The top returning college football quarterbacks has a new face at the top now that Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is off to the NFL.
Sure, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is beginning his NFL career, but that ought not suggest there’ll be a dearth of top-flight college quarterbacks returning in 2017. On the contrary, many of last season’s premier passers and All-American contenders are back to take another crack at opposing secondaries. Here’s who stands above the rest in a crowded field with no shortage of proven leaders and playmakers.
Top Returning Quarterbacks
10. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Yes, Barrett struggled in 2016, badly at times, a microcosm for the Buckeyes’ offensive woes. But there’s good reason to believe he’ll rebound this fall. Barrett is entering his senior season, a salary run year if he has any hope of playing beyond Columbus. More important, though, is the staff addition of offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who’s uniquely suited to locate the 2014 Barrett who accounted for 45 touchdowns and finished fifth in the Heisman vote. Wilson’s track record with quarterbacks and up-tempo attacks portend an emphatic bounce back year for Barrett in 2017.
9. Quinton Flowers, South Florida
Flowers is on the verge of becoming the nation’s most dangerous dual-threat this side of Churchill Downs. He ranked second nationally to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in rushing yards by a quarterback, going for 1,530 yards and 18 scores on 198 carries. But it’s his continued development as a passer that has the Bulls thinking Heisman contention this fall. Flowers threw for 2,812 yards, 24 scores and only seven picks, improving his accuracy and decision-making. With running back Marlon Mack NFL-bound, Charlie Strong’s staff will lean even harder on the elusive No. 9 to keep the chains moving.
8. Jalen Hurts, Alabama
In his first season out of high school, Hurts flashed uncommon poise and maturity considering the grandiosity of the stage. And his feet brought an entirely new dimension to the Bama offense. Next up will be improvement as a passer, an area of his game that got exposed late in the year. Hurts has the tools and the intangibles to take the next step in his evolution. However, he wasn’t helped by the loss of Steve Sarkisian, which is going to mean three different offensive coordinators in less than a year.
7. Trace McSorley, Penn State
McSorley played a seminal role in the Lions’ rise from the Big Ten’s underbelly to an unexpected league championship. His energy, athleticism and deep ball accuracy proved to be just the spark that Penn State’s offense needed in the aftermath of the failed Christian Hackenberg era. And he was only a sophomore in 2016. With an improving line and another year in Joe Moorhead’s system, McSorley is poised to build off a season in which he tossed four touchdown passes in each of the final three games, against Michigan State, Wisconsin and USC.
6. Luke Falk, Washington State
Yes, Falk benefits from operating Mike Leach’s Air Raid in Pullman. No, he is not a system quarterback, which made his decision to hold off on the NFL a mild surprise. Falk is a precise, quick-triggered slinger, an ideal fit to pilot Leach’s pass-happy attack. As a junior, he ranked second nationally in completion percentage, and he’s thrown 38 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons. If Falk takes another step forward, and a few receivers step up to replace Gabe Marks and River Cracraft, he could flirt with a 5,000-yard passing season.
5. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
The return of Rudolph, who has a special NFL-caliber arm, was an unexpected gift for Mike Gundy and anyone who roots for the Cowboys. Rudolph could have been vying for a spot in the draft’s first round this spring. Instead, he’ll be preparing for his final season in Stillwater. Rudolph took a quantum leap in 2016, throwing for 4,091 yards, 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions. And with big-play receivers James Washington and Jalen McCleskey back as well, the sky is the limit for Rudolph and the passing game in 2017.
4. Jake Browning, Washington
While Browning’s sophomore season didn’t end well, in part due to a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, he showed plenty as the leader of the Husky offense. He makes all the throws and is flush in the kinds of intangibles that coaches love. Plus, Browning is the type of player who’s going to continue improving with more reps and film study. He threw 43 touchdown passes and ranked seventh nationally in passer rating, now needing to maintain that high level of play against the top opponents on the schedule.
3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Okay, so Jackson struggled down the stretch. But he was only two years removed from Boynton Beach (Fla.) High School. And he was so electrifying through the first two months that he still won the Heisman Trophy. Jackson must no doubt improve his reads and overall fundamentals as a passer, but that’s why Bobby Petrino is at the head of the staff. Plus, no coaching will be needed for Jackson on designed runs, which produced 21 rushing touchdowns and more yards on the ground than any other quarterback in the country.
2. Sam Darnold, USC
Darnold was so good as a redshirt freshman that it’s hard to imagine he began last year as a backup to Max Browne. Darnold helped save the Trojans’ 2016 campaign, throwing 29 touchdown passes during a season-ending nine-game winning streak. And his five-touchdown performance to rally Troy over Penn State in the Rose Bowl was a breathtaking indicator of what’s ahead. Darnold is the total package in a franchise quarterback, from his strong arm and ball placement to his seemingly unflappable demeanor at all times. The best is yet to come for the sophomore.
1. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
What can Mayfield possibly do for an encore after accounting for 89 touchdowns and capturing back-to-back Big 12 titles over the past two seasons? Well, winning a Heisman Trophy and a national championship still remain on the to-do list. Mayfield pushed his game to a higher level in 2016, throwing 40 touchdown passes while leading the FBS in completion percentage and setting an NCAA record for single-season passing efficiency. This year’s challenge will be to maintain the usual potency and pyrotechnics without the help of last season’s top three weapons, wideout Dede Westbrook and backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.