SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder breaks down the five quarterbacks you should be watching this season.
USA TODAY Sports
One hails from Firebaugh, Calif., where he was unable to earn a single scholarship out of high school. He spent one season in the junior college ranks before surfacing in the Mountain West Conference as a zero-star recruit.
Another began his college career with a Group of Five program before re-evaluating his choice amid a coaching change, eventually settling on a college football blue blood led by a coaching staff known for its quarterback development.
A third was anointed as the next great college star before he even took a snap — and quickly justified those immense expectations as a true freshman, only to suffer an injury-marred sophomore slump.
In the same city, a fourth arrived on campus with far less advance billing but has since become the most hyped player in the sport, making national headlines in leading his team beyond a sluggish start to last season and to the forefront of this year’s College Football Playoff chase.
The fifth is the quietest, least-discussed Heisman Trophy winner in recent history, even as his on-field exploits — a jaw-dropping run here, a laser-guided scoring strike there — made his 2016 campaign the stuff of highlight-reel legend.
And the sixth stands as the Heisman front-runner after back-to-back finishes in the voting’s top five, a player who might need only subtle tweaks and adjustments to stand as college football’s most unstoppable player.
They come from different places and took wildly different roads. Some had private quarterback coaches. Others did not. A few seemed destined for greatness. Others were unknowns until a single pass, run, touchdown or victory put them on the map.
But this group, despite their varying backgrounds and different locales, are bound together by a single fact: From coast to coast, on the Power Five and Group of Five ranks, this year’s quarterback class might be the best in recent college football history.
Based on just the game film from last season, the crop of 2018 draft-eligible quarterbacks has the potential to be far deeper and more talented than the 2017 group that lacked a consensus No.1 quarterback, an AFC scout who has begun studying the quarterbacks told USA TODAY Sports. The scout spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about prospects.
“It’s going to be a deep class,” the scout told USA TODAY Sports.
Added former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, “Last year at this time, and really as late the (scouting) combine, we were saying there might not be a QB going first round. All of a sudden we had three, could have had four or five.”
The No. 1 Pick. The Transfer. The Phenom. The Hyped One. The Heisman Winner. The Heisman Favorite. Meet the quarterbacks who will dominate this coming season — before doing the same in next year’s NFL draft.
The No. 1 pick: Josh Allen, Wyoming
The following anecdote might not come as a surprise: Allen once told his roommate, former Wyoming wide receiver Joe Parker, that he’d be taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
But Allen didn’t make this prediction while his stock was growing in recent months, or even last fall, when his rocket arm and pocket savvy led the wildly overlooked recruit from central California to pop up on the radar of NFL scouts and personnel executives. He made this bold claim last spring, after having participated in 15 plays on the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“If no one else is going to believe in you, at least you’ve got yourself,” Allen said. “I’m just an extremely confident guy, and I think I’m the best quarterback in the country. I don’t know why I believed it. It’s just the things I feel like I can do are better than what other people can do.”
Allen has blazed a path from Firebaugh, where he earned no scholarship offers as a senior, to potentially being the first overall pick in next spring’s NFL draft, a fact that would fulfill his bold claim, albeit one year later than projected.
He has the arm. The athleticism. The almost limitless room for growth. All that’s missing for Allen might be experience.
He spent one year at a junior college in Reedley, Calif., before enrolling at Wyoming, and took just those 15 snaps in 2015 before a season-ending injury in the second game. It was enough to cause Allen to fly under the radar. But the secret is out: Wyoming is home to the QB projected at this early stage to top next year’s draft.
“I don’t want to be a quarterback that’s drafted in the first round and then four years later it’s like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” Allen said. “I want to play 15-plus years. I want to be known as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. And I know to do that you have to start well. The NFL isn’t going away. It’ll be there next year.”
Contributing: Lindsay H. Jones
The Hyped One: Sam Darnold, Southern California
Darnold won’t don sunglasses and pull a hood over his head when walking to class on Southern California’s campus, even if his decision to avoid anonymity will force the redshirt sophomore to sometimes stop for handshakes and high-fives with fellow members of the student body.
“That’s who he is,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
On the field and off, Darnold has become impossible to ignore.
Few players in recent memory have taken the Football Bowl Subdivision with such force. In the span of 10 games — from his first start, at Utah, through the Trojans’ win in the Rose Bowl against Penn State — Darnold has gone from a player known only inside the program’s doors to perhaps the most intriguing quarterback prospect in the country. NFL scouts have taken notice.
It all began to change with his debut against Utah, a game that turned the tide for the Trojans’ season and, perhaps, the program as a whole. Darnold has since been labeled the next great quarterback to come from one of the great quarterback factories in college football.
He follows a lineage that since 1998 includes Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley, to name a few.
“I’m not worried about the hype or anything like that,” Darnold said. “But, yeah, I definitely realize that there is hype. I’m not blind to that. You’ve really got to put that in the rearview mirror and focus on what’s ahead of you.”
Given how quickly he entered the upper echelon of college quarterbacks, it’s not surprising to see Darnold floated as a potential top NFL draft pick next spring. It’s equally unsurprising to hear him push aside any individual accolades in favor of focusing on the team. Darnold isn’t paying attention to the hype.
“It kind of blows my mind, but I kind of expected it out of myself,” he said. “I kind of expect to win a lot of games. The stuff that comes with it, the sword and the Fight On (USC’s fight song) and all that, that’s all great. But I just expect to play well. That’s the only thing that really matters.
“If I do that, then the other stuff is just going to come.”
The Heisman Winner: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
He leaped over defenders. He juked left and right, leaving tacklers empty-handed, and then stepped deep into the pocket to loft a downfield pass, striking fear into opposing defensive coordinators equally aware of his running ability and arm strength. Then he did it again and again and again.
It was a season to remember — and one that will forever be remembered in one way, as part of the elite fraternity of Heisman Trophy winners.
So why does it seem as if Jackson is the most overlooked returning Heisman Trophy winner in recent college football history?
It might be that he’s playing at Louisville, which is making clear strides toward a major bowl yet lacks the cachet of a Florida State or Clemson, to name two rivals within the Cardinals’ division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Or that his surge into the national conversation seemed so unpredictable. Jackson was good during the latter stages of his freshman season, but few could have predicted what was coming in 2016.
And as it stands, it’s hard to imagine Jackson joining Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners in Heisman history — because it’s only happened once, for starters, but also because others have already claimed his Heisman momentum since the start of the offseason.
But make no mistake: The Jackson that returns in 2017 will be even better than the one who took college football by storm a year ago.
“I feel mature,” Jackson said this spring. “I feel like I’ve grown into the system more this year. I am ready to play.”
The thought of an improved Jackson is enough to lead those same defensive coordinators to throw up their hands in despair.
Quicker? Faster? Stronger? Each of those, not to mention he’s more experienced and better at reading defenses, assets that will allow Louisville to even further unleash the potential of its imposing offense.
“We worked hard on him playing under the center and doing things we like to do from under the center,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “We worked hard on throwing the ball down the field and him really improving on his progression reads and sets in the pocket.”
And Jackson is hungry, Petrino said. For what? To lead his team to the top of the ACC. On an individual level, to improve as a pure passer; this is the last thing NFL teams are looking for, at least, as they pick apart his game in advance of his move to the next level.
Most of all, to prove that his 2016 season was far from a flash in the pan — and that the Heisman is his until proved otherwise.
“Can’t say enough about his attitude and effort,” Petrino said. “Because he comes to work every day with a smile, wants to learn, gets in the classroom and is eager to learn and get better, and then goes out on the field and practices hard and enjoys every minute of practice on the field.”
USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken reveals the preseason poll, which includes four Big Ten teams in the top 10.
USA TODAY Sports
The Transfer: Tanner Lee, Nebraska
Lee wasn’t recommended to Mike Riley once or twice but three times, from a trio of trusted sources close to Nebraska’s third-year head coach who praised the potential transfer from Tulane.
The first was Riley’s former colleague with the San Diego Chargers, Billy Devaney, who is now Nebraska’s executive director of player personnel. The second was the Cornhuskers’ wide receivers coach, Keith Williams, who held the same position at Tulane when Lee was the Green Wave’s starting quarterback. The third was ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen, who had seen Lee throw at the Manning Passing Academy in the summer of 2015 and came away impressed.
“It was the perfect fit for us,” Riley said.
Since arriving on campus last summer, Lee has commanded the Cornhuskers scout team — drawing raves from starting defenders in the process — learned the playbook and, this past spring, outdueled redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien for the starting job.
Expectations are immense for a player who, as he’ll readily admit, struggled at times during his two seasons as the starter at Tulane. But that’s one reason why he embraced the chance to play at Nebraska, which was in need of a quarterback with Lee’s NFL-ready arm and pocket presence.
“I’ve definitely always dreamed of being able to play at a school like this,” Lee said. “That’s always what I really wanted. Going back to being 12 years old, this is what you sort of envision.”
He has found in Riley a longtime quarterback whisperer, dating to his days at Oregon State, and an offense that fits a pro-style skill set. It’s a mutually beneficial situation: Lee wanted to find the right fit. Nebraska needed a quarterback.
“I’m extremely lucky to have this opportunity,” he said. “And I’m just trying to kill it. Because I don’t think a lot of people bounce back in my situation. So I’m really lucky.”
The Heisman Favorite: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Shortly after the end of last season, Mayfield met with his then-offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, to find an answer to the question that would define his offseason: What can we do in the next eight months to lift you — and thereby this team — to another level?
“That’s something that we certainly do progressively as we go through any given year,” said Riley, who was promoted to Oklahoma’s head coach after Bob Stoops’ abrupt retirement in June. “But, yeah, that was a big point this year.”
They discussed several areas for improvement. One was getting off to a better start; Mayfield and Oklahoma stumbled out of the gate with two early losses before finding a rhythm in Big 12 Conference play.
Another was developing a rapport with the Sooners’ new-look collection of offensive skill talent — and with a changed receiver group in particular. They spoke about fundamentals. About Mayfield’s pocket presence. His footwork. His ability to diagnose defenses.
But while it might seem like a laundry list of potential sticking points, a consensus has been reached inside Oklahoma’s football offices: There’s no need to fix Mayfield — only to make slight changes to a player considered one of the greatest in the program’s proud history.
“That’s always twofold,” Riley said. “You want to pick out a few things you see here and there. But the ones like that, you don’t want to take away from what makes them good.”
And what separates Mayfield from the pack of quarterbacks are his arm and his ability to improvise.
Don’t forget that Mayfield’s junior campaign in 2016 was easily one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in college football history. He threw for 40 touchdowns, completed more than 70% of his attempts and set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with a 196.4 quarterback efficiency rating.
So it’s not broken. Why fix it? After back-to-back finishes in the Heisman Trophy top five, Mayfield should be viewed as the favorite to take home the award as a senior.
“The guy’s a thrower,” Riley said. “You pick out things every now and then, but the guy as a thrower is elite. There’s not many people who can throw the ball the way he can. He can make all the different throws and change his arm angle. He’s just a great thrower.”
The Phenom: Josh Rosen, UCLA
Rosen was viewed as a rare talent when he was a recruit, a quarterback seemingly destined for college and NFL stardom with an arm and mind-set so beyond his years it seemed inevitable that he would hit the ground running as a freshman at UCLA.
And he did. As a rookie in 2015, Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Bruins, fulfilling the enormous expectations and promise that accompanied his arrival.
Then came his sophomore year, an injury-marred campaign that came to serve as a stand-in for UCLA’s struggles as a whole. A shoulder ailment limited Rosen to six games, none after Oct. 8, for one of the nation’s most disappointing teams. The Bruins finished 4-8.
“Sitting home and watching guys play on TV is kind of a bummer,” Rosen said. “You just really wish you were there to help them out.”
Rosen’s first two seasons can serve as a reminder: It’s not easy to be anointed the next great quarterback.
But his third season — potentially his last — provides the junior with an opportunity to regain his stride.
If he does so, it will be in no small part thanks to a season spent primarily on the sidelines.
“Physically, I learned more about my body than ever before,” Rosen said of last fall.
It might be that Rosen was pegged for greatness ahead of schedule.
It also might be true that the phenom needed to taste adversity to grow into what most expected he’d eventually become: the most NFL-ready quarterback to grace college football this decade.
“A lot of it’s being older,” he said. “Everything evolves with time. I think I’ve grown more this offseason than in any offseason since I started playing football. I’ve learned a lot about what this sport means to me.”
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