15 For ’15: Top Backup Quarterbacks

15 for ’15: Backup QBs Who’d Rock From The Bullpen

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Backup quarterbacks are a lot like insurance policies. No one pays an ounce of attention to them until they’re needed in an emergency.

Quality depth under center is a must for success. Just ask Ohio State, which won a national championship this past January with a third-stringer taking snaps. The reality in today’s game is that a very small minority of FBS programs will start the same signal-caller from wire-to-wire. Debilitating injuries take an inevitable toll, and performance-based benchings are commonplace. Surviving the rigors of a long season requires ‘next-man-in’ being more than just a catchy coach-speak. It has to genuinely permeate throughout a depth chart, especially at quarterback. The following 15 quarterbacks will likely begin 2015 as backups, but all are capable of performing like starters if summoned from the bullpen.

15. Zack Darlington, Nebraska
Yeah, he’s young, just a redshirt freshman. And no, Tommy Armstrong’s job isn’t in jeopardy. But Darlington dispatched a clear message this spring that he’s ready to win the backup gig, and become the quarterback of the future in Lincoln. For a young quarterback who hasn’t played meaningful snaps in so long, the learning curve flattened quickly in April, capped by a breakout spring performance. Darlington has a lot more to learn this summer, but Mike Riley’s staff is becoming increasingly comfortable with what’s happening behind Armstrong.

14. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina

Now entering his third year in the system, Trubisky is just about ready to run Larry Fedora’s offense in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately for the former Mr. Football in the state of Ohio, Marquise Williams has the starting job in a vice grip for one more year. Trubisky made nine appearances a season ago, and he took first-team reps this past spring as Williams rehabbed an injury. Fedora targeted Trubisky in 2013 for his diverse skill set and athleticism. And the coach believes his young pupil won’t skip a beat if Williams misses any time this fall.

13. Phillip Ely or Logan Woodside, Toledo

If the Rockets have taught the MAC anything in recent years, it’s that the quarterback is always going to hang up big numbers in this offense. Ely, the strong-armed Alabama transfer, began his Toledo career in 2014 with four touchdown passes, but was soon lost to a season-ending ACL tear. Woodside came off the bench to account for 22 touchdowns and win eight games. Assuming both recover fully from surgeries to compete this summer, the Rockets will have two experienced quarterbacks with whom head coach Matt Campbell knows he can win.

12. Shane Morris, Michigan

Sure, Morris might still be Jim Harbaugh’s first starting quarterback in Ann Arbor. A more likely scenario, however, has Iowa transfer Jake Rudock handling the job, keeping Morris on the bench. While the junior has been a little slow to evolve since being a coveted get for Brady Hoke, his strong arm and quick feet are the ingredients of a sparkplug off the bench. Morris has played some, even starting the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a rookie. And Harbaugh’s track record for coaching up young quarterbacks means all of the Wolverine contenders will benefit from his presence.

11. Nathan Peterman, Pitt
In all likelihood, Peterman isn’t beating out the incumbent at Pitt, Chad Voytik. But talk about a nice backup plan for the Panthers entering 2015. Peterman is a former four-star recruit of Tennessee, where he started a pair of games over the course of three seasons. He’ll also have the luxury of being reunited with his old coordinator in Knoxville, Jim Chaney. You can never have too many quarterbacks with experience and system knowledge, especially when the starter is a mobile athlete who absorbs a lot of punishment.

10. Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns, Stanford

The Farm has become a magnet for blue-chip hurlers from across the country. And while Kevin Hogan is locked into the starting slot , Chryst and Burns are former four-star recruits being groomed as the heir in 2016. The backup job remains up for grabs, though Chryst has the higher ceiling. The local product from nearby Palo Alto (Calif.) High School is a quintessential Stanford quarterback—big, smart and able to make all the throws. This campus is ready for a new era under center, and Chryst and Burns are preparing for that opportunity.

9. Will Gardner, Louisville

Injuries cursed the Cardinals in 2014. They could turn into a blessing this fall. Bobby Petrino was forced to use three different starters after Gardner suffered a season-ending knee injury. Kyle Bolin played, Reggie Bonnafon is moving closer to the starting nod and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson is also available. But Gardner would give Louisville the biggest lift from off the bench, provided he rebounds from a third left knee surgery since high school. He started seven games last fall, and has the arm talent Petrino looks for in his passers.

8. Kendal Thompson, Utah
By most measures, Thompson is a perfect quarterback for a coach to have on his roster. He’s an experienced senior leader who’s overcome the tribulations of season-ending injuries and a transfer from Oklahoma. He’s also a change-of-pace complement to Travis Wilson, the favorite to start. In fact, Thompson jumped Wilson on the depth chart last November, but tore his ACL in the Oregon game. Plus, he had more zip on his throws this spring, feeding the notion that the Utes might again use both players this fall. Health is an issue behind center, but depth is not.

7. Jerry Neuheisel, UCLA
Josh Rosen is the future—and likely the present—in Westwood. And in that scenario, Neuheisel is an absolutely perfect veteran waiting in the wings in the event of an injury or a meltdown. Nah, the junior doesn’t have next-level physical ability. But he’s composed, smart and loved by his teammates. Last Sept. 13 in Arlington, Tex. was vintage Neuheisel. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers versus Texas after Brett Hundley went down, but he did engineer a win, capped by a 33-yard touchdown pass with three minutes left. That’s what Neuheisel gives UCLA.

6. Jeff Lockie, Oregon

Everyone expects Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams to succeed Marcus Mariota in Eugene. Everyone except Lockie, who’s performed this offseason as if he’ll be the heir to the Heisman winner. Lockie was recruited by Chip Kelly, has been mentored by Mark Helfrich and is entering his fourth season in one of college football’s premier offensive systems. Plus, he was razor sharp throughout the spring. If Adams winds up winning the job, as expected, Lockie is going to be a competent, underrated option for Helfrich off the bench.

5. Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb, Texas Tech
The youth that marked the Red Raider quarterbacks the past two seasons won’t be a problem this season. Tech may not be all grown up just yet, but it now has two hurlers with starting experience. Mahomes and Webb combined for 40 touchdown passes in 2014, with Mahomes lighting up box scores after Webb was injured late in the year. Kliff Kingsbury has a choice to make this summer, which is great news for the Red Raiders. And for a change, that choice will not involve a wide-eyed rookie, making QB depth a strength in Lubbock.

4. J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State
For head coach Mike Gundy, his quarterback situation in Stillwater is close to ideal entering 2015. He has his young quarterback of the future, sophomore Mason Rudolph. And he has a proven redshirt senior in the on-deck circle. Walsh resisted the temptation to transfer, leaving the Cowboys with a backup who was once named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. Best of all, though, he’s the closest thing Oklahoma State has to a coach in pads, and his knowledge and leadership will help Rudolph develop as he begins life as the franchise.

3. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma
It looks as if Baker Mayfield will end up being the natural fit to run the new Air Raid attack in Norman. If so, the Sooners will be unusually experienced on the B team. At this time last year, Knight was a Heisman contender, buoyed by an MVP performance in the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. So, while he’s had problems with durability and consistency, how many backups can say they’ve been a starter in parts of the past two seasons? Knight flourishes spurts. And if something happens to Mayfield, he’s the type of vet who’ll assimilate quickly and keep OU from veering off course.

2. Max Browne, USC
Browne is like a pricey gift bought in March that doesn’t get opened until Christmas morning. It’s been three years since the Trojans plucked the five-star passer out of Skyline (Wash.) High School. But despite immense talent, he’s only attempted seven career passes, relegated to being Cody Kessler’s caddy for one more year. Still, USC is supremely confident in the ability of the 6-5 Browne, who improves with each passing spring. And Steve Sarkisian has made it clear his redshirt sophomore is 1A on the depth chart and ready to thrive if Kessler is dinged.

1. J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller, Ohio State

Forget this season. The Buckeyes’ QB depth needs to be measured on a historical basis, because each of their three contenders would start for all but a few FBS programs this season. So talented is the trio, whose collective resume includes a national championship, a top 5 Heisman finish and two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards, that the bigger concern is how to keep everyone happy. As long as Miller’s shoulder checks out, Ohio State is injury-proof at the game’s most important position. It was that level of depth that helped Urban Meyer win a national title in his third year in Columbus.