Five Quarterback Battles to Watch After National Signing Day
Blame the transfer portal. Blame the handful of quarterbacks—and these are big handfuls, mind you—who migrate each year from school to school in search of playing time. Blame the nature of the competition. But Wednesday is National Signing Day, the formal end of the 2019 recruiting cycle and the beginning of college football’s slow season, and already, we can’t help but look months down the road.
A quarterback can make or break a team, and great quarterbacks might be signing day’s most valuable prizes. This year, nearly all the top prospects inked with teams back in December—due to the scarcity of starting jobs, many of them commit as high school juniors—and several are on campus already competing. Some players don’t want to wait too long to be QB1, a title that can be hard to reclaim once it’s lost, and the ripple effect of new arrivals on an already unpredictable depth chart is what makes quarterback recruiting so interesting. With that in mind, here’s a look at five programs bringing a top 2019 prospect into their quarterback rooms that should set the stage for some fascinating storylines to follow over the next few years.
Oklahoma: Spencer Rattler (No. 1 overall QB, 247Sports Composite)
Oh, to be the Sooners. Your past two quarterbacks have won the Heisman Trophy. You’ve made the College Football Playoff in both those seasons, and now you’ve signed the top quarterback in this year’s class, according to 247Sports’s ratings. But just as Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray did upon transferring to Norman, this quarterback should have a year to sit and learn (and, with luck, make use of that four-game redshirt rule to see some game action) because Oklahoma also recently snared Jalen Hurts, the also-very-good former Alabama hero.
Rattler told 247Sports in December that coach Lincoln Riley had assured him the Sooners wouldn’t be adding a QB in the graduate transfer market, but Rattler shouldn’t have been too disappointed when Hurts announced Norman as his transfer destination. Starting a true freshman goes well approximately 2% of the time in college football, and getting a year to internalize Lincoln Riley’s offense coming out of high school will be a huge asset. Then, with Hurts’s eligibility exhausted, Rattler should be in great position to take over in 2020.
Auburn: Bo Nix (No. 2)
Nix is up there among the best QBs in Alabama prep football history, but he’s entering a wide-open field, where three players have more realistic chances at the starting job vacated when Jarrett Stidham declared early for the NFL. Gus Malzahn has tended to value experience over youth—but his stable of contenders is short on the former, giving Nix at least a sliver of a chance.
Also vying for the job are Malik Willis, Stidham’s backup who’s completed 11 of 14 passes in spot duty over the past few years. Like Nix, he’s a dual-threat quarterback, having already rushed for 309 yards over his career. (In 2017, when he got the bulk of his carries, he averaged 13.8 yards per rush.) Then there are redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and 24-year-old Cord Sandberg, a former minor-league pitcher who has four years of eligibility remaining after playing in one 2018 blowout and taking a redshirt. Both Sandberg and Gatewood are big and athletic with strong arms.
What’s most interesting about this bunch is their combined years of remaining eligibility. Willis has two, Gatewood and Sandburg four. Even if Nix doesn’t play next fall, he’ll need to impress enough to keep another player from getting entrenched in the job, and it’s highly unlikely that many quarterbacks with that much eligibility left will all stick around.
Washington: Dylan Morris (No. 7)
Morris, a four-star recruit, is the best player in the state of Washington in the class of 2019. It’s huge that he’s staying home, although realistically, his likely outcome in 2019 is a redshirt year; he’s probably third in line for the starting job after presumptive starter Jacob Eason and likely backup Jake Haener, a sophomore. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the Georgia transfer Eason wouldn’t win the job this offseason, but Morris could vie for the backup spot and start getting reps as a true freshman.
The Huskies’ offense is in a unique spot: Jake Browning and leading rusher Myles Gaskin are gone, but much of the rest of the unit is returning after a down year in 2018. If Eason can pick up where he left off at Georgia before a Week 1 injury cratered his sophomore season in Athens, Washington should be in a good position, and Eason has two years of eligibility remaining. Morris needs to make a push up the depth chart, even if he redshirts, and the timing is such that he could be more than prepared to take over for Eason in 2021—but that seems a long way off, and the Huskies used two spots in their 2018 signing class on QBs Jacob Sirmon and Colson Yankoff.
Wisconsin: Graham Mertz (No. 5)
Read this slowly: Wisconsin signed the fifth-best quarterback in the class of 2019. He’s the second-ranked pro-style passer in this class, and he had offers from just about everyone. He’s from the Kansas City suburbs. And he’s going to play for a team that has largely made a tradition out of hoping their elite offensive linemen set the tone for the team. The 2018 season was a down year, but the Badgers have perfected what they do, with smothering defenses and tireless rushers and game-managing QBs. That last thing? Mertz probably won’t be that.
Mertz is the highest-rated quarterback to sign with the Badgers this century, and he might get a chance to start next fall. Alex Hornibrook, the Badgers’ quarterback since 2016, has a year of eligibility remaining, but a season ago, when he was supposed to break out, he instead sunk deeper into his penchant for turnovers. (In his first two seasons as Wisconsin’s starter, Hornibrook tossed a pick on 4.4% of his passes. Last fall, that number rose to 5.4%.)
We’re a long way off from the Badgers naming a quarterback, and even farther away from knowing whether last season was an aberration or the first sign of trouble, but Wisconsin is wrapping up its best recruiting class since 2014. It’s just too tempting to imagine the Badgers with one of their signature defenses and a well-rounded offense, which Mertz, with a little development, might be able to provide.
Arizona State: Jayden Daniels, Joey Yellen and Ethan Long (Nos. 3, 19 and 40)
No team has signed more quarterbacks among the top 40 in this class than Arizona State, which inked three: Daniels (the No. 3 QB in the class, per 247Sports), Yellen (No. 23) and Long (No. 39). All three have already enrolled, and as the Sun Devils open spring practice the day before signing day, they’re competing among themselves and with junior Dillon Sterling-Cole, last season’s backup to Manny Wilkins. It’s going to be a logjam, and this much competition rarely ends without a trip to the transfer portal.
Here’s how it happened: Long and Yellen committed first, both in early June 2018. Then Daniels joined the class during the early signing period, picking Herm Edwards’s team over several other Pac-12 offers. He’s a dual-threat talent and will bring a very different look from the other two quarterbacks in the class—and he also has the most impressive résumé of the bunch. After reeling in the best recruit of his tenure, Edwards will have a big choice to make this spring and summer.