College Football's Top QBs Entering 2014 Spring Practice

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterMarch 10, 2014

College Football's Top QBs Entering 2014 Spring Practice

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    2013 was a special season for the quarterback position. The collegiate landscape saw a redshirt freshman win the Heisman for the second season in a row. The sport also saw its most popular face, Johnny Manziel, put on a show almost every week. In addition, new faces emerged like UCF's Blake Bortles, and overall, plenty of talent played at the position.

    In some places, such as the SEC, 2014 will be about new faces stepping up, as proven winners march toward the NFL. Meanwhile, in the Pac-12, which is rich in returning quarterbacks, this season will be about which signal-caller can get his team into the playoff.

    As spring ball gets rolling, this season should be a banner year for quarterbacks. The reigning Heisman winner is back in Tallahassee, his BCS Championship opponent's passer returns to The Plains to improve, and Oklahoma believes it has the guy to lead the Sooners back to the top of the Big 12.

    This list is comprised of players who are predicted to put up big seasons, lead teams to double-digit wins and post monumental production numbers. Here, in alphabetical order, is a look at some of the best quarterbacks who are coming back for 2014.

Brett Hundley

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    Heading into Week 8, UCLA was in the Top 10, and quarterback Brett Hundley was becoming a player who could challenge to be a top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Then, after back-to-back losses to Stanford and Oregon, it was clear the redshirt sophomore had work to do on his game. The only question, of course, would be whether his work came at the college level or in the NFL.

    He answered that question in January when he elected to return to UCLA for his fourth season. The redshirt junior is one of the most talented quarterbacks in college, and this season will be about honing those talents to grow more consistent in his play. The Bruins return a lot of talent and, most importantly, head coach Jim Mora, who will continue building toward success.

    UCLA has a solid shot at reaching the playoff. If Hundley can get more consistent, his team will have the defense to back him up in controlling the Pac-12 and pushing for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Taylor Kelly

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    The Sun Devils finished the regular season 10-2 but ended up 10-4 following two far-from-ideal performances. Stanford manhandled Sparky in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and Texas Tech did the same in the Holiday Bowl.

    In 2014, quarterback Taylor Kelly, and the returning Sun Devils, will have to close out the season better.

    Running back Marion Grice, who missed the final three games, will certainly be a loss for Todd Graham's team, as will the departure of tight end Chris Coyle. However, the top two pass-catchers return for Kelly to work with, and that serves to benefit the 2013 Pac-12 South champions.

    Kelly and his offensive teammates have to click because the defense in Tempe is going to take time to sort itself out. Losing Will Sutton and Carl Bradford means replacing some key pieces.

Trevor Knight

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    Trevor Knight played in seven games with less than inspiring results in a season that was worth forgetting. Then he played his eighth game and set the world, and the Alabama Crimson Tide, on fire in New Orleans. Now, after finally arriving on the scene, he enters 2014 with the nation's eyes upon him.

    Starting in the spring, he has to continue to improve his consistency. There were times when he looked excellent on the ground. The Sugar Bowl saw him play superbly in the passing game. Now, it is on Knight and the Oklahoma staff to combine both elements to produce winning results consistently.

    Of the quarterbacks listed, Knight is an interesting one to watch because he is still an unknown. The flashes are there, and this spring will start the process of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel pulling more than just glimpses of talent out of his quarterback. With Blake Bell out of the mix and Kendal Thompson headed to Utah, this spring will be a perfect time for Knight to grow.

Marcus Mariota

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    Even with two losses on his tab for 2013, Marcus Mariota was expected to be at the top of most teams' draft boards in May. Yet the redshirt sophomore decided to return to school, hoping to lead the Ducks back to the top of the college football world. 

    While many casual fans will focus on the loss of De'Anthony Thomas as a blow to the Ducks' hopes, the return of Hroniss Grasu, Mariota's center, is a bigger positive than the loss of DAT. Grasu and Mariota will anchor a team that has Bralon Addison, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner back in the fold.

    Explosive plays should again be plentiful in Eugene.

    As for the quarterback, 2014 will be about proving to scouts that he has the goods to be the top signal-caller on the draft board. Mariota has the raw skills; this campaign will be about him putting those tools to use, even in the face of adversity.

Nick Marshall

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    Auburn is one of the few teams that lose a 1,000-yard rusher while returning another. As Tre Mason takes his 1,816 yards to the NFL, Nick Marshall brings his 1,068 yards back to The Plains to help power Gus Malzahn's offense. Marshall was masterful with his reads, and getting that quality back into the fold is a tremendous boost to the Tigers' playoff hopes.

    Another push that Auburn is hoping to get from the quarterback position is the expansion of Marshall's role. The former Georgia defensive back threw for just 1,976 yards in 2013, and in order to maximize Malzahn's scheme, look for Marshall to be pushed to improve through the air. 

    In the spring, the key for him will be meshing with the receivers and Malzahn to expand the passing game. That means the quarterback must do a better job of identifying coverages, making quick reads and delivering accurate footballs to his targets. If Marshall improves on those elements, he could find himself in the Heisman race.

Braxton Miller

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    After a 12-0 run through the 2013 season and a 24-0 run over the last two seasons, Braxton Miller and Ohio State took a loss in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes followed that up with another loss in the Orange Bowl to an inspired Clemson team. 

    In 2014, Miller is back, albeit without stud running back Carlos Hyde, but this team is talented and hoping to make it to the College Football Playoff. The quarterback is sitting out the spring due to surgery, and while his team will miss out on him jelling with the new offensive line, Urban Meyer and his staff are keeping Miller engaged in practice. Spring will effectively be an advanced and extended film session for the quarterback, helping him grow the mental element of the game.

    Miller will enter 2014 as a front-runner for the Heisman. With plenty of talent back in Columbus, the Buckeyes should be the favorite to win the Big Ten. As Miller expands his game through mental reps, he should keep eyes on the defensive side of the ball as well; the quarterback will need the other side of the ball to help him make it to the four-team playoff.

Bryce Petty

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    Art Briles got his Baylor Bears into a BCS bowl game; now, in the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff, the head coach, and his team, is looking for more. That means getting great play from returning quarterback Bryce Petty.

    He was the third Baylor starting quarterback in as many years to come out and set the field ablaze with his skills. Unlike Nick Florence in 2012 and Robert Griffin III in 2011, Petty did his damage almost exclusively through the air. He ran for just 209 yards on the season, not the 568-plus yards of his predecessors.

    The rising senior will have to turn it up in 2014 if the Bears are hoping to build on the Big 12 Championship. He does get Antwan Goodley back into the fold, and that is a start for an offense that has no shortage of opportunities for the players involved. The Baylor quarterback enters as the cream of the Big 12 crop, but the nation will be watching to see if he can improve on his 2013 production.

Keenan Reynolds

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    While the nation looks at Auburn's Nick Marshall as the best running quarterback, Navy's Keenan Reynolds quietly lets his numbers speak for themselves. Last year, the signal-caller rushed for 1,346 yards and 31 touchdowns in addition to throwing for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Running the traditional triple option is not an easy task, but no one does it better than Reynolds. The rising junior is hoping to continue to power the Midshipmen toward a double-digit season. A season ago, Navy lost two contests by five total points, putting the win total at nine games. This year, Navy will continue pushing to climb the ladder.

    Despite the national view of the quarterback position, Reynolds fits into exactly what the Midshipmen need. He's a leader on the gridiron, and his reads, while running the option, are spectacular, which help Navy move the ball up and down the field with relative ease.

Jameis Winston

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    Jameis Winston is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and his Florida State team is preparing to make its second run at greatness in 2014. There are big losses on both sides of the ball, but getting Winston back, plus receiver Rashad Greene and running back Karlos Williams, means the foundation is strong for Jimbo Fisher's team.

    Winston, for many people, is the best quarterback returning in 2014 and seems destined to be the top pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Before that time comes, however, look for him to continue to hone his skills and help lead Florida State into college football's new postseason.

    The quarterback has a big arm, his accuracy is elite, and he has proved to be calm under pressure; take the final drive of the BCS Championship Game as an example. He will have to be more consistent, avoiding some of the pressing that led to mistakes during the season. As 2014 progresses, he will be battling to be the nation's top quarterback, and winning goes a long way.

Other Notable Quarterbacks

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    In the SEC, Maty Mauk, Dylan Thompson and Hutson Mason are all worth noting as guys who are ready to be the full-time starters for their teams. Mauk showed he could lead the Tigers during the stretch of 2013 when James Franklin was injured. Thompson played big in spots when his starter Connor Shaw went down. Mason, if his receivers can hang onto the football, should be a quality signal-caller in Athens.

    Connor Cook, at Michigan State, was perhaps the biggest surprise at the quarterback position in 2013. The Spartan got the starting job during the season and grew from a kid who was just finding his way into a reliable asset for the eventual Rose Bowl champions. This year, it is his team, and with his confidence growing, watch for Michigan State to put more on his plate.

    Then, of course, there is Everett Golson, whom everyone is waiting to see in South Bend, Ind. The quarterback was out of school due to an academic violation in 2013, but now he is back in the fold, and Notre Dame expects to blossom under the return of its leader.

    Another big returner will be Utah State's Chuckie Keeton. The dynamic quarterback returns from injury this summer, and if he is up to form, he could be the key to a dream season for the Aggies. Also out of the non-AQ ranks, keep any eye on Shane Carden at ECU, Rakeem Cato at Marshall and John O'Korn at Houston.