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Alabama and Georgia played for the CFP title, but both teams will start spring practice expecting spirited competition at quarterback. They'll have lots of company as teams search for their next leader.

Breaking down 20 QB battles to watch this spring

Jan 18, 2018

  • Adam RittenbergESPN Staff Writer
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    • College football reporter.
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
    • Graduate of Northwestern University.

Spring practice always brings a new batch of quarterback battles around college football, but two teams will draw the most interest.

They just played for the national title.

Alabama’s quarterback race played out during championship night in Atlanta, as freshman Tua Tagovailoa relieved sophomore Jalen Hurts in the second half and rallied the Tide to victory. The merciless Twitterverse started speculating about Hurts’ transfer destination before the game even ended, but the plucky Texan will be back to try to keep his job.

Jake Fromm didn’t have to worry about being replaced against Alabama, as he took over Georgia’s starting job in Week 2 and never relinquished it. Even though Jacob Eason is transferring out of Georgia, Fromm can’t relax, as he’ll have to beat out Justin Fields, ESPN’s top-ranked recruit in the 2018 class.

Tuscaloosa and Athens are just two of the many recognizable hot spots for quarterback battles this spring. Let’s take a look at 20 competitions and the top candidates to be QB1.

Alabama

The candidates: Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa

Returning starter: Hurts

What to watch: Most assume Nick Saban wouldn’t dare demote Tagovailoa after his heroics against Georgia. But Hurts should get a fair chance to keep the job, especially with another new coordinator stepping in, his 26-2 record as Alabama’s starter and his ability to limit turnovers and other mistakes, which Saban demands of his quarterbacks. Tagovailoa can’t simply sit back as the championship hero and expect to inherit the job. He has to improve his game and earn the job, although his edge as a passer over Hurts is impossible to ignore.

Clemson

The candidates: Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson, Trevor Lawrence

Returning starter: Bryant

What to watch: It’s amazing how much the narrative around Bryant changed after the Sugar Bowl loss. He’s not Deshaun Watson, but who is? Bryant’s achievements during the regular season shouldn’t be forgotten, but two decorated young quarterbacks will push him this spring. Johnson was ESPN’s No. 1 pocket-passing quarterback and No. 21 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class, and Lawrence is the top pocket passer and No. 2 overall player in the 2018 class. By enrolling early, Lawrence has a chance to wow the coaches and make them think about a quarterback switch as Clemson has all the pieces for another CFP run.

Florida

The candidates: Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, Emory Jones

Returning starter: Franks

What to watch: Florida hired Dan Mullen primarily to revive its shoddy quarterback play, and Mullen scored a big win in December when Jones flipped to the Gators from Ohio State. The early enrollee will generate the most attention this spring as he begins on-field work with Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. Franks struggled mightily in 2017 but gets a fresh start with a new staff and a new system. Trask is an unknown so far in Gainesville, but all the quarterbacks will benefit from a clean slate under Mullen.

Florida State

The candidates:Deondre Francois, James Blackman

Returning starter: Blackman

What to watch: This should be one of the more fascinating quarterback competitions in the country. Francois had a very strong 2016 season, and his absence was felt after he suffered a devastating knee injury in the 2017 opener against Alabama. But he also must impress new coach Willie Taggart and a staff running a different offense. Blackman had some rough outings as a true freshman, especially against top ACC opponents, but he will benefit from a full offseason in the program. This still seems like Francois’ job to lose, but he needs to stay healthy and execute Taggart’s scheme.

Georgia

The candidates: Jake Fromm, Justin Fields

Returning starter: Fromm

What to watch: The good news is that Fromm knows the drill. He was in Fields’ position a year ago, hoping to beat out a returning starter (Eason). The difference is that Fromm helped Georgia win the SEC and reach the national title game, showing incredible maturity with efficient passing (he was rated ninth nationally) and limited mistakes (seven interceptions in 291 attempts). He has to hold off Fields, a possible once-in-a-decade prospect who enrolled early and will compete this spring. Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a Nick Saban disciple, won’t hesitate to make a change, so Fromm must continue to develop.

Kansas State

The candidates: Skylar Thompson, Alex Delton

Returning starter: Thompson (part time)

What to watch: It’s rare when two young quarterbacks emerge in the season’s home stretch, but both Thompson and Delton delivered for Kansas State. Thompson led come-from-behind wins over Texas Tech and Iowa State, and Delton ran wild (158 yards) in a Cactus Bowl win over UCLA. The redshirt freshman and sophomore will compete this spring as coach Bill Snyder gears up for possibly one final league title push in a wide-open Big 12. Kansas State usually plays multiple quarterbacks but would like to know its starter coming out of the spring.

Louisville

The candidates:Jawon Pass, Malik Cunningham

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Life after Lamar Jackson begins in earnest this spring, as Louisville must replace one of the most exciting and productive college quarterbacks of the past two seasons. Pass, a rising third-year sophomore, backed up Jackson in 2017 and completed 23 of 33 passes for 238 yards in limited action. He apparently has Jackson’s blessing, telling reporters Jackson gave him “the keys to the program.” Cunningham is a dynamic athlete who must show he can complement his running skills with solid throwing ability.

LSU

The candidates:Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse, Justin McMillan

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Coach Ed Orgeron’s future at LSU hinges on whether his decision to dump Matt Canada and reinstate Steve Ensminger as offensive coordinator pans out. Ensminger’s chief priority is finding an answer at the most criminally mismanaged position in college football. Brennan, ESPN’s No. 4 pocket passer in the 2017 class, could get the first shot, although Narcisse, the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the same class, and McMillan both bring more mobility. Orgeron likes all three and wants to shape the offense to fit the best quarterback’s skills. LSU must emerge from the spring with an idea of who that will be.

Miami

The candidates: Malik Rosier, N’Kosi Perry

Returning starter: Rosier

What to watch: Miami’s late-season fade isn’t all on Rosier, but the Hurricanes clearly need more from the quarterback position in 2018. Many expected Perry, ESPN’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, to win the job this past summer, but it didn’t happen. Perry has the most upside, a strong arm and excellent playmaking ability. But Rosier has big-game experience and an opportunity to build on the good things he did in helping Miami to its first ACC Coastal division title.

Michigan

The candidates: Brandon Peters, Dylan McCaffrey, Shea Patterson*

Returning starter: Peters (part time)

What to watch: The asterisk next to Patterson is the great unknown, as the Ole Miss transfer seeks NCAA approval to play for Michigan right away. Michigan desperately needs options at quarterback, even if Peters, who showed some good things in 2017, elevates his game significantly for spring practice. McCaffrey is an exciting prospect but young and undersized. Patterson showed at Ole Miss that he can pile up yards but also struggled with interceptions (nine in seven games last fall), a big issue for Michigan. Coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff need to feel confident about someone coming out of the spring before a pivotal fourth season.

Nebraska

The candidates:Patrick O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia, Adrian Martinez

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Despite being the newest Husker, Martinez has several advantages. New Nebraska coach Scott Frost recruited and signed him days after being hired, and made it clear Martinez would have a great chance to win the starting job. He’s also the most heralded of the three as ESPN’s No. 4 pocket passer and No. 56 overall recruit in the 2018 class. O’Brien and Gebbia will get the chance to impress the new staff, although both will have to adjust to Frost’s system.

Notre Dame

The candidates: Brandon Wimbush, Ian Book, Phil Jurkovec (arrives in summer)

Returning starter: Wimbush

What to watch: Even before the Citrus Bowl, Wimbush needed to play well this spring to secure his job despite starting 12 games during a turnaround season for the Irish. Turns out, Wimbush was benched and Book threw the game-winning touchdown pass against LSU. The two will compete this spring, although Wimbush’s biggest challenger could be Jurkovec, ESPN’s No. 8 pocket passer in the 2018 class. The 6-foot-6 Jurkovec isn’t enrolling early, but if Wimbush or Book doesn’t separate himself this spring, the freshman will have a very real chance to win the job.

Ohio State

The candidates:Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow, Tate Martell

Returning starter: None

What to watch: When I attended a quarterbacks meeting in Columbus in August, Burrow was the clear backup to J.T. Barrett. Then, he broke his hand and Haskins accelerated his progress, playing well in relief of Barrett during a win at Michigan. Haskins completed 70 percent of his attempts with four touchdowns and no interceptions in limited action last season. Burrow needs a strong spring to claim the top job, or he could move on as a graduate transfer. Martell is smaller than the others but has a quick release and big-play ability. Although Haskins enters the spring as a big favorite to win the job, he’ll be pushed.

Oklahoma State

The candidates:Taylor Cornelius, Keondre Wudtee, Spencer Sanders (arrives in summer)

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Record-setting quarterback Mason Rudolph is gone, but Oklahoma State can keep its offensive momentum going with the right replacement. The Cowboys threw 503 passes in 2017, but only 13 came from Cornelius or Wudtee. Cornelius has been waiting years for his opportunity, and Wudtee is an intriguing dual-threat prospect. If neither separates this spring, Sanders should be a factor in the preseason as he comes in with the most accolades as ESPN’s No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class. Coach Mike Gundy called Sanders the most complete quarterback he has signed at Oklahoma State.

Tennessee

The candidates: Jarrett Guarantano, Will McBride

Returning starter: Guarantano (part time)

What to watch: Quinten Dormady’s decision to transfer creates a two-man race this spring between Guarantano and McBride, although Tennessee could try to add Alex Thomson, a graduate transfer from Wagner who might best fit new coordinator Tyson Helton’s system. Guarantano has a sizable experience edge here, although McBride showed good mobility in limited action as a freshman this past season. Thomson, limited to two games in 2017 because of a shoulder injury, is a pro-style quarterback who could be an ideal bridge before the new Tennessee staff cranks it up in recruiting.

Texas

The candidates:Shane Buechele, Sam Ehlinger

Returning starter: Buechele and Ehlinger both started games in 2017

What to watch: The good thing is both young players have experience. The unsettling thing is neither really emerged as a top-level Big 12 starter in 2017. Coach Tom Herman put it this way after Texas’ bowl win: “Neither of them has played so poorly that you can’t fathom them being the starter, but neither of them has played well enough to where you’re ready to anoint them.” Ehlinger played well in the bowl game but must reduce the head-scratching turnovers from his play. Buechele produced some good moments last season but struggled to stay healthy.

TCU

The candidates:Shawn Robinson, Justin Rogers

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Robinson had been pegged as Kenny Hill’s successor and still might be after showing a few flashes (6.9 yards per carry, three touchdown passes) in limited action last fall. But Rogers could create buzz this spring if he recovers in time from knee surgery. ESPN’s No. 4 dual-threat quarterback and No. 58 overall player brings tremendous upside to Sonny Cumbie’s offense, where Trevone Boykin thrived not long ago. If Robinson separates himself this spring and Rogers is still not 100 percent, TCU might opt to redshirt the true freshman. But Robinson, a heralded recruit himself, can’t let up if he wants to be the guy.

Texas Tech

The candidates: McLane Carter, Jett Duffey, Alan Bowman

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Despite Texas Tech’s uptick on defense, Kliff Kingsbury always asks a lot of his quarterback and will hold a true competition beginning this spring. Carter struggled in his lone start against Texas last season but has the experience edge entering the spring. Duffey, who attempted just two passes last season, is a dual-threat player who counters his lack of size with other strengths. Bowman, an early enrollee, might be a factor here if Carter and Duffey don’t show obvious separation.

UCLA

The candidates: Devon Modster, Matt Lynch, K.J. Carta-Samuels, Dorian Thompson-Robinson (arrives this summer)

Returning starter: None

What to watch: Josh Rosen is out and Chip Kelly is in as UCLA looks for its next quarterback, beginning in the spring. Modster backed up Rosen this past season and completed 64.6 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions in five games. Carta-Samuels, a graduate transfer from Washington who has been behind Jake Browning, adds an interesting twist to the competition. Lynch will participate in his second spring, while Thompson-Robinson, ESPN’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class, is set to sign in February and could be the best fit for Kelly’s system.

USC

The candidates: Matt Fink, Jack Sears, J.T. Daniels (arrives this summer)

Returning starter: None

What to watch: The biggest news here involves Daniels, who won’t be on campus this spring but, by reclassifying as a 2018 recruit, enters the mix for preseason camp. The Gatorade National High School Football Player of the Year threw 152 touchdown passes in three years at area power Mater Dei High School. While Fink and/or Sears can gain an advantage on Daniels with a strong spring, this race is likely to spill into the summer. USC also seems like a good destination for a graduate transfer quarterback (Michigan’s Wilton Speight?) who would add to the mix.

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