Wednesday, July 24, 2024

College football QB battles to watch in spring: Michigan, Ohio State, USC among intriguing competitions

College football spring practices are in full swing, and while the schedule is staggered around spring breaks and different scrimmage dates on the schedule, the end of March is when we really start to focus on the big question marks for top teams in the sport. No spring practice storyline draws more intrigue than quarterback battles, and as we prepare for the 2024 season, there are some teams poised to be contenders that have yet to settle on their starter at the most important position. 

Coaches enjoy competition, and some even like to declare that “every position is up for grabs” in spring practice to encourage development. In reality, though, we can pencil in the QB1 in several spots, mostly where there is an incumbent starter returning but even in some cases where there’s turnover. 

Georgia’s Carson Beck, TexasQuinn Ewers, Penn State’s Drew Allar and Ole MissJaxson Dart are all going through spring ball handling their starting business for potential top-10 teams. While a coaching change and transfers have introduced competition, Jalen Milroe is expected to be the starter at Alabama until he either falters or is supplanted. Notre Dame’s acquisition of Riley Leonard in the transfer portal makes the QB2 battle in South Bend, Indiana, more interesting than QB1. And after two years of backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels, the buzz around LSU is that Garrett Nussmeier is ready to take control of the explosive Tigers offense. 

That leaves several top teams and other notable programs without any surefire answers at quarterback, however. We’ve highlighted seven below with a spotlight on the contenders and an outlook on how things might play out. It’s important to note that these competitions could get turned upside down next month when the spring transfer portal window opens (April 15-30), and in some cases, another player might be necessary to build out depth or introduce another competitor to the battle.

We begin at the point where we find one of the most notable teams with one of the most uncertain battles, and it just so happens to be with the reigning national champions.       

Michigan

Contenders: Jayden Denegal, Alex Orji, Jadyn Davis, Jack Tuttle, Davis Warren 

The first spring practices of the post-Jim Harbaugh era includes a spotlight on first-year coach Sherrone Moore and his plans to handle the quarterback position. Having already imprinted his “SMASH” motto as his theme, it’s a good bet that Michigan will once again be a team that’s built around dominance at the line of scrimmage rather than a finesse game which requires more from the quarterback. But, that does not lessen the importance of the position because J.J. McCarthy’s excellence in doing exactly what Michigan needed him to do is how the Wolverines rolled off the last two Big Ten titles and won the national championship in 2023. Our expectation is that Denegal, a 6-4, pro-style quarterback out of California represents one stylistic option for Moore and offensive coordinator Kirk Campbell. Orji, meanwhile, has already proven his dual-threat ability in six games of action, mostly as a specialized threat in the ground game. Orji logged rushing attempts in both College Football Playoff wins against Alabama and Washington, so clearly the coaching staff trusts him on the biggest stages. We have yet to see him operate as a downfield passer with any regularity, however. Look for this competition to drag through spring, into fall and possibly even into the season.   

Ohio State

Contenders: Will Howard, Devin Brown, Lincoln Kienholz, Julian Sayin, Air Noland

Since the disappointing end to the 2023 season, Ryan Day brought in a veteran transfer with high-level starting experience (Howard), a blue-chip early enrollee (Noland) and landed a commitment from a five-star freshman (Sayin), who is technically a transfer even though he barely had a cup of coffee with Alabama. Howard, Sayin and Noland have dominated the headlines around a Buckeyes team that’s as star-studded as they come, complete with the addition of Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator, but this Ohio State staff has to figure out how the pieces are going to fit together in a five-man quarterback room where every one of them was a blue-chip prospect coming out of high school. While Day wants to encourage competition throughout spring, there is an assumption that Howard doesn’t choose Ohio State over other suitors without some confidence he can be the starter for what is his final year of eligibility. Howard had 67 career touchdowns (48 passing, 19 rushing) across 34 games in four seasons at Kansas State, which includes being the starter for the Big 12 title run in 2022 and most of the 2023 season. He sets a very high floor at the quarterback position, and given his experience edge and the talent elsewhere on offense, he’s the man to beat. 

Oregon

Contenders: Dillon Gabriel, Dante Moore

After saying goodbye to two prolific years with Bo Nix, Oregon went right back to the transfer portal and got both a quarterback for the present and one for the future. Gabriel is on his third stop and in his final year of eligibility after stuffing the stat sheet at both UCF and Oklahoma, and he’s coming off one of his best seasons with 42 total touchdowns (30 passing, 12 rushing) and career-highs in completion percentage (69.3%) and yards per attempt (9.5) with the Sooners. Gabriel’s competition includes a high-ceiling proposition with Moore, the former five-star prospect who found himself thrown into the fire as a true freshman with UCLA in 2023. Moore’s performance — 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 53.5% completion rate — suggests he’s the answer for the future, but he has had an entire offseason to develop and was an original Oregon commit before flipping to UCLA coming out of high school. Dan Lanning may need both players in order to navigate Oregon’s first year of Big Ten play, so keep an eye on this battle out in Eugene. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 DIRECTV Holiday Bowl - Louisville vs USC

Miller Moss made an emphatic case for the USC starting job with his Holiday Bowl performance.  getty images

USC

Contenders: Miller Moss, Jayden Maiava 

A record-setting six-touchdown performance in USC’s Holiday Bowl win over Louisville seemingly answered the biggest question of the post-Caleb Williams era, but Moss may not have the starting job as locked up as some had assumed. Lincoln Riley’s decision to bring in Maiava from UNLV provides real intrigue to USC’s spring practice. Maiava was thrust into the starting role for the Runnin’ Rebels early in the season due to injury and never gave the job back, throwing for 3,085 yards and 17 touchdowns. Riley told reporters this week he believes there’s “two starter-level players” in the quarterback room, referencing Moss and Maiava, and the Trojans will have the next several weeks to figure out which one emerges as favorite to start Week 1. Unlike fellow Big Ten foes Ohio State and Oregon, there is no major experience edge; Moss has spent more time in the system but Maiava has taken more significant live snaps. 

Washington

Contenders: Will Rogers, Dermaricus Davis, Demond Williams Jr.

As Washington was warming up for the CFP National Championship, Will Rogers stood on the sideline as the heir apparent to Michael Penix Jr. The former Mississippi State quarterback was as productive as they come during his time with the Bulldogs, and joining the team early showed a continuity from one transfer quarterback to another in Seattle. Then, Kalen DeBoer took the Alabama job and Rogers entered the transfer portal, only to return to the program in late January. Rogers has a major experience edge on the rest of the quarterbacks in the room, but there is some interesting young talent on campus this spring to provide competition. That includes Davis, a four-star prospect out of California, whose game took a big jump late in his high school career. Davis, like Rogers, entered the transfer portal only to return, and his commitment to first-year coach Jedd Fisch comes with the background of having been recruited by Fisch during his time at Arizona. Speaking of, Williams was a four-star prospect signed to Arizona in the early period of the 2024 cycle who’s following Fisch to Seattle

Nebraska

Contenders: Heinrich Haarberg, Dylan Raiola 

One of the biggest offseason wins for Nebraska in quite some time was late flip of Georgia commit and five-star quarterback Dylan Raiola just days before the early signing period opened in December 2023. The 6-3, 220-pound Raiola is Nebraska royalty as the son of former All-American offensive lineman Dominic Raiola, and his uncle Donovan is the offensive line coach for the Huskers. But, he’s entering a quarterback battle where there is some experience with Haarberg remaining on the roster after Jeff Sims and Chubba Purdy transferred out of the program. Haarberg had the most success of the three in 2023, but that’s a low bar to clear. He was the team’s leading rusher (477 yards, five touchdowns) and had moments in the passing game, but a 1:1 touchdown interception ratio and 49% completion rate is not what Matt Rhule is looking for out of Nebraska’s QB1. So, either Haarberg needs to get coached uo, or Raiola needs to get brought up to speed to be ready to go as a true freshman. Both scenarios bring an immense amount of urgency to Nebraska’s spring ball sessions. 

Arkansas

Contenders: Taylen Green, Jacolby Criswell, Malachi Singleton 

While the players involved carry some interest, the undeniable draw to Arkansas’ quarterback competition is the presence of Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator. Green arrives from Boise State after leading the Broncos to a Mountain West title in 2023, but his full body of work across two years is mixed. He totaled 44 touchdowns (25 passing, 19 rushing) across two mostly full seasons but also tallied 15 interceptions and was forced into a two-quarterback platoon system midway through 2023 before winning the starting job back. Criswell has been in the program backing up K.J. Jefferson since transferring in from North Carolina last season, as has redshirt freshman Singleton, the former four-star dual threat prospect out of Georgia. We’ve got three quarterbacks with interesting skill sets and one of the most well-respected offensive minds settling into a new role, all while head coach Sam Pittman faces real job pressure to keep the Razorbacks competitive in the SEC. This is a quarterback battle where we are low on certainty and high on intrigue, which in college football is sometimes the best place to be.   

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