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Spring Football 2022: 10 Most Important Quarterback Competitions

J.J. McCarthy, Michigan

Auburn Tigers

Competing: Zach Calzada (So.), T.J. Finley (Jr.), Robby Ashford (RFr.)

After a tumultuous offseason, Bryan Harsin will enter 2022 firmly on the hot seat on The Plains. He'll need a rebound year after a 6-7 debut in 2021, but will have to do so without last year's starting QB, as three-year starter Bo Nix transferred to Oregon. That leaves Harsin and his staff choosing between a trio of contenders, all of them transfers. There's Zach Calzada, who started ten games for Texas A&M a season ago and led the Aggies to a victory over Alabama, but was otherwise mediocre. Former LSU transplant T.J. Finley is on his second season with Auburn; he played sparingly last fall but started five games for LSU in 2020. Finally, Oregon transfer Robby Ashford remains firmly in the mix after announcing his decision to come to Auburn over the offseason. Ashford is untested, but coaches have been high on his mix of speed and arm strength. The spring has given us some clarity on this competition so far, but also complicated things. Calzada has been limited throughout spring due to surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, giving Finley and Ashford an early chance to make an impression. Redshirt freshman Dematrius Davis was also considered a possibility for the job, but announced his decision to transfer. Davis was always a bit of a long shot as an awkward fit in the offense Harsin wants to run, but his decision to move on thinned the room quickly. With Calzada somewhat of a mystery, at least for the time being, I would say Finley is the premature favorite, thanks to his familiarity with Harsin and the program. With that being said, Calzada has a year of SEC experience under his belt and should make a serious push come summer.

Favorite: Finley

Cincinnati Bearcats

Competing: Evan Prater (RSo.), Ben Bryant (Sr.)

Following a year in which they completed the nearly impossible mission of making the CFB Playoff as a Group of Five team, the pressure is on Cincinnati to build on it. It will be hard to do that without the winningest QB in school history as Desmond Ridder departs to the NFL, but Luke Fickell has two interesting options to choose from. One is redshirt sophomore Evan Prater, one of the most decorated recruits in school history, who has shown flashes in short spurts of playing time but hasn't made a start in college. He appeared in seven games last fall and has demonstrated playmaking ability, even if it's been in limited playing time. The other contender is veteran Ben Bryant, who spent 2021 with Eastern Michigan after serving as Ridder's backup for several years. Bryant played well for EMU last fall, totaling over 3,000 yards and 14 touchdowns and has familiarity with the program. It's the classic case of the veteran with limited ceiling versus the unproven youngster with massive upside. Normally, I lean with the veteran here, particularly one as accomplished as Bryant, but Prater is just too talented to keep off the field. I firmly believe he could be one of the breakout stars of the 2022 college football campaign.

Favorite: Prater

Clemson Tigers

Competing: D.J. Uiagalelei (Jr.), Cade Klubnik (Fr.), Hunter Johnson (RSr.)

In my mind, there may not be a single quarterback battle this offseason more important than the one raging in Clemson, South Carolina. I firmly expect Clemson to rebound after a down 2021 by their typical standards, but they need better production from a position that saw major slippage after the wonders of the Trevor Lawrence era. D.J. Uiagalelei made several starts in 2020 when Lawrence was out with COVID-19 and played incredibly well for a true freshman. Naturally, the prevailing thought around the college football world last fall was that his 2020 success would carry over into 2021. Simply put, it did not. Uiagalelei finished '21 with a stat-line of 2,246 yards and 13 total touchdowns, compared to 10 interceptions. He completed just 56% of his passes and some of the misses were shocking from a former five-star quarterback who had all the physical tools. To be fair to Uiagalelei, he wasn't completely healthy last season and also dealt with a beat up receiver corps. However, his struggles left open the door for a newcomer to come in and take the starting job, and that's true freshman Cade Klubnik is hoping to do. Klubnik is a high-profile newcomer hailing from Austin who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Texas and the top QB in the Class of 2022 among several recruiting sites. Coming in and winning the job at a top-tier program as a freshman is never easy, but Klubnik has all the tools to do so. In addition, Hunter Johnson is at least a name to mention. The redshirt senior began his career at Clemson before transferring to Northwestern and spending three years there. He opted to come back to Clemson, becoming the first transfer Dabo Swinney has ever taken as Tiger head coach, but is almost sure to play a backup or mentor role rather than seriously battle for the starting job. As of right now, Uiagalelei's edge in experience makes him the favorite, but he certainly does not have a lock on the starting job. Don't be surprised if this is similar to the Kelly Bryant-Trevor Lawrence or Cole Stoudt-Deshaun Watson situation, where the veteran begins the year, but the youngster is too good to keep off the field. 

Favorite: Uiagalelei

Florida Gators

Competing: Jack Miller (RSo.), Anthony Richardson (RSo.), Jalen Kitna (RFr.), Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (RFr.)

New Florida head coach Billy Napier has earned rave reviews from Gator fans for the staff he's built in Gainesville and his early work on the recruiting trail, but now comes the first big decision: naming a starting quarterback. Things got a bit clearer this past month when Emory Jones, who started 12 games for UF last fall, announced his decision to transfer. However, there are as many as four contenders to take over the reigns of the offense and only one, Anthony Richardson, has seen significant action. Richardson impressed as a redshirt freshman in 2021, earning All-SEC Freshman honors and showcasing dazzling playmaking potential. As a 6'4", 240 pound gunslinger with elite open-field speed, he has the physical tools to be a dominant SEC quarterback. But, he will still have to prove himself to a new coaching staff and is still a bit raw at this early point in his collegiate career. That leaves the door open for the other three contenders, namely Ohio State transfer Jack Miller. Miller saw action in six games over two seasons for the Buckeyes but wasn't able to beat out C.J. Stroud in Columbus, which isn't necessarily a knock against him. He's not the athlete Richardson is, but offers Napier and the staff a more traditional quarterback who undoubtedly learned valuable information during his time at OSU. After those two there's a pair of redshirt freshmen in Jalen Kitna and Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, who both joined the team last offseason. Both are considered long shots to win this job this year and it wouldn't be a shock if one, or both, hit the transfer portal. As it stands today, Richardson seems to have the edge now that Jones is moving on, but Miller intrigues me. He's still a fairly unproven commodity but coaches have raved about him, and the fact he enrolled for the spring semester seems to indicate to me he thinks he has a decent shot to unseat "AR15."

Favorite: Richardson

LSU Tigers

Competing: Jayden Daniels (Jr.), Myles Brennan (Sr.), Garrett Nussmeier (RFr.), Walker Howard (Fr.)

Much like Billy Napier, one of the first major decisions for Brian Kelly and the new staff at LSU will be naming a starting quarterback. There are four contenders for the starting job, although highly touted freshman Walker Howard is a bit of a long shot at this point. The early favorite has to be Myles Brennan, a fifth-year senior who has started three games in his LSU career but appeared in 20. Brennan was supposed to be the heir apparent to Joe Burrow in 2020 but was done for the year after three weeks. He was in the midst of a QB competition last spring and fall before a season-ending injury just days before the season, allowing Max Johnson to take the job (who has subsequently transferred). Brennan is an LSU guy through-and-through and seems like a good fit in new OC Mike Denbrock's offense, but newcomer Jayden Daniels actually has the leg up in terms of game experience. Daniels made 28 starts during three seasons at Arizona State, with one of them being the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. After looking like the next big star at the position with a stellar freshman season, Daniels was inconsistent for much of the last two years. He's still awfully talented, but it's fair to say a lot of the shine from his impressive 2019 performance has worn off. Rounding things out is redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier, who had been considered the future at the position but is still learning. He's the son of Doug Nussmeier, a former college offensive coordinator who is currently the Dallas Cowboys' QB Coach. He's got the long-term potential to still be a factor in the race but Daniels and Brennan have to be considered the frontrunners right now because they are more proven commodities. Brennan's comfortability with the program makes him a very early favorite, but something tells me Daniels didn't come to Baton Rouge to sit. By the time September rolls around, I suspect Daniels to be the Day One starter.

Favorite: Daniels

Michigan Wolverines

Competing: Cade McNamara (Sr.), J.J. McCarthy (So.), Alan Bowman (Sr.)

It's not often we see a returning starter on a Playoff team in the midst of a quarterback competition, but Cade McNamara will have to hold off J.J. McCarthy to once again lead the Michigan offense. McNamara put up solid numbers across the board in a run-heavy offense, totaling 16 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards through the air. He's the type of quarterback that Jim Harbaugh has long enjoyed, a competitive, gritty signal-caller who doesn't turn the ball over and can make the occasional play with his legs. With that being said, McCarthy is a former five-star recruit who has had Wolverine fans drooling for years. While he didn't overtake McNamara to win the job a year ago, he appeared in 11 games as a true freshman and threw for five touchdowns. McCarthy might not have the intangibles of McNamara, but there's little denying his arm talent. Simply put, he can open up this offense in a way McNamara can't, but is Harbaugh willing to make a change? Harbaugh has always been a run-first, methodical offense guy but to win a National Title, he's going to need to more from the quarterback position. Whether he realizes that and is willing to make a drastic change remains to be seen. One other name to mention is Alan Bowman, who remains on the roster as a graduated senior. Bowman came from Texas Tech and offers arm strength, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy at all throughout his collegiate career. He probably won't be more than a third string in 2022, but is a name to at least keep an eye on.

Favorite: McNamara

North Carolina Tar Heels

Competing: Jacolby Criswell (So.), Drake Maye (RFr.)

North Carolina was one of the most disappointing teams in the nation last fall, and now they embark on 2022 without star QB Sam Howell. Howell wasn't quite the Heisman Trophy candidate many expected him to be in 2021, but it will still be a tall task replacing his 3,000 yards passing and 24 touchdowns. This is likely to be a two-man race in Chapel Hill, with sophomore Jacolby Criswell set to compete with redshirt freshman Drake Maye. Criswell has been in the program a year longer than Maye and started the Wofford game last season, but he's not super experienced. He offers more athleticism than Howell, but his downfield passing and grasp of the offense remains to be proven. On the other hand, Maye is a former big-name recruit who was originally committed to Alabama before flipping to UNC. He's the younger brother of former Tar Heel basketball star Luke, and has already commanded plenty of attention on campus. He appeared in four games in 2021 and didn't throw the ball much, but his long-term potential seems to give him the upper hand. With neither likely to separate themselves in the spring, I suspect this competition will last into fall camp, but Maye is the future at the position and should be the favorite.

Favorite: Maye

Oregon Ducks

Competing: Bo Nix (Jr.), Ty Thompson (RFr.), Jay Butterfield (RFr.)

Yet another head coach entering his first year at his new school, Dan Lanning will choose between Bo Nix, an experienced but underwhelming Auburn transfer, and a pair of redshirt freshmen in Ty Thompson and Jay Butterfield. Nix is an absolutely fascinating college football character; he's an Auburn legacy who made a splash by beating Oregon back in 2019, but he's had two up-and-down seasons since. He did show some real progress this past season before a rough ending to the season, but it's hard to get overly excited about a quarterback who's numbers have been nearly identical all three years he's been in school. Nix will be reunited with Kenny Dillingham, who was his former OC at Auburn, but Dillingham has never called plays at a Power Five level. The experience gives Nix an early edge, but nearly everybody around the program is hoping it's Ty Thompson time. Thompson is a decorated recruit who is the first five-star recruit to ever sign with Oregon, an impressive fact considering the amount of NFL quarterbacks who have come from Eugene in the past two decades. He was expected to push Anthony Brown last fall, but ended up with just 15 passing attempts to his credit. With a year now under his belt, he seems to have a much better chance now, but will have to still prove himself to the new staff. Then there's Jay Butterfield, often the forgotten name in this quarterback battle. Butterfield isn't the name that Nix or Thompson is, but he's a big-armed QB who had an illustrious high school career himself. My gut tells me Nix will probably start the season as the starter, considering he's more of a known commodity, but Thompson is one of the most fascinating quarterbacks in college football. We've heard rave reviews about his skill set but if he can't beat out a mediocre quarterback for the second offseason in a row, it's fair to begin wondering whether he really is the future at the position for the Ducks.

Favorite: Nix

Texas Longhorns

Competing: Hudson Card (So.), Quinn Ewers (RFr.)

Steve Sarkisian and his Texas staff have plenty of pressure on them as they embark on Year Two in Austin, but he got a huge offseason win when Quinn Ewers announced his decision to transfer from OSU to his native Texas. Ewers was previously the top player in the Class of 2022 before reclassifying late last summer. He never took a snap in Columbus, but that hasn't dampened expectations for the signal-caller. He's got a huge arm, he's slithery in the pocket, and he's quite the character, rocking a mullet that's straight out of the 1980s. Ewers seems like a perfect fit in Sarkisian's offense, but he certainly doesn't have the job locked down. Hudson Card earned the starting job out of fall camp over Casey Thompson a year ago and while he had his struggles, he still has a leg up in terms of experience and knowledge of the offense. Card might not have the dazzle of Ewers, but he's no slouch. He's got plenty of arm talent and has been generally viewed as very poised for his age. I suspect the two to battle throughout the spring and summer, but Ewers has to have the upper hand. Power brokers within the program are going to lobby Sark to make Ewers the guy, and he gives them the best chance to win from the get-go.

Favorite: Ewers

Texas A&M Aggies

Competing: Haynes King (So.), Max Johnson (Jr.), Conner Weigman (Fr.)

Zach Calzada's transfer made it clear that a new quarterback would be under center in College Station this fall, but which one? Haynes King won the starting job out of fall camp a year ago but fractured his leg in the Colorado game. He looked solid in the small amount of time we saw him before the injury, but certainly doesn't have a lock on the position as we hit spring. Former LSU starter Max Johnson hit the portal over the offseason and announced he was heading to A&M, teaming up with his younger brother Jake, a tight end on the team. Johnson immediately becomes the most experienced QB on the roster, appearing in 18 games over the last two seasons for the Tigers. He put up decent numbers across the board in an offense that was extremely one-dimensional, but will likely need time to acclimate to his new home and Jimbo Fisher's complex offense. In addition to him, A&M also brought in a big-name freshman in Conner Weigman, a five-star prospect who is one of the most hyped recruits in A&M history. Naturally, Jimbo is extremely high on the newcomer, labeling him the "best guy in the country" on National Signing Day in December. It's high praise, but I'd be shocked if a freshman were able to come in and beat out two more experienced, rock-solid quarterbacks, even one of Weigman's stature. My guess is that King will start out as the favorite because of his familiarity with the offense, but don't be surprised if Johnson or Weigman are able to close the gap quickly, especially if the offense starts the season slow.

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