College football spring practice either has started or will soon begin for most of the sport, giving schools an opportunity to get in the pivotal program-building sessions that many lost when sports shut down in March 2020. Strict COVID-19 protocols remain in place while teams can practice, but the expectation is that we will get as close to a full spring practice season as we would normally expect.
When it comes to spring practice, no storyline is more exciting than the quarterback battles. For some programs, the challenge is to replace a departed star at the position with several hungry candidates hoping to keep the standard of success and production high. Others might be carrying over uncertainty from 2020 with the plan being to solidify the position before the fall.
Many coaches lean on an "every job is open for competition" theme for spring practice, but for our purposes, we made some assumptions with incumbent starters -- like Bo Nix at Auburn, Spencer Petras at Iowa, Malik Cunningham at Louisville -- and spots with obvious succession plays -- Bryce Young at Alabama, DJ Uiagalelei at Clemson and Emory Jones at Florida. A wild card not included is Miami, where D'Eriq King won't available to participate fully in spring practice but will likely be the starter upon full recovery from an injury in the bowl game.
Let's take a look now at 10 of the most interesting quarterback battles getting underway this spring.
Contenders: CJ Stroud, Jack Miller, Kyle McCord
Analysis: While Alabama and Clemson have their succession plan in place, things are a little less certain in Columbus as to who takes over in the wake of Justin Fields' departure. There is talent, but very little experience and the added intrigue of high expectations. Not only will Ohio State enter 2021 as a College Football Playoff contender, but specifically the offense has a terrifying group of pass-catchers and skill-position talent that can overwhelm every opposing defense on the schedule. That is, of course, as long as Ryan Day has a difference-maker at quarterback.
Jack Miller started the 2020 season as the listed backup to Fields, but CJ Stroud finished the year as the No. 2 and was the more highly-rated prospect from Ohio State's 2020 recruiting class. Kyle McCord is a five-star freshman out of Pennsylvania from the 2021 class that enrolled early and will be in the mix as well. The high ceiling of Stoud, the No. 3 quarterback in the class behind DJ Uiagalelei and Bryce Young, gives him an edge if we're setting odds on the battle. With two sophomores and a freshman in the mix, I'd expect this battle to go as long as Day can stretch it out.
Contenders: Cade McNamara, Alan Bowman, JJ McCarthy
Analysis: First, Dylan McCaffrey opted out of the 2020 season with intentions to transfer. Then, in February, Joe Milton entered his name into the transfer portal. The starter at the beginning of the 2020 season, Milton was eventually replaced by McNamara, who begins this spring with a head start on the other candidates thanks to his play in the final two games of the season. But the buzz around the quarterback battle mostly surrounds JJ McCarthy, the five-star freshman who signed with the Wolverines in December and is on campus for spring practice.
McCarthy is the highest-rated quarterback to sign with Michigan out of high school since Jim Harbaugh took over in Ann Arbor, and therefore carries a certain level of heightened expectations that have been built up from years of up-and-down quarterback play. "This is the one where we see Harbaugh's reputation of working with quarterbacks really pay off," the Michigan fan says to themselves, trying to balance trusting the process of development with the impatience of wanting to get those results now. McCarthy might be "the one" for Harbaugh, but expecting everything to click as a true freshman is why it's good not only to have McNamara but the commitment of Alan Bowman. With three years of eligibility left, the former Texas Tech quarterback can provide solid depth in the room when he joins the program. His role in the battle won't really pick up until later, so for spring ball, it's all about what's known in McNamara plus what's expected and anticipated from McCarthy.
Contenders: Zach Calzada, Haynes King, Eli Stowers
Analysis: Unlike some of the other battles listed, Jimbo Fisher has the advantage of two apparent frontrunners who enter spring practice with experience in the program. After four years of Kellen Mond holding down the starting position, Fisher has hopefully already begun to formulate what the Aggies offense might look like in 2021 and beyond. The scheme and principles are important here because we're dealing with two different talents in Calzada, a 6-3, 205-pound pocket passer with a big arm and two years in the program, and King, a long athletic quarterback who also played basketball and ran track in high school.
King was the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class and got the nod as the apparent No. 2 to Mond considering he was the only other quarterback to attempt a pass last season as a freshman. Four-star freshman quarterback Eli Stowers could make some noise in the competition down the line, but for now, all eyes are on the more pro-style Calzada and the more dual-threat King to see how Texas A&M wants to run its offense in 2021.
Contenders: Jack Coan, Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne, Tyler Buchner
Analysis: It's difficult not to assume that Coan has an edge here based on the motivations of his exit from Wisconsin and arrival in South Bend, but we've seen enough quarterback battles to at least wait for first impressions on the practice field before putting the assumed starter tag next to his name. Coan, with 18 starts at Wisconsin under his belt including a Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl appearance in 2019, is enrolled and will be available for spring practice. Still, the most intriguing competitor for the job in freshman Tyler Buchner.
The four-star member of Notre Dame's 2021 recruiting class is enrolled early and will also get a shot to push for his spot on the depth chart, and maybe even playing time. Brendon Clark and Drew Pyne were solid backups to Ian Book, but Brian Kelly's decision to bring Coan on in the wake of Buchner's signing suggests he's looking for a high-floor quarterback with major conference experience to hold down the offense until the youngster is ready. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees could throw us a curveball next month by offering real momentum for Clark or Pyne, but as things stand now, the discussion surrounds the two new faces on campus representing opposite ends of the experience spectrum.
Contenders: Casey Thompson, Hudson Card
Analysis: It's real tough not to tap Thompson as the likely starter in Austin, but with a coaching transition, it's worth following the coach-speak and assuming "every job is an open competition." Steve Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Kyle Flood no doubt have broken down the tape of Thompson's four-touchdown performance in the 55-23 win against Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, and in that, have seen plenty of exciting potential of what the 2021 backfield with Thompson and all-purpose back Bijan Robinson can do to Big 12 defenses.
Don't ignore the role that Hudson Card could play in this battle, however. A four-star coming out of the legendary Austin-area football powerhouse that is Lake Travis, Card only trailed three quarterbacks in the 247Sports Composite rankings in the 2020 class -- Alabama's Bryce Young, Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei and Ohio State's CJ Stroud. That kind of company hasn't been seen on the field in the way that Young and especially Uiagalelei got to showcase in 2020, but it's still worth noting when considering how that raw talent with a year of development might be able to impress a new coaching staff more than the (admittedly impressive) highlight reel from Thompson in the bowl win.
Contenders: McKenzie Milton, Jordan Travis, Chubba Purdy
Analysis: This battle will come down to Milton's health and ability to compete at a high level. If Milton gets in the pads for spring ball and shows flashes of his UCF form, then the quarterback battle is a wrap and Mike Norvell has an instant-impact addition to a passing game that has struggled recently. But to assume it will be that easy for Milton ignores the real challenges of coming back from a horrific leg injury and the potential of Florida State running a potent offense with Jordan Travis or Chubba Purdy.
All three quarterbacks possess different skill sets, and the eventual starter will dictate some of the finer details in terms of the Seminoles' scheme for 2021. Travis and Purdy offer more mobile options at the position, while it would be surprising to see Milton as a main piece of the running attack. Because of the process involved in getting Milton back to full health and the many options that Norvell has with his offense if all three are healthy, I wouldn't expect there to be a starter named before the end of spring practice. But if there is, and it is Milton, that's a great sign that we could see him be the face of a resurgent Seminoles offense in the fall.
Contenders: Anthony Brown, Ty Thompson, Robby Ashford, Jay Butterfield
Analysis: The transfer of Tyler Shough has brought the Ducks into a spot with an array of options and no certain answers at quarterback. Shough beat out Brown for the starting job in 2020, but with four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in the final two games, a foundation was laid for the former Boston College quarterback to build on in his second season with the Ducks. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead installed Brown-specific packages into the offense with some success, though the starting job never changed hands in the shortened Pac-12 season.
Brown is going to have some competition from Ty Thompson, who not only enters his freshman season as one of the highest-rated quarterback signees in program history, but gets to participate in spring practice as an early enrollee. The sixth-year senior with a established floor against the blue-chip freshman with a high-ceiling sets the stage for one of the most intriguing battles in the country -- especially when you consider how one game-changing quarterback could elevate this talented Oregon roster into the conversation as a national championship contender.
Contenders: Myles Brennan, TJ Finley, Max Johnson
Analysis: Brennan had huge shoes to fill taking over the offense after Joe Burrow's record-setting, Heisman Trophy-winning season. There were struggles out of the gate and some unfortunate personnel developments that included star wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase opting out for the season after initially signaling his intentions to play, but Brennan's season was ultimately ended by a lower body injury. That thrust a pair of freshmen -- TJ Finley first and later Max Johnson -- into the starting role to close out the season.
When Terrace Marshall also opted out later in the year, the door opened for five-star freshman receiver Kayshon Boutte to emerge as one of the most dynamic skill players in the SEC. Johnson participated in some of that success with his classmate late in the year, but Brennan will likely be given a chance to reclaim his starting job for 2021. Ed Orgeron said last month that Brennan is on track to be "full-go" for spring practice after successful recovery from that season-ending injury, making him the man to beat for the job.
Contenders: Dylan Morris, Sam Huard, Patrick O'Brien
Analysis: Huard not only comes with name recognition and strong program bloodlines with the Huskies, the five-star freshman is the highest-rated quarterback to sign with the program in the recruiting industry era. Even without a senior season, he still ranks as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Washington high school football history, and his arrival on campus as an early enrollee adds tons of intrigue to the quarterback battle in Seattle.
Our guess, for now, is that returning starter Dylan Morris will fend off both Huard and Colorado State transfer O'Brien. Morris has experience working with a veteran offensive line and led the team to a 3-1 record in the shortened season as a freshman, claiming the Pac-12 North division title. But if Morris can win the job as a redshirt freshman and Jake Browning can win the job as a freshman back in 2015, there is precedent for rookies having a real impact on the quarterback battle at Washington.
Contenders: Hendon Hooker, Harrison Bailey, Kaidon Salter, Brian Maurer
Analysis: Just like Texas, the coaching change at Tennessee is going to come with the messaging that every job is an open competition this spring. Josh Heupel will likely extend this battle beyond spring practice considering the extensive evaluation that needs to be done for each of these quarterbacks, as Hooker arrives from Virginia Tech and Salter gets his first live action in college as an early enrollee freshman. While Bailey and Maurer have experience in Knoxville, the coaching change eliminates some of that advantage in the battle.
Salter, a four-star quarterback out of Texas, was a key part of keeping the Vols' 2021 recruiting class from splintering in the wake of Jeremy Pruitt's dismissal. Heupel and his new staff finished the cycle ranked No. 16 in the country, which was a win considering the potential NCAA issues, a coaching change and some decommits from that class prior to National Signing Day. While Salter clearly is going to be an important piece of Tennessee's future on offense, though, he might not be ready to take over in 2021. That's where Hooker, with 15 starts over the past two seasons at Virginia Tech, might end up being the answer for the immediate future.