Clemson #2 in ESPN QB Future Power Rankings

CUTrevor 2018-02-26 18:53:44

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More from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg:

Two games at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium reinforced a longtime tenet of college football: There's no substitute for quarterback depth.

In Week 1, Florida State lost starter Deondre Francois to a season-ending leg injury against Alabama. The team never truly recovered despite some good moments from James Blackman, finishing 7-6. Alabama returned to Atlanta for the national title game, and when its offense did nothing in the first half against Georgia, coach Nick Saban replaced two-year starter Jalen Hurts with true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who helped rally the Tide to victory.

The future power rankings return with an in-depth look at the quarterback position. Teams were evaluated based on whether they bring back quality starters, capable backups and, in some cases, heralded recruits. The rankings try to avoid projections, prioritizing what players have done at the college level and especially those with multiple years of eligibility left. Quarterback is a tough position to evaluate after so many multiyear starters left the college game. These rankings also accounted for all quarterbacks currently on rosters, while knowing some will inevitably transfer for more playing time elsewhere.

How Alabama got Tua

Before Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench and into Alabama lore, the QB recruit had to be discovered. With a decommitment from Jake Fromm and an assist from Lane Kiffin, the QB went from Honolulu to college football history.

As a reminder, these rankings account for the next three seasons -- 2018, 2019 and 2020. Teams are selected based on their ability to sustain and thrive, even if the personnel changes, as it did for Florida State and Alabama in different ways in Atlanta.

Insider spoke with coaches, analysts and others to assess the 25 programs with the best quarterback outlook through the 2020 season.

1. Georgia Bulldogs

2017 ranking: 15

Returning starter: Jake Fromm

Scouting the Bulldogs: No program has a brighter future at the most important position on the field. Fromm replaced Jacob Eason in Week 2 and never looked back, guiding Georgia to an SEC championship and almost the program's first national title since 1980. He led FBS freshmen and ranked ninth nationally in both total QBR (81.1) and pass efficiency (160.1 rating). "He's extremely efficient and didn't turn the ball over," an SEC defensive coordinator said. "On the biggest stage, he gave his team the chance to win." Fromm could guide Georgia throughout the entire evaluation period, but it's hard to believe Justin Fields won't get his shot soon. The nation's No. 1 recruit is already enrolled. "Fields may be a once-in-a-generation talent at quarterback," an SEC defensive coordinator said. The lone concern is keeping both players around, but either can take Georgia a long way.

2. Clemson Tigers

2017 ranking: 7

Returning starter: Kelly Bryant

Scouting the Tigers: Don't let a rough night against college football's pre-eminent defense ruin all that Bryant accomplished in 2017. He set team records for wins by a first-year starting quarterback (12) and wins over top-25 teams by a Tigers signal-caller (6). He was accurate (65.8 percent completion rate), versatile (3,467 yards of total offense) and tough. It's very possible he starts during his final season in Death Valley. But Clemson has tremendous insurance because of its exceptional recruiting at the position. Hunter Johnson was ESPN's No. 1 pocket passer in the 2017 recruiting class, and Trevor Lawrence is the top pocket passer and No. 2 overall player in the 2018 class. Either -- or perhaps all three -- could guide Clemson through the next two years.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

2017 ranking: 5

Returning starter: Jalen Hurts

Scouting the Crimson Tide: Quarterback hasn't been Alabama's signature position group during Saban's run, but that changed Jan. 8 in Atlanta. Tua Tagovailoa's heroics set off one the most unique quarterback situations you'll ever see: two candidates with multiple years of eligibility left who both played major roles in winning a national championship. Hurts is 27-2 as Alabama's starter but seems to be the underdog to beat out Tagovailoa this spring. "I think he gets a bad rap," an SEC defensive coordinator said of Hurts. "All he does is make plays, and he's gotten his team to the national championship in consecutive years." If both men stay in Tuscaloosa, the Tide have two excellent options to lead the way for several years.

4. Washington Huskies

2017 ranking: 3

Returning starter: Jake Browning

Scouting the Huskies: While many established star quarterbacks are departing, Browning is still in Seattle, where this fall he will complete a record-setting career. Coaches aren't blown away by his skills -- "Decent athlete, decent arm, but not a real live arm," said one coordinator -- but he thrives in Chris Petersen's system. Washington is set this season and has an excellent succession plan for 2019 and 2020. Jacob Eason, the former five-star recruit who started for Georgia in 2016 and opened last year as the starter before a knee injury, returns to his home state and has two seasons of eligibility left beginning in 2019. Washington also brings in Jacob Sirmon, ESPN's No. 2 quarterback and No. 27 overall player in the 2018 class, as well as Colson Yankoff, the No. 4 quarterback and No. 68 overall player. Petersen's track record with quarterbacks is undeniable, and he has rarely worked with top-level talent like Eason, Sirmon and Yankoff.

5. Penn State Nittany Lions

2017 ranking: 12

Returning starter: Trace McSorley

Scouting the Nittany Lions: Few elite multiyear starters return in 2018, but McSorley will begin his final season as the true focal point of Penn State's offense. He has shown both big-play ability and refined skills the past two seasons, eclipsing 3,500 passing yards in each year. "That guy's a stud," said a defensive coordinator who faced McSorley last season. "The thing about him is he is just competitive and scrappy and gets it done. He'll run through you, and he's as accurate as all get-out." Penn State has kept Tommy Stevens involved in the offense, and Stevens could be the answer in 2019. Even if Stevens moves on, Penn State could turn to Sean Clifford, ESPN's No. 3 pocket passer and No. 80 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class. Despite losing out on Justin Fields, Penn State is set up well at quarterback.

6. Stanford Cardinal

2017 ranking: 17

Returning starter: K.J. Costello (part-time)

Scouting the Cardinal: Costello's late-season emergence and a huge recruiting push dramatically brighten the outlook here, as Stanford previously had struggled since Kevin Hogan's departure. After 10 touchdowns in Stanford's final four games, Costello could grow into one of the nation's best pocket passers if he improves his accuracy. "Very workmanlike," a Power 5 defensive coordinator said. "He's a little inconsistent, but he's a good-looking, long, athletic guy, makes good decisions." Costello is only a redshirt sophomore, but the team also has Davis Mills, ESPN's No. 2 pocket passer and No. 61 overall recruit in the 2017 class. Incoming freshman Jack West is another ESPN top 100 recruit, and Tanner McKee, ESPN's No. 5 pocket passer in the 2018 class, will be on campus in 2020 after his LDS mission. David Shaw and new offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard have plenty of options.

7. Ohio State Buckeyes

2017 ranking: 4

Returning starter: None

Scouting the Buckeyes: This is a case of a team with possibly a better long-term outlook at quarterback despite losing a long-term starter. J.T. Barrett certainly will be missed, but his skill set had a ceiling that, at times, held back Ohio State's offense. Sophomore Dwayne Haskins could be ready for the spotlight after showing efficiency (70 percent completion rate) in limited action last season. Joe Burrow was Barrett's backup before a preseason injury and would provide a steady hand for the offense, while redshirt freshman Tate Martell brings big-play ability. It's unlikely all three will still be in Columbus when the 2018 season kicks off, but Ohio State should be covered for the next three years.

8. Oklahoma Sooners

2017 ranking: 1

Returning starter: None

Scouting the Sooners: OU topped last year's quarterback power rankings primarily because of Baker Mayfield, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, but also because of who would succeed him. Kyler Murray, the Texas A&M transfer who performed well in limited action last season, has two years of eligibility left and has already worked with coach Lincoln Riley for two years. "I think he's really good," a Big 12 defensive coordinator said. "It was good how they used him because it was such a curveball. If he's an every-down kid, I don't know how effective he's going to be." While Murray is the favorite to replace Mayfield, Austin Kendall, the No. 7 pocket passer in the 2016 class, also will push for the job. OU will need someone to emerge for 2020 but signed ESPN 300 prospect Tanner Mordecai this year and has a verbal commitment from Spencer Rattler, ESPN's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class.

9. Arizona Wildcats

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: Khalil Tate

Scouting the Wildcats: Arizona's quarterback outlook transformed when Tate became the starter and began setting records. The dual-threat wonder had 1,591 pass yards and 1,411 rush yards with 26 total touchdowns in only 11 games. Any coaching change impacts a returning quarterback, but Tate should flourish under Kevin Sumlin for possibly the next two seasons. "He's the one quarterback I don't want to play next year," a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said. Fifth-year senior Brandon Dawkins provides insurance for 2018, and if Arizona gets Tate in 2019 as well, the Pac-12 should be very concerned. "He's so dynamic, the whole country knows that," another Pac-12 defensive coordinator said. "Dawkins is very talented, as well, as a runner." There's no obvious successor for Tate, and it will be interesting to see what Sumlin does with his own QB recruits after signing four-star Kevin Doyle and three-star Jamarye Joiner earlier this month.

10. UCF Knights

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: McKenzie Milton

Scouting the Knights: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa isn't the only young college quarterback from Hawaii who could lead a top offense for the foreseeable future. There's even more evidence with Milton, who emerged during his sophomore season to pass for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns, while adding 613 rush yards and eight touchdowns and finishing sixth nationally in total QBR. "He's a really good player," said a head coach who faced Milton in 2017, "especially in Scott Frost's system." UCF hired coach Josh Heupel in part to maintain a similar offensive structure to Frost's, where Milton could shine the next two seasons. While 2020 brings uncertainty at quarterback, Darriel Mack Jr. could still be around, and Heupel will have enough time to find other options.

11. Auburn Tigers

2017 ranking: 10

Returning starter: Jarrett Stidham

Scouting the Tigers: Auburn saw a bit of everything from Stidham in 2017 -- much more good than bad -- but greater consistency could be on the way. While Stidham technically could lead Auburn's offense through the 2019 season, it's a good bet he'll the NFL with any kind of success in 2018. Even if he departs, Auburn appears to be covered -- either with Stidham's 2017 backup, Malik Willis, or, more likely, Joey Gatewood, ESPN's No. 3 dual-threat quarterback and No. 26 overall player in the 2018 class. Auburn also has a verbal commitment from Bo Nix, ESPN's No. 1 pocket passer in the 2019 class. The concern about coach Gus Malzahn's ability to develop a quarterback he recruited is real and will be tested in 2019 and 2020.

12. Michigan State Spartans

2017 ranking: 22

Returning starter: Brian Lewerke

Scouting the Spartans: A big jump here is warranted after Lewerke emerged as one of the Big Ten's better quarterbacks. He passed for 2,793 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions and added the running ability (559 yards, five touchdowns) that MSU has historically lacked at quarterback. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left and likely will remain for both. Two Big Ten coaches noted how Lewerke improved significantly throughout last season. "Athletic, good decision-maker, can make all the throws," one coach said. "The sky is a limit because of his arm talent." MSU could turn to Rocky Lombardi in 2020, as the Iowa native should back up Lewerke after Messiah deWeaver's transfer. The Spartans also signed 2018 four-star prospect Theo Day and have a commitment from Dwan Mathis, ESPN's No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class.

13. Oregon Ducks

2017 ranking: 13

Returning starter: Justin Herbert (part-time)

Scouting the Ducks: Herbert put up very good numbers -- 1,983 pass yards, 15 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 67.5 percent completions, 77.7 total QBR -- during an injury-shortened sophomore season under a new coaching staff. He will play for his third head coach in as many years (Mario Cristobal replaces Willie Taggart), but the offense could be similar under coordinator Marcus Arroyo. "He's one of the more dangerous guys in the league," a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said. "He's not the runner Khalil Tate is, but he throws it 10 times better." If Oregon gets Herbert for two more years -- he's definitely on the NFL's radar -- it should be in excellent shape to produce offensively. "The NFL's going to like his size," a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said. "He's definitely a guy I worry about." There are question marks after Herbert. Braxton Burmeister will have time to grow his game after being thrust into action as a freshman. Oregon also brings in Tyler Shough, an ESPN 300 prospect, who could help in 2019 or 2020.

14. Mississippi State Bulldogs

2017 ranking: 16

Returning starter: Nick Fitzgerald

Scouting the Bulldogs: Mississippi State projected well entering last season, and the outlook could be even brighter despite Fitzgerald's ankle injury in the Egg Bowl and a coaching change. While Fitzgerald's health will be a storyline because of 2,486 career rushing yards and 33 touchdowns, Keytaon Thompson provides genuine insurance, as he showed in Mississippi State's bowl win over Louisville. "I know Fitzgerald's numbers are impressive, and he's a big, strong kid," an SEC defensive coordinator said. "Keytaon's really talented. He's a slightly better runner than thrower, but he can definitely throw it. He's definitely a winner." The Fitzgerald-Thompson combination could carry the Bulldogs for several years. It also will be fascinating to see what new coach Joe Moorhead, formerly the Penn State offensive coordinator, does with quarterbacks he recruits to Starkville.

15. Florida State Seminoles

2017 ranking: 9

Returning starter: James Blackman

Scouting the Seminoles: Deondre Francois was poised for big things in 2017 before tearing his patellar tendon against Alabama. If he's back to full strength, he gives Florida State an effective passing threat who loves clutch situations. He also has two years of eligibility left, although a strong 2018 season could nudge him toward the NFL. A new offense under coach Willie Taggart is another factor. Blackman gained valuable experience as a freshman with 12 starts and gained confidence against weaker competition late in the 2017 season. "I don't know that he's mobile enough or has the size and frame to be durable as a high-level guy," an ACC defensive coordinator said of Blackman. "He's got a good arm." Redshirt freshman Bailey Hockman was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2017 class and could be a factor in 2019 and 2020.

16. West Virginia Mountaineers

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: Will Grier

Scouting the Mountaineers: This is a tricky situation to evaluate. Grier's success in his first season at WVU is the primary reason the Mountaineers enter the fall as strong candidates to win the Big 12. The Florida transfer blossomed under Dana Holgorsen, passing for 3,490 yards with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But what happens after Grier departs? The long-term outlook is a bit murky. Chris Chugunov struggled when Grier went out late last season. Miami transfer Jack Allison will be eligible, boasts arguably a stronger arm than Grier and can play through 2020. Incoming freshman Woodrow Lowe III, an ESPN 300 prospect, will be a factor beginning next fall. But planning for life after Grier begins now for Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

17. Wisconsin Badgers

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: Alex Hornibrook

Scouting the Badgers: Hornibrook takes a lot of flak, and justifiably so at times, but he's 20-3 as Wisconsin's starter and, in his most recent performance, lit up Miami's talented defense for four touchdowns on 67.6 percent completions in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Plus, he still has two years of eligibility left under coach Paul Chryst, and with a receiving corps that is getting significantly deeper and more athletic. "You've seen him exponentially grow in the conference the last two years," a Big Ten coach said. "He and Paul are on the same page. They ask him to play to his strengths, and he does a very good job. He's just a winner." Jack Coan could succeed Hornibrook in 2020, and Wisconsin signed three-star Chase Wolf in the 2018 class and has a commitment from Graham Mertz for 2019.

18. Miami Hurricanes

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: Malik Rosier

Scouting the Hurricanes: Like Clemson, Miami's short-term quarterback outlook changed because of how the season ended. Rosier completed less than 50 percent of his pass attempts with five interceptions and three touchdowns in losses to Pitt, Clemson and Wisconsin. Perhaps N'Kosi Perry would have replaced Rosier no matter what -- it seemed to be the plan last summer -- but the competition will heat up this spring. Perry, ESPN's No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class, redshirted last fall and could take Miami through 2020. Or it could soon be Jarren Williams, ESPN's No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class. Coach Mark Richt has some work to do in the short term, but the future looks good.

19. Kansas State Wildcats

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starters: Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton

Scouting the Wildcats: Kansas State's strong finish to the 2017 season enhanced its quarterback outlook for the next few years. Thompson, a redshirt freshman, helped Kansas State to a road upset of No. 10 Oklahoma and dramatic, come-from-behind wins over both Texas Tech and Iowa State. Then, Delton, a sophomore, had 158 rushing yards and four total touchdowns in a bowl win over UCLA. Delton also shined in a loss to Oklahoma. "For a dual-threat runner, he's a really good player, he's dangerous," a Big 12 defensive coordinator said. "I think he's better than the kids at Texas and TCU." Kansas State often uses multiple quarterbacks, and if both players stick around, the Wildcats will be covered through 2019 and, in Thompson's case, 2020. "Skylar doesn't run as well as the other kid, but he can throw it," a Big 12 assistant said.

20. UCLA Bruins

2017 ranking: 14

Returning starter: None

Scouting the Bruins: The departure of three-year starter Josh Rosen, combined with a coaching change and a scheme overhaul, creates legitimate quarterback concerns, at least in the short term. But the Chip Kelly factor can't be discounted. Kelly worked wonders with Oregon's quarterbacks and should do the same in Westwood. Incoming recruit Dorian Thompson-Robinson, ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 34 overall player in the 2018 class, is the name to watch. "He's an athlete," a Pac-12 coach said, "so for what Chip's doing, that might be a better fit." The key is whether Kelly can develop others if Thompson-Robinson isn't ready. Devon Modster showed some promise late in his freshman season, completing 64.6 percent of his passes in limited action. "He can spin it pretty good," an opposing defensive coordinator said of Modster. "The question is: Are they looking to go total Oregon or what [Kelly] did in the NFL, which incorporates both [running and passing]?" Redshirt sophomore Matt Lynch and Washington transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels also are in the mix this spring before Thompson-Robinson arrives in the summer.

21. Michigan Wolverines

2017 ranking: 6

Returning starter: Brandon Peters (part-time)

Scouting the Wolverines: Despite playing quarterback and developing them as a coach, Jim Harbaugh hasn't found enough answers under center the past two seasons. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson could solve Michigan's biggest problem, especially if the NCAA declares he is eligible in 2018. Peters shouldn't be written off, but he will need to look sharper than he did late last season. "He's legit, but the Shea Patterson kid is better," a Power 5 head coach said. "I don't know if he fits what they do, but he's a better quarterback, no doubt. If they stick with their traditional style, [Peters is] the guy. But you can't not play Shea Patterson if he's eligible." Patterson could take Michigan through 2019. Redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffrey, ESPN's No. 6 pocket passer and No. 117 overall player in the 2017 class, should be a factor in the near future.

22. TCU Horned Frogs

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: None

Scouting the Horned Frogs: There are some short-term concerns here as TCU lacks experience, but its top two quarterbacks for the future are both heralded prospects. Shawn Robinson, who backed up Kenny Hill last year and threw three touchdown passes in limited action, was ESPN's No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class. There's even more excitement about 2018 signee Justin Rogers, ESPN's No. 4 dual-threat QB and No. 57 overall player. Rogers is coming off a dislocated knee in the opening game of his senior season. His availability for 2018 is unknown, but coaches love his skills and potential. "For them, that's a really good get," a Big 12 assistant said, "and they got the kid from Dallas [Robinson] the year before."

23. USC Trojans

2017 ranking: 2

Returning starter: None

Scouting the Trojans: In J.T. (Daniels), they trust? USC could be placing its quarterbacking future on the shoulders of a guy who, until December, was a high school junior. It's risky but also carries big rewards, especially if Daniels continues his accelerated progress under Clay Helton and Tee Martin. USC obviously would be higher if Sam Darnold had stayed for another year, and there's not overwhelming optimism around Matt Fink and Jack Sears, although both could make jumps before the season. A graduate transfer addition could brighten USC's short-term outlook, but if Daniels meets the hype, the Trojans should be in good shape for a while.

24. NC State Wolfpack

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starter: Ryan Finley

Scouting the Wolfpack: Any list of the top-25 quarterback situations should include the team that brings back arguably the nation's top senior pro prospect. While the winter featured an exodus of quarterbacks, Ryan Finley stayed to improve his stock for a 2019 draft class that shouldn't be nearly as deep. Finley, who started his career at Boise State, has passed for 6,577 yards in two seasons with NC State. "He's the best [quarterback] in the ACC," said a defensive coordinator in the league. "He's the best pro prospect. He has size, arm strength, accuracy. He takes hits and throws it. You don't rattle him." NC State's succession plan includes Matt McKay and Devin Leary, both four-star prospects from the past two recruiting classes. McKay and Leary are both better runners than Finley and provide a different challenge for defenses, but NC State likely will have a production drop in 2019.

25. Texas A&M Aggies

2017 ranking: Not ranked

Returning starters: Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond (part-time)

Scouting the Aggies: Noted quarterback developer Jimbo Fisher inherits a situation with some unknowns but also talented young players. Coaches like what Starkel showed in limited action as a redshirt freshman, as he passed for 1,743 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions in seven games. "He's really good as a thrower," an opposing defensive coordinator said. "You could see it on tape, and then it jumped out when we faced them." Starkel has three seasons of eligibility left, as does Mond, who must make bigger strides as a passer but played before he was truly ready in 2017. Fisher's first quarterback recruit appears to be a strong one, as Texas A&M in February signed James Foster, ESPN's No. 9 dual-threat quarterback and No. 124 overall in the 2018 class. Foster should be a factor sooner than later.