season at the controls of Joe Moorhead’s offense. He’s a dual-threat guy with NFL size (6-5, 230), but not yet NFL passing skills (just a 118 pass-efficiency rating). If he sharpens up the throwing, look out.
23. Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame. Still has a lot of improving — and proving — to do. Wimbush’s inconsistent passing mechanics and ability to read defenses will be challenged all the more without two top-10 picks on the left side of the offensive line and Josh Adams in the backfield. If he struggles, coach Brian Kelly could move quickly to Plan B: Ian Book, who played most of Notre Dame’s upset bowl victory over LSU.
24. Jawon “Puma” Pass, Louisville. He has the arm, the athleticism, the size (6-4, 227), the nickname and the surname of a star QB. He’s being coached by a guy who can develop a player at that position. Pass has some intangibles in his favor, too, having been named a captain before making his first collegiate start — which, unfortunately for him, is against Alabama.
25. Kyle Kempt, Iowa State. One of the best stories of 2017 gets another year to add to it, after the NCAA granted a sixth season of eligibility to a guy who never saw the field in his first four. Kempt never got into a college game until last season, as a fifth-year senior, then played remarkably well in leading the Cyclones to their most victories (eight) since 2000. What can he and all the surprising Cyclones do for an encore?
Just missed the list: J.T. Daniels, USC; Ryan Finley, North Carolina State; Brett Rypien, Boise State; Nick Starkel, Texas A&M; Marcus McMaryion, Fresno State; Nate Stanley, Iowa; Mason Fine, North Texas; Tyler Huntley, Utah; Brian Lewerke, Michigan State; Jake Bentley, South Carolina; Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech; Malik Rosier, Miami; Steven Montez, Colorado; Sam Ehlinger, Texas; Manny Wilkins, Arizona State.
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