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Spring Football 2021: Top Quarterback Competitions to Watch

Myles Brennan, LSU

Most of the attention around the college football world has turned to the upcoming NFL Draft, but it's also an important time for programs all across the country. Spring practices and spring games are officially taking place as teams look forward to a (hopefully!) more normal 2021 season. Spring football is oftentimes the first chance players get to make an impression in position battles, especially at the quarterback position. While these competitions will likely last into fall camp, spring practice provides the initial first step. Here are the QB battles sure to garner the most interest this college football off-season:

Arkansas Razorbacks

Competitors: K.J. Jefferson (RS Soph.), Malik Hornsby (RS Fr.), John Stephen Jones (RS Jr.)

Arkansas flashed enough in Sam Pittman's first season for this team to be an interesting watch heading into 2021. Feliepe Franks had a productive final season in the SEC after multiple years at Florida, but his absence shouldn't be completely impossible to replace. The early prognosis for this job is that it will likely be a two-man race between redshirt sophomore K.J. Jefferson and redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby. Jefferson has seen playing time in both of the last two seasons, including a start in 2020 against Missouri when he went 18-33 for 274 yards. That edge in experience should make him the early favorite, but Hornsby is talented enough to see the field. The former four-star recruit is a proven dual threat who has is more elusive as a runner than the 6'3" Jefferson. He's still extremely raw as a passer but could be a better fit in Kendall Briles' offense than either Jefferson or dark horse John Stephen Jones. In the first major scrimmage of the spring, Jefferson got the "start" and played well, going 10-15 for two touchdowns. It's foolish to read too much into scrimmages, but Jefferson is still likely to leave spring with the slight edge, although this could be really fascinating to watch.

Favorite: Jefferson

Florida State Seminoles

Competitors: McKenzie Milton (RS Sr.), Jordan Travis (RS So.), Chubba Purdy (RS Fr.)

After a frustrating 3-6 debut campaign, Mike Norvell knows he needs to show that this Florida State program is progressing in Year Two. The offense in particular really needs to make some leaps forward, and there is a really complex three-way race shaping up here. McKenzie Milton is the biggest name, a former UCF transfer who was once a Heisman Trophy finisher under Scott Frost. He suffered a scary leg injury near the conclusion of the 2018 season and is still working his way back to 100 percent. Milton has been cleared to play by the FSU staff and he is the most proven out of this trio, but he will still get pushed by Jordan Travis and Chubba Purdy. Travis made six starts in 2020 and while he isn't much of a passer, he proved he could handle running the offense. Purdy, the younger brother of Iowa State's star QB Brock, was a pretty big recruiting get for Norvell and made one start a season ago. He was never fully healthy last fall, but the expectation is that he should be at full health going forward. All three quarterbacks have an edge in some aspect of this competition; Milton is extremely accomplished and a star talent when healthy, Travis was the primary starter last season, and Purdy is probably the future of the position. A Milton at 100 percent will be tough to unseat, but it is a real possibility.

Favorite: Milton

LSU Tigers

Competitors: Myles Brennan (Sr.), T.J. Finley (Soph.), Max Johnson (So.), Garrett Nussmeier (Fr.)

LSU's National Title defense never quite got going in 2020, as the Tigers limped to a 5-5 mark that led to a major staff overhaul under head coach Ed Orgeron. Replacing Joe Burrow proved to be awfully difficult, although Myles Brennan was putting up solid numbers prior to a torn oblique after three games. His injury forced youngsters T.J. Finley and Max Johnson into extended action. Naturally, there were both growing pains, but both quarterbacks showed potential. Johnson in particular had a tremendous end to the 2020 season, leading LSU past Florida in an upset that spoiled any Gator CFB Playoff hopes. With Brennan healthy and Finley and Johnson both remaining on the roster, there could be a three-way race here. The LSU staff seems to still believe that Brennan is their guy, but I was super impressed with Johnson last year. He showed a toughness and grit that you really can't teach, and he seems to have more long-term potential than Brennan, who is a senior. It really is the classic QB competition scenario, with the veteran attempting to hold off the talented youngsters, who have shown flashes but are still relatively unproven. I would once assume Brennan enters fall camp in the lead, but Johnson is talented enough to not just push him, but take the starting job.

Favorite: Brennan

Michigan Wolverines

Alan Bowman (Sr.) , Cade McNamara (Jr.), J.J. McCarthy (Fr.)

Another team coming off a frustrating 2020 campaign, Michigan will oversee a three-way race that represents a modern college football QB battle. On one hand, there is the veteran transfer in former Texas Tech QB Alan Bowman, a grad transfer who had his moments in Lubbock but just couldn't stay healthy. Then there's junior Cade McNamara, a signal-caller who appeared in four games and made one start in 2020. Finally, there's the highly touted true freshman, five-star J.J. McCarthy, who is considered the future at the position. There's really no clear favorite at this early point in the process; Bowman's edge in experience is notable, and he does appear to be a good fit in this Josh Gattis offense. However, he won't join the team until the summer, opening the door for McNamara and McCarthy. McNamara is the type of tough-minded quarterback that Jim Harbaugh loves, and he flashed enough in 2020 to have a real shot at the job. I'd assume McCarthy is unlikely to jump up the depth chart this soon, but the program is thrilled about his potential to be the difference-maker at a position that has been mostly average for much of the Harbaugh tenure. It's extremely tough to get a read on this race so soon, with Bowman and McNamara likely to enter summer as 1A and 1B. The fact that McNamara is here for spring and got valuable experience in 2020 might give him the slight edge.

Favorite: McNamara

Ohio State Buckeyes

Competitors: C.J. Stroud (RS Fr.), Jack Miller (RS Fr.), Kyle McCord (Fr.)

The quest to replace Justin Fields in Columbus begins this spring, with a trio of youngsters set to square off. Both C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller are former big-name recruits who arrived on campus prior to last season, but never really got an opportunity to show what they can do. Stroud scored a long rushing touchdown in the blowout win over Michigan State but outside of that, didn't see the field. Miller is much the same, not throwing a single pass in backup duties for Fields. Both have a long list of high school accolades and offer loads of potential, but the lack of experience makes it unclear who will be the early favorite. My guess would be that Stroud has the early advantage as a proven dual threat, but Miller should be able to push him. Arriving in the spring was yet another talented young quarterback, in five-star pro-style QB Kyle McCord. While McCord has been in the program for just a matter of weeks, he's already impressed onlookers with his arm talent, and ability to pick up the offense. The April 17th spring game may give us some indication of how this race is shaping up, but it will likely extend into fall camp. My guess is that Stroud will earn first-team reps, but any of these three could come out on top.

Favorite: Stroud

Oregon Ducks

Competitors: Anthony Brown (Sr.), Ty Thompson (Fr.), Jay Butterfield (RS Fr.), Robby Ashford (RS Fr.)

Oregon used a two-quarterback system throughout the extremely short 2020 Pac-12 slate, splitting time between Tyler Shough and former Boston College transfer Anthony Brown. Brown seemed to gain the upper hand later in the year, and the arrival of freshman Ty Thompson essentially forced Shough's hand, as he transferred to Texas Tech. That leaves Brown and Thompson as the primary leaders in the QB race, with a pair of redshirt freshmen, Jay Butterfield and Robby Ashford, also factoring in. Brown is the experienced option, starting with both BC and Oregon over his collegiate career. He's a strong runner that can be a playmaker, but he leaves a lot to be desired as a passer. Thompson isn't projected to be as skilled of a runner, but people have raved about his arm strength throughout his high school career. He also stands 6'4", 215 pounds and the expectation is that he will one day have an NFL future. So far, Brown has been taking first team snaps in the spring and I expect him to likely begin the year as the starter. However, Thompson is probably a better fit for what OC Joe Moorhead wants to do, and he has the higher ceiling. It could be a classic scenario where the veteran enters the year with the job, before the younger talent takes over the reigns.

Favorite: Brown

Tennessee Volunteers

Hendon Hooker (Sr.), Harrison Bailey (So.), Brian Maurer (RS Soph.), Kaidon Salter (Fr.)

It's a new era for Tennessee football, as Josh Heupel arrives as head coach and works to break in a new quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano, who has been the primary starter for the last four years, is off to Washington State, ushering in a new starter for Heupel to develop. Sophomore Harrison Bailey saw a healthy dosage of action in his first year in Knoxville, appearing in six games and making three starts. As a freshman thrown into the fire of the SEC, Bailey understandably had some major ups-and-downs, but he appears to have significant long-term potential. Another holdover from the Jeremy Pruitt era is Brian Maurer, who had eight starts in 2019 but saw his role diminished last season. He's talented enough to win the job and has some experience, but Maurer will need to have a tremendous spring to have any shot at overtaking others on this list. Heupel also welcomes in two newcomers in former Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, as well as true frosh Kaidon Salter. Hooker had a very productive 2019 season after taking over as starter for the Hokies, with a 13-2 TD-INT ratio while displaying playmaking ability with his legs. He dealt with COVID issues in 2020 and never quite got going, so a change of scenery may be just what he needs. If Heupel is looking for the best option to win right away, one would assume Hooker has the edge. He was one of the top transfer quarterbacks on the market, and seems like he could be a nice fit in this offense. But, Bailey is the guy most around the program feel like is the future, and he will put up a strong fight going forward.

Favorite: Hooker


Casey Thompson (Jr.), Hudson Card (RS Fr.)

It's a brand new day in Austin as well, with the Longhorns beginning Steve Sarkisian's tenure and also breaking in a new signal-caller now that Sam Ehlinger is gone. Sarkisian has become well-known for leading explosive offenses just about everywhere he's gone, and the pieces are in place for this group to do much the same. While losing Ehlinger will hurt, Casey Thompson's tremendous performance in the Alamo Bowl victory over Colorado has fans excited. Thompson's not going to be the runner that Ehlinger was, but that could be a good thing, as his arm talent is an ideal fit for what Sarkisian and OC Kyle Flood want to run. Thompson still has to secure the job, as former highly touted recruit Hudson Card will give him a fight. Card appeared in just two games as a freshman, allowing him to retain his redshirt. It's certainly not enough of a sample to give us an idea of what type of signal-caller he will be, but those that have seen him in action are very high on him. Reports out of spring practice indicate that Thompson is taking most of the first team reps, but I wouldn't be shocked if this race lasts deeper into fall camp. 

Favorite: Thompson

Texas A&M

Zach Calzada (RS Soph.), Haynes King (RS Fr.), Eli Stowers (Fr.)

For the first time since taking over in College Station, Jimbo Fisher will be overseeing a quarterback competition. Departed Kellen Mond put together a tremendous Aggie career, but never was quite able to get over the top. His absence opens the door for a new quarterback to potentially do just that, although life in the SEC West is never that straightforward. The two primary favorites are redshirt sophomore Zach Calzada and redshirt freshman Haynes King. Calzada has the experience edge, although that isn't saying too much right now. He played in three games in 2019, which were all blowouts, coming against Texas State, Lamar, and UTSA. King appeared in two games last fall, rushing for 43 yards against Alabama and throwing for a score against South Carolina. The gem of the 2020 recruiting cycle, King is well-regarded in the state of Texas, and the expectation is that he should be able to acclimate to the new role quickly. Calzada may be able to push him, but he doesn't appear to have the long-term upside of King, at least not from what we've seen or heard. The dark horse in the race is true freshman Eli Stowers, a dual threat who enrolled early. He provides more playmaking potential than either Calzada or King, but you wonder how quickly he'll be able to acclimate to Fisher's offense.

Favorite: King

Other Races To Keep An Eye On

Boise State: Hank Bachmeier, Jack Sears

Florida: Emory Jones, Anthony Richardson

Kentucky: Beau Allen, Will Levis, Joey Gatewood

Memphis: Grant Gunnell, Peter Parrish, Keilon Brown

Notre Dame: Jack Coan, Brendon Clark, Tyler Buchner

Utah: Charlie Brewer, Ja'Quinden Jackson, Cam Rising, Peter Costelli

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