College football spring practice is off and running, and over the next several weeks there will be spring games allowing fans an early look at their favorite teams for 2023. So before the spring game schedule really gets rolling, let's take a look at the hottest topic, when applicable, for any college football program: The quarterback battle.
In the transfer portal era, it benefits coaches to make a competition as open as possible -- at least without being disingenuous. Lincoln Riley is not going to say that Caleb Williams is in jeopardy of losing his job at USC, and the same can be said for Drake Maye at North Carolina, Jordan Travis at Florida State or Bo Nix at Oregon. There are cases, however, where the presence of new talent, be it from the high school or the transfer portal, have shaken up the outlook at the quarterback position. Those battles, plus the ones where the departure of an NFL-bound player has left a hole at the most important position on the field, highlight what is a robust collection of quarterback battles to track through spring practice.
We've selected seven quarterback battles to highlight below, starting with the most high-profile competition at one of the sport's most iconic programs.
Contenders: Quinn Ewers, Arch Manning
We have open competitions at Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State, yet this is undeniably the one that generates the most interest. Manning is one of the highest-rated prospects in the history of the recruiting industry and arguably the most famous true freshman in the modern era. Manning's commitment to Texas was a huge win for coach Steve Sarkisian as it likely solidifies the team's offensive outlook through at least 2025.
But fame, intrigue and anticipation does not equate to Manning necessarily being ready to lead the Longhorns on the field. And Sarkisian does have an incumbent starter who also happened to be the No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school in 2021. Ewers' blue-chip status — 247Sports gave him a perfect rating out of Southlake, Texas — is getting overlooked by many when compared to Manning. Ewers has both the physical and mental benefit of being a part of high-level college football programs for the last two years.
One reason Manning is receiving any buzz this offseason is due to Ewers' performances against the best teams on Texas' schedule a season ago. Ewers went 1-4 against ranked opponents and totaled five touchdowns to four interceptions with a 52.8% completion rate. this spring, Texas is looking for Ewers to tighten up his game and make the leap, possibly even entering summer conditioning as the team's starter. If not, Manning enters fall camp lurking in the competition and creating some interesting storylines with a massive showdown against Alabama on the schedule in Week 2.
Contenders: Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff, Gunner Stockton
Kirby Smart gave us the lay of the land at the start of Georgia's spring ball indicating that Beck and Vandagriff are sharing first-team reps with Stockton getting in the mix as well. All three have spent at least one year in the program, with Beck carrying the most in-game experience as the backup to Stetson Bennett IV. There seems to be a good amount of confidence in either Beck or Vandagriff to lead the offense, which now will be under the direction of Mike Bobo after Todd Monken made a move back to the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. That confidence comes from not only from the high floor that both players present as quarterbacks, but the overwhelming collection of talent that Georgia surrounds its signal-callers with every fall.
What will be interesting to watch is how the quarterback decision might indicate what Bobo wants to do with the Bulldogs' offense in 2023. Beck has an experience edge and has been pigeon-holed — perhaps unfairly — as more of the downfield passing option, while Vandagriff has a more impressive recruiting profile as one of the top quarterbacks from the 2021 cycle in part because of his athleticism and ability to make plays on the run. Smart has pushed back some, arguing that Beck is an athlete, too, and that Vandagriff believes in his arm strength just as much as anyone else in the room. Nevertheless, it's the narrative around this battle in the wake of significant turnover on the offensive side of the ball.
Contenders: Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson
Like Georgia, Alabama's spring practice storylines include not just a quarterback battle but an offensive installation period with a new offensive coordinator. Unlike the Bulldogs, this hire came from outside the program and therefore brings fewer certainties about what to expect from the Crimson Tide offense in 2023. Tommy Rees, brought in from Notre Dame, has two options at the top of the depth chart that present an interesting decision for Alabama in handling its business on offense.
Milroe is entering his third year with the program and started against Texas A&M last season while Bryce Young was injured. In total, Milroe finished with five touchdowns to three interceptions in eight appearances — he played his most significant time in the second half against Arkansas after Young sustained his shoulder injury — while adding 263 yards rushing. Alabama's play selection when Milroe was in the game for competitive snaps bent more towards the ground game than when Young was healthy, but that was also under the guidance of a different offensive coordinator with different skill position pieces on the field.
Simpson carries a much higher recruiting ranking coming out of high school — he was a five-star prospect, ranked as a top-three quarterback in the 2022 cycle — but as the third-string quarterback in 2022, he lacks any experience in critical game situations at the college level.
Nick Saban said this week he likes the players they have around the quarterback position heading into 2023, and so continued development is going to be the name of the game. Both players have an opportunity this spring to impress Rees as he starts to iron out Alabama's offense for 2023, which could pivot in a couple different directions depending on which quarterback has the edge in the competition.
Contenders: Kyle McCord, Devin Brown
The promotion of Brian Hartline to offensive coordinator brings some change to the coaching staff, but in terms of expectations, the role of Ohio State's top quarterback remains unchanged from the C.J. Stroud: Put the ball in the hands of the Buckeyes' elite wide receivers so they can make plays. The presence of Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, not to mention high-end running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, means that even a game manager could wind up as the face of one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
McCord, a former five-star prospect coming out of high school, has more experience as the two-year backup to Stroud, but much of his action has come late in games that were already decided as Buckeye victories. He's being pushed by Brown, who has no career pass attempts in college but has made a good impression in practice that has Hartline enthused by the nature of the competition.
One potential wrinkle in this battle is the previous experience McCord has with Harrison, a Biletnikoff Award finalist. The two were teammates at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia as part of an offense good enough to land McCord Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year honors. It's the "high school teammates" nugget that will be worn out on broadcasts by midseason -- similar to the classic "roommate connection." We're just getting ahead of it.
Contenders: Jaxson Dart, Spencer Sanders, Walker Howard
Coach Lane Kiffin has an incumbent starting quarterback from a team that opened 2022 with a 7-0 record and spent three weeks in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll in October. On its face, you'd expect that the Rebels would have a QB1 decided to open spring practice, but that is not the case at all. Perhaps it was how Ole Miss finished the season, losing five of its final six games, that prompted Kiffin to dip into the transfer portal for not one, but two capable options at the quarterback position to challenge Dart.
On one end of the experience spectrum, there's Spencer Sanders. The four-year starter at Oklahoma State had nearly 10,000 career passing yards and a 30-11 record. On the other side, there's Walker Howard. The touted quarterback from the 2022 class signed with LSU coming out high school, but opted to hit the transfer portal with Jayden Daniels' back for another year and Garrett Nussmeier vying for playing time as well. Howard has a longer runway for eligibility, Sanders likely expects a fair shot at the starting job immediately and Dart is the one who has experience running Kiffin's offense.
Contenders: Collin Schlee, Ethan Garbers, Dante Moore
Coach Chip Kelly picked up two big additions in the offseason: Schlee, a former Kent State quarterback, and Moore, a former five-star recruit who flipped from Oregon during the early signing period. We don't have much of a track record in terms of expectations for this battle; departing fifth-year senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson was the starter for 48 of Kelly's 56 games with the Bruins.
Schlee was ranked as the No. 4 quarterback in the portal by 247Sports and has two years of eligibility remaining. He was a Third Team All-MAC selection after totaling 17 touchdowns (13 passing, four rushing) to just five interceptions, but he lacks Moore's upside as the No. 4 overall prospect from the 2023 class. Garbers, though lacking in buzz of being a new addition to the roster, does carry an experience advantage as DTR's backup over the last two seasons. Garbers was a four-star prospecting the 2020 recruiting cycle who initially signed at Washington before transferring to UCLA prior to the 2021 season.
Contenders: Joe Milton, Nico Iamaleava
Hendon Hooker showcased how Tennessee's offense under coach Josh Heupel could propel a quarterback to make a massive leap, and that's exactly what Milton is hoping to do in 2023. Milton and Hooker both transferred to Tennessee from other Power Five programs (Milton from Michigan, Hooker from Virginia Tech) prior to Heupel's first season in 2021. Milton actually won the starting job heading into 2021 but was injured in the second game of the season, allowing Hooker to take control of the QB1 responsibilities. The expectation, or at least the hope for Tennessee fans, is that Milton's experience in the system will allow him to make the same kind of jump we saw from Hooker from 2021 to 2022.
If there's any wavering in Milton's performance, however, there is a highly-capable option on the bench in five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. Carrying a composite rating of .998 and a perfect prospect score from 247Sports, Iamaleava ranks as one of the highest-rated prospects to sign with Tennessee since we started tracking such information. Listed on the Tennessee roster at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, this a player who represents the true ceiling of Heupel's offense and the jump from SEC dark horse to true national title contender. Whether that potential is realized in 2023, 2024 or 2025 largely comes down to the timeline of Nico's development and whether Milton's performance gives Tennessee the best chance to win.
Just like fellow true freshmen Arch Manning at Texas or Dante Moore at UCLA, there are more pragmatic scenarios that have the veteran option starting in 2023 to allow the young talent to develop with plans to hand the offense over in 2024. But given the uncertainties of a long college football season, you can bet Tennessee's staff is doing everything to push both quarterbacks in spring practice in case it takes both quarterbacks to accomplish their goals for the fall.