In college football, first-time starting QBs keep winning it all

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Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin monitors Cooper Bateman’s progress during a training-camp practice. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

We can all agree that quarterback is the most important position in football, right? Also, that experience is a good thing. Put them together — an experienced quarterback — and you’ve got a highly desired starting point for any college team.

Which makes the following trend a bit strange and surprising: Three consecutive — and six of the last seven — national championship teams were led by first-time starting quarterbacks.

The list includes Auburn’s Cam Newton and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, each of whom won the Heisman Trophy and eventually became the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick. It also includes one of the college game’s greatest winners, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, as well as another Crimson Tide quarterback, Jake Coker, who didn’t start until he was a fifth-year senior in 2015.

In every case, they met or exceeded expectations, enabling their teams to flourish.

A week ago, we looked around the Big Ten at the teams — starting with expected contenders Michigan and Michigan State — that will be depending on new No. 1 quarterbacks. They join a number of powerhouse programs that will be doing likewise, among them:

Alabama: As the Tide chase their fifth national title under Nick Saban, we’ll get to know junior Cooper Bateman, who served as Coker’s backup last season. Unless, that is, redshirt freshman and former five-start recruit Blake Barnett wins the job, which is entirely possible. Then again, reports from Tuscaloosa say true freshman Jalen Hurts has been crushing it since arriving in January as an early enrollee.

It’s truly a three-QB race at Alabama — as critical a position battle as there has been in the Saban era. If Saban could prolong training camp by a couple of weeks, he undoubtedly would.

Oregon: Coming off a downer of a season in which they lost four games for the first time since 2007, the Ducks appear to be looking to graduate transfer Dakota Prukop to lead them back to their customary heights. Prukop, a former FCS standout at Montana State, still has a redshirt freshman (Travis Jonsen) and a true freshman (Terry Wilson) of his own to beat out, though.

“Ideally, it’s going to be about a week-and-a-half out [from the Sept. 3 opener] where you’ve got your starter,” coach Mark Helfrich said. “But ‘ideal’ isn’t always best, if that makes sense. If it happens that soon, great. If it happens later, that’s great, too.”

Stanford: Christian McCaffrey left, Christian McCaffrey right. How hard can it be to hand the ball off to the 2015 Heisman runner-up?

Please. Stanford’s next starting quarterback has giant shoes to fill; four-year starter Kevin Hogan was an outstanding successor to Andrew Luck. Sophomore Keller Chryst and junior Ryan Burns — each 6-5, 230-plus and strong-armed — will compete until the end of camp and beyond.

USC: Fourth-year junior Max Browne once was one of the most coveted recruits in the country. With longtime starter Cody Kessler gone, it’s finally Browne’s time to shine … or maybe that time never will come. Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold remains in the fight. Winner gets to lead his team onto the field for the opener against — yikes — Alabama.

TCU: Trevone Boykin was merely the best quarterback — sorry, Andy Dalton — in school history. The choices to replace him are a little shaky. Transfer Kenny Hill flamed out at Texas A&M after a strong beginning as successor to Johnny Manziel. Sophomore Foster Sawyer, who failed to impress in limited action last season, is the other dog in the hunt.


Speaking of powerhouses, Florida State has a fifth-year senior quarterback with starting experience in Sean Maguire. Yet redshirt freshman Deondre Francois may be in the process of beating out Maguire. Francois was widely considered the top dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2015.

“Both Deondre and Sean have gotten rave reviews,” said coach Jimbo Fisher. “That’s the way you want it, the back-and-forth and the competition.”


The 10-member conference is looking to live up to its name by adding two (or more) schools. The leading candidate appears to be Houston, which has strong backing from Texas, the league’s most influential member. Cincinnati reportedly is another strong candidate. Like Houston, the Bearcats will play the 2016 season in the American Conference.

BYU has long been floated as a potential fit for the Big 12, but there is growing public sentiment against partnering with a university at which “homosexual behavior” is a stated violation of the so-called Honor Code.


Northwestern’s 10 victories last season largely covered up the extent to which then-redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson struggled in the passing game. Thorson, from Wheaton North, ranked at or near the bottom of the list of Big Ten starters in nearly every passing category.

Perhaps the ugliest number of all: his 5.2 yards per attempt, third-lowest in the country.

Mind you, Thorson wasn’t the entire reason for that.

“Clayton didn’t throw the ball well consistently,” said offensive coordinator Mick McCall, “but the guys didn’t catch it well for him consistently, either.”

Will the passing game be a prettier picture in 2016?

“We’re still working on that,” McCall said.

Fair enough. Yet Thorson’s arm is one of the most improved aspects of the Wildcats’ offense, according to McCall. Thorson’s mechanics — “all over the place” in 2015, the coach said — are more compact, helping his accuracy and boosting his confidence.

“You’ll be really surprised the first time you see him,” McCall said.

Wildcats fans have to like the sound of that.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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