Six Spring Practice QB Battles with National Championship Implications
CLEMSON, S.C. – Tuesday afternoon, Dabo Swinney extolled the virtues of spring.
“It’s always fun to start to build a new team,” Clemson’s head coach said. “That’s the great thing about college football, you really start over every year. Everybody has to move on, and that’s just the nature of college football.”
Swinney knows all about starting over: he and offensive coordinator Chad Morris return just four starters from a talented, potent offense that averaged 40.2 points per game in 2013, keying the Tigers’ run to an 11-2 record and Orange Bowl title.
Among the positions up for grab as the Tigers’ spring practice begins Wednesday afternoon? Quarterback.
Tajh Boyd, who holds 53 Clemson and ACC career records (including Clemson’s marks for passing yards, passing touchdowns, total touchdowns and completions and the ACC record for passing touchdowns) is gone, leaving highly-touted freshman DeShaun Watson, steady senior Cole Stoudt and talented sophomore Chad Kelly to compete for the position.
Clemson’s quarterback battle is one of only a number of high-profile signal-caller competitions that will take place across college football this spring and summer.
Here’s a look at the high-profile quarterback competitions which will shape and affect national championship contenders and the national title pictures, and how they’ll unfold this spring.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
A.J. McCarron was one of the most successful quarterbacks in college football history. While McCarron faced the label of “game manager”, here’s the truth: all he did was win. McCarron finished his collegiate career 36-4 with two national titles, and that record came in spite of losing his final two college games, to Auburn and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Kiffin and Saban will watch five quarterbacks compete, and that doesn’t even take into account one of the nation’s most promising transfers who won’t arrive until May.
Rising senior Blake Sims served as McCarron’s backup last season, completing 18-of-29 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns but having little opportunity to prove himself when the situation mattered.
Alabama runs a pro-style offense, and Sims has a good arm that can fit in well. But even going into his final season of college football, he is mostly an unproven commodity under the SEC’s hot lights.
Rising sophomore Alec Morris didn’t take a snap last season but has a collegiate frame, standing 6’3”, 230 pounds. Alabama fans’ longest look at him came in Alabama’s 2013 spring game, which saw him complete 10-of-18 passes for 141 yards. But he wasn’t even the Tide’s No. 3 quarterback—Luke Del Rio, who transferred to Oregon State, had that honor.
Redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman has an excellent arm: the Salt Lake City native was rated as the nation’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback in 2013, per247Sports. He is a mobile, accurate passer who can throw downfield and keep the chains moving in a number of ways.
Early enrollee David Cornwell is a 4-star recruit who is coming off right knee surgery that ended his season in October, but he is an elite quarterback rated as the nation’s No. 4 pro-style recruit, per 247Sports.com.
He stands 6’5”, 241 pounds and has excellent arm strength, giving him the ability to thrive in a pro-style offense.
In addition, redshirt freshman Parker McLeod sat last fall after picking Alabama over Louisville, Oklahoma State, Boston College and Syracuse. He stands 6’3”, 193 pounds and has a reputation as a game manager. He’ll have to do more to emerge from a crowded field of signal-callers.
That said, Alabama’s 2014 starter might not even be on campus yet.
In late January, Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker officially finalized his long-expected transfer to Alabama. With Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on campus, Coker wasn’t going to receive meaningful snaps this fall, so he utilized an NCAA rule that allows players to transfer to a program that allows a compatible graduate program should they finish their degree in three years. He’ll have two years of eligibility remaining.
Coker stands 6’5”, 230 pounds, and should be an excellent fit. After all, Saban protégé Jimbo Fisher has modeled FSU’s program after Alabama’s, and the Crimson Tide loves pro-style quarterbacks like Coker.
In 2013, he completed 18-of-36 passes for 250 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in mop-up duty. He’ll have his chance to lead a program in Tuscaloosa, and even though he won’t arrive until May, AL.com’s Andrew Gribble calls Coker “the leader in the clubhouse.”
Boyd was one of the most prolific, successful quarterbacks in Clemson and ACC history. He ended his career tied for Clemson’s all-time quarterback wins record and holds every significant program statistical mark. In other words, his replacement has some big cleats to fill.
But Swinney is confident that he has the man on campus to do it. He just isn’t sure who he is yet.
Clemson will choose between three candidates: rising senior Cole Stoudt (Boyd’s backup for the last three seasons), mobile rising sophomore Chad Kelly and highly-touted true freshman DeShaun Watson.
“It’s going to be fun to watch it happen, take place before our eyes,” Swinney said. “Everything counts. It’s going to be incredibly competitive. I think we’ve got probably three guys for sure that can play on Sundays. It’s not a situation where we don’t have talent at that position.
“I think we’ve got great talent. It’d be like when we had James Davis, C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington (at tailback). “We’ve got to decide who to run out there first. They’re all great players, NFL guys. I think if these guys stay healthy, make good decisions and develop into leaders, I think all three have the chance to play at the next level.”
For now, however, Swinney is only worried about who’ll take the first snap against Georgia in the season opener and says whoever that is “doesn’t have a lifetime contract.”
“Maybe one guy separates, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll let them go at it. If someone emerges out of spring clearly No. 1, great. If not we’ll let it keep going. Maybe the situation won’t settle until we get into games.”
Swinney said that Stoudt is “the most proven.” Last fall he completed 79.7 percent of his passes and threw for 415 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He is more of a pocket passer than the other two quarterbacks.
Kelly was a 4-star signee in 2012, rated as the nation's No. 5 dual-threat QB by 247Sports. He recovered from a torn ACL suffered in Clemson’s spring game to serve as the Tigers’ No. 3 quarterback, completing 10 of 17 passes for 58 yards while adding 117 yards rushing and a 38-yard rushing score. The nephew of NFL Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly, he has excellent mobility and a solid arm.
Watson enrolled early after a standout prep career at Gainesville (Ga.) High School. He was rated as a 4-star signee and the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports. He was a four-year starter at Gainesville, rolling up 13,000 yards passing and over 4,000 yards rushing and calling his own plays at the line in a spread offense very similar to what Chad Morris runs.
“He has all the credentials,” Swinney said. “He’s played in this type of system for four years, has played in camps here, he has a great understanding of what to do. He’s kind of the unknown. We’ll see how he responds.”
Stoudt should be considered the leader given his experience in Morris’ offense and steady play, but don’t count out Watson if he can pick up the system quickly, given his clear talent.
Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron knew they’d face a challenge in replacing prolific quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. However, that challenge came early as Mettenberger tore his ACL in the regular season finale against Arkansas, ending his career.
Anthony Jennings keyed the Tigers’ comeback, leading a 99-yard game-winning drive capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Duvral. He also led an Outback Bowl win over Iowa, but struggled, completing seven-of-19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
He is an athletic quarterback, but he’ll face a spring challenge from incoming true freshman Brandon Harris, rated as the nation’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports. Harris has excellent arm strength and the ability to function well in Cameron’s pro-style offense.
However, as the incumbent, Jennings should have the upper hand this spring if he can flash more of the skills that made him successful against Arkansas.
Devin Gardner was the heir apparent to Denard Robinson, but his first season as a starter was largely a disappointment. Gardner threw for 2,960 yards passing with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, adding 483 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, but the Wolverines went only 7-6.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges was fired, replaced by Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama. A new offensive coordinator could mean additional pressure on Gardner, but it must be noted that Gardner showed impressive toughness behind a shaky offensive line. He played the entire second half against Ohio State on a broken foot, coming a missed two-point conversion short of a major upset victory in a 42-41 defeat.
The broken foot sidelined him for the Wolverines’ Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State, allowing backup Shane Morris, a true freshman, a chance to shine. Morris completed 19-of-31 passes for 198 yards and an interception, adding 40 yards rushing.
Morris will offer Gardner a challenge, but Gardner is competing fully in spring practice. Assuming Gardner picks up Nussmeier’s system quickly, the rising senior should hold off Morris this fall.
In just two seasons of college football, Johnny Manziel went from obscurity into a blinding spotlight which will follow him to the NFL. The controversy which plagued his final season in College Station is gone, but the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner leaves a massive shadow behind. The Aggies’ next quarterback must replace one of the nation’s most exciting, electric players—Manziel threw for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 2013, adding 759 yards rushing and nine rushing scores.
Three quarterbacks will compete this spring to replace Manziel: rising senior Matt Joeckel, rising sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen.
Joeckel is the veteran. He started A&M’s opener last fall against Rice when Manziel was suspended for a half and is more of a pocket passer than Manziel was. He served as Manziel’s backup last fall and will likely get the first shot to replace him. The Dallas Morning News reported that A&M’s official account tweeted out a picture showing Joeckel with the first-team offense.
Hill is an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who is far more like Manziel, which could give him an edge if offensive coordinator Jake Spavital is looking for a similar skill set.
And that doesn’t take into account true freshman Kyle Allen, rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and No. 10 overall prospect. He is already enrolled and going through spring practice, which will give him a chance to acclimate early and potentially challenge for the starting role.
It is a wide-open battle, with all three quarterbacks potentially staking a claim to the job. Texas A&M is not expected to name a quarterback before this fall, and the competition will be one of the nation’s most intriguing.
Last fall, rising junior Cody Kessler grabbed the starting job under Lane Kiffin’s watch and kept it under interim coach Ed Orgeron following Kiffin’s firing, leading the Trojans to a 10-4 finish and Las Vegas Bowl win over Fresno State.
Kessler threw for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and backup Max Wittek transferred following the season. He finished on a high, throwing for 345 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions in the bowl game.
However, Kessler will have to prove himself all over again following the arrival of new head coach Steve Sarkisian, hired away from Pac-12 rival Washington.
Highly-regarded quarterback Max Browne will be his prime competition. Browne is an athletic signalcaller who was rated as the No.1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2013 by 247Sports—he redshirted last fall.
Kessler has the game tape and the experience, but will he be able to hold off Browne? We’ll see what the new staff thinks.