2014 QB Recruits with the Best Chance to Start Early
Starting at quarterback as a true freshman requires two things, both exceptionally rare, more than anything else: prodigious talent and a golden opportunity.
Jameis Winston, for example, had the first without the second two seasons ago, despite being the top-ranked player at his position.
He sat behind future first-round draft pick EJ Manuel and took a redshirt during his true freshman year. Then, to prove his bona fides at the position, he won the Heisman Trophy and led Florida State to the national title the following season.
A player must have both to start right away.
Doing so is not unheard of, though, as proven by blue-chippers like Christian Hackenberg in 2013. He and Davis Webb at Texas Tech both bested the odds and got significant playing time for a power-conference team right out of high school.
With so much time between now and next season (sigh), it's hard to know for sure which guys stand the best chance of following suit.
But in terms of both talent and opportunity, some stand far ahead of their peers.
All recruiting information, unless otherwise noted, via 247Sports.
Worth Keeping an Eye on
David Cornwell, Alabama
David Cornwell has a huge arm, and Alabama has a glaring need under center. But the Tide also have a gluttony of more experienced options, especially now that Jacob Coker is in town, and Nick Saban prefers to let young quarterbacks sit for a year.
Foster Sawyer, TCU
Foster Sawyer and fellow freshman Grayson Muehlstein walk into a situation much like Texas Tech in 2013. Casey Pachall is gone, Trevone Boykin is far better at receiver than quarterback and Gary Patterson doesn't plan on playing things safe. Either (or both) could see trial by fire in the Big 12 this season.
Chris Durkin, Virginia Tech
Chris Durkin flipped from Michigan State to the Hokies, ostensibly for the chance to compete for a starting job next season. "If I go in there and prove I can be the guy," Durkin said, according to Kevin Connelly of the Youngstown Vindicator, "they told me they have no problem starting me as a freshman."
Jalan McClendon, North Carolina State
Brandon Mitchell graduated, Pete Thomas is set to transfer and Garrett Leatham is a former walk-on whose arm leaves much to be desired. N.C. State has quietly morphed into "Quarterback U" these past few seasons, grooming Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon into future NFL starters, and it might want to get an early jump on doing the same for Jalan McClendon, the No. 15 pro-style passer in the class.
Will Grier, Florida
Even if Will Grier is as good as advertised, and even if Jeff Driskel takes longer than expected to return from a broken leg, it's hard to imagine Will Muschamp starting a true freshman in his make-or-break season. No matter what anyone says, this is Driskel's job to lose, not Grier or anyone else's job to win.
Kyle Allen, Texas A&M
The last top-ranked passer who did was Matt Barkley in 2009.
Still, Allen will be given a chance to compete for the right to replace Johnny Football, and he'll get a jumpstart after enrolling early in January. With all of the tools (and most of the polish) to become a high NFL draft pick, Allen will, at the very least, merit a close look from Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
The competition, however, might be a little too much for Allen to overcome. Matt Joeckel is an experienced senior and Kenny Hill, a sophomore, is a darling of the staff with an extra year of experience in Sumlin's system.
Allen is a real possibility, sure. He's just a longshot.
Drew Barker, Kentucky
Kentucky fans will not want to wait before reaping the rewards of this seminal recruiting class. Neither will the coaches and, quite frankly, the players. They want to win now.
Typically, wanting to win now and starting a true freshman at quarterback do not go hand in hand.
However, with the incessant injury problems of quarterback Maxwell Smith, who will miss spring practice following shoulder surgery, and the relative struggles of Jalen Whitlow, the time might be right for Drew Barker to step in and claim the job right away.
Barker is a hulking, 6'4'' prospect with a big arm, good mechanics and decent mobility—the type of quarterback that often doesn't end up at Kentucky. The sixth-ranked, pro-style passer in the class, he is one of the most anticipated signees in Wildcats football history.
And head coach Mark Stoops knows it.
"They're really looking for me to come in and start as a true freshman," Barker said, according to Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "They want me to come in and play."
Brandon Harris, LSU
Anthony Jennings was able to steer the ship in relief of Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL against Arkansas, during the final game and a half of LSU's season. He was solid enough to win both contests and even led a game-winning, 99-yard drive to beat the Razorbacks.
He didn't, however, make an emphatic statement or look like a home run candidate to keep the starting job. It can be forgiven, since Iowa's defense was actually quite good last year, but Jennings finished the Outback Bowl with a lackluster 82 yards on 19 passing attempts.
Brandon Harris was the third-ranked, dual-threat quarterback in the nation, and he's more game-ready than people might wrongfully assume. He's enrolled for spring practice which Harris thinks gives him "a great shot at trying to compete and start as a freshman," according to Scott Hotard of The Advocate.
B/R's Michael Felder concurs, as seen in the video above. Harris and running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit, might be sharing a backfield sooner rather than later.
Brad Kaaya, Miami
In a perfect world—at least for Miami fans—either Brad Kaaya or Kevin Olsen would play well enough to win this job with little debate, saving the program from weeks upon months of quarterback controversy leading up to the season.
In an even more perfect world, it would be Kaaya over Olson.
The 4-star passer from California was a mainstay on "most underrated prospects" lists this cycle, though titles like that are hard to place much stock in. Still, Kaaya has a tall, wiry frame and good arm strength, and he showed well at the Elite 11 Finals last June.
Olsen and Ryan Williams will put up a fight, and with so much talent returning—that is, a team built to win in 2014—Al Golden might prefer someone from that duo, a more experienced option, to start the year.
Unless, of course, Kaaya makes too strong of a case to play.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Tajh Boyd leaves a substantial void in the Clemson Tigers backfield, but head coach Dabo Swinney does not lack for good options to replace him.
Senior Cole Stoudt and sophomore Chad Kelly are more than qualified, in terms of both talent and experience, to step in and capably lead the offense next season. Both are safe choices with modest upside.
Deshaun Watson is neither—not a safe choice nor a player with modest upside. He's a dangerous choice, being that he's only a true freshman, but his upside is enormous.
Watson enrolled early and will participate in spring practice, something Swinney said "gives him a realistic chance" at the job, according to B/R's Greg Wallace.
"Is (Watson) good enough?," Swinney continued. "Absolutely."