Quarterback play can make or break a team — especially one with its sights set on a conference or national title. Many of the country’s top teams from 2015 will have a first-year starter in 2016. Some coaches have already named their No. 1 QB with the season still a few weeks away. And even if they have already identified the guy internally, other coaches won’t reveal the news publicly in an effort to catch an opponent off guard.
With that said, we’ve decided to look at some of the new faces you’ll see leading offenses around the country. They are listed in no particular order.
(Note: This list doesn’t include transfers. Look for a post later this week on the top transfers to watch, quarterbacks included.)
Max Browne – USC
Browne, a redshirt junior, edged out promising redshirt freshman Sam Darnold to officially earn USC’s starting role. His first game as a starter won’t be easy. The Trojans open up their season at Cowboys Stadium against the defending national champions, Alabama. Browne only threw 19 passes as the top backup to Cody Kessler for the past two seasons, and the former five-star recruit is finally ready to take the reins. He has an experienced offensive line and plenty of weapons at his disposal, namely junior wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and running backs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis.
Browne simply knows Clay Helton’s offense, and knows it well, but the Trojans have one of the toughest schedules in the country. Browne is going to have to do more than just run the offense if USC wants to win the Pac-12.
Cooper Bateman/Jalen Hurts – Alabama
Nick Saban has proven he doesn’t need a Heisman-level quarterback to take a team a long way. The top-ranked Tide are coming off a national title with Jacob Coker, who, to his credit, steadily improved after a rough start to the season. This year, redshirt junior Cooper Bateman, true freshman Jalen Hurts and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett are competing to start. Bateman, who completed 37-of-52 passes for 291 yards last year as a backup (he also started vs. Ole Miss), has the obvious edge in experience and has reportedly been solid, but unspectacular throughout camp.
His main challenger appears to be Hurts, a four-star freshman with dual-threat abilities. Ultimately, I’d expect Bateman to begin the year as the starter and rely on his array of weapons at the skill positions, but don’t be surprised when Hurts sees the field. It could happen early in the year, too.
Keller Chryst/Ryan Burns – Stanford
Stanford won three of the last four Pac-12 titles with Kevin Hogan running the offense. David Shaw likes to control the ball and rarely asked Hogan to throw the ball more than 30 times in a game. That will continue with the Cardinal’s new starter, whether it’s redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst or redshirt junior Ryan Burns. Both are in a similar mold to Hogan, but neither has seized the starting job during camp. The two have the luxury of Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey’s return, so the offense should center on its ground attack. Shaw will go with whoever he believes can consistently move the offense and limit turnovers.
Chryst, the No. 2 QB in 2015, is still the perceived favorite and began a recent scrimmage with the first-team offense. Whoever wins the job will be tested early in the year. The Cardinal’s schedule opens with Kansas State before facing USC, UCLA and Washington in consecutive weeks.
Deondre Francois – Florida State
Even before senior Sean Maguire hurt his foot, redshirt freshman Deondre Francois was pushing him for the starting gig. Jimbo Fisher speaks highly of Maguire and may have given him the nod because of experience, and even some debt of loyalty. Maguire’s injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Noles. Francois is simply more talented than Maguire, and Maguire’s injury takes the decision out of Fisher’s hands.
Francois thrived in a scout team role in 2015 and has shown moments of pinpoint accuracy to go with his running ability. He also has the luxury of star running back Dalvin Cook and a veteran receiver corps. He can make the dynamic plays Maguire can’t. With Fisher guiding him (a la Jameis Winston), there’s no reason to think Francois won’t thrive as the Noles battle with Clemson for ACC Atlantic supremacy.
Jacob Eason – Georgia
You may see senior Greyson Lambert start out the season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, but it shouldn’t be long before five-star freshman Jacob Eason takes over. Lambert struggled at times in 2015, but was generally solid. The strong-armed Eason, once he establishes his footing, can bring a new dimension to the Bulldogs’ offense. He’s too talented not to put on the field, and he has two star running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, to rely on.
There are always growing pains with freshmen quarterbacks, but Eason enrolled early and has improved with each rep. Once he proves he can consistently run the offense and avoid turnovers, you’ll see him on the field as the Bulldogs look to contend in the SEC East.
Mitch Trubisky – North Carolina
Marquise Williams had a fantastic career at North Carolina, no doubt, but I don’t expect the Tar Heels will miss a beat with his two-year backup, Mitch Trubisky, running the show. Trubisky has always been impressive whenever he’s seen the field and is more mobile in and outside the pocket than given credit for. Larry Fedora didn’t even carry the QB competition into fall camp; Trubisky locked up the job in spring. With a veteran offensive line and a bevy of returning starters at skill positions, Trubisky should thrive in his first year as a starter for the ACC Coastal favorite Tar Heels.
Wilton Speight – Michigan
Jim Harbaugh has a decision to make, and after his makeover of Iowa transfer Jake Rudock in 2015, Michigan fans should be quite confident. UM’s quarterback competition is down to junior Wilton Speight and Houston transfer John O’Korn. While O’Korn sat out to satisfy NCAA transfer protocol, Speight was the No. 2 behind Rudock in 2015 and appeared in seven games, including throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against Minnesota in the final five minutes. O’Korn started 16 games (11 as a freshman) in two seasons at Houston, but was pretty inconsistent to go with flashes of great play.
Speight could win the job because of his dependability and understanding of the offense. Rudock won games with accuracy in the short-to-intermediate passing attack and ball control, and that’s where Speight could thrive, provided he doesn’t force things and turn the ball over.
Tago Smith – Navy
It sure won’t be easy to replace Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds started for his entire Navy career, setting a bunch of school and NCAA records in the process. It would be unfair to expect new starter Tago Smith to produce at the same level, but coach Ken Niumatalolo will definitely put the senior in position to succeed. But can Smith get the Midshipmen back to double-digit wins?
Smith has been waiting in the wings for three years, and has seen action 18 games, including two starts in 2014 when Reynolds was injured. He played well in those two starts, especially against Texas State. In that game, he rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 85 yards and two more scores. He knows the team’s option offense in-and-out and should play well enough for the Midshipmen to contend in the AAC.
Tyler O’Connor – Michigan State
Tyler O’Connor will finally get his shot to run the Michigan State offense. He hasn’t been named the Spartans’ starter officially, but all signs point toward the senior running the show in 2016. He has paid his dues, backing up Connor Cook three years in a row. With Cook off to the NFL, O’Connor has his time to shine. He knows the offense in and out, and showed his steadiness when he started for an injured Cook in last year’s upset of Ohio State.
This year, MSU opens up with FCS Furman and has a bye week before traveling to Notre Dame Sept. 17. This battle, with junior Damion Terry as his main competition, could very well carry into the season, but O’Connor should be given every opportunity to win it outright. Quarterback play could very well be the difference for MSU in the loaded Big Ten East.
Shane Buechele – Texas
This is a big year for Charlie Strong at Texas, and he will likely turn to a true freshman quarterback to help his Longhorns take the next step in their rebuild. Buechele will likely split time with senior Tyrone Swoopes to begin the year against Notre Dame. Swoopes could even start, but it would be a surprise if the freshman wasn’t receiving the bulk of the playing time by the time Big 12 play begins in October. Buechele, an early enrollee, dazzled during UT’s spring game and has looked comfortable in new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo, spread attack.
It would be a surprise if UT were a true Big 12 contender this year, but Buechele, along with the team’s rich pool of young talent, could lay the foundation for a special 2017 and beyond.
Also considered: Austin Allen – Arkansas, Trace McSorley/Tommy Stevens – Penn State, Brandon McIlwain – South Carolina, Brady White/Manny Wilkins – Arizona State, and Nick Fitzgerald – Mississippi State.
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