There aren’t many positions in sports that get more attention than college quarterbacks. Or at least, it’s true of the good ones. For instance, take a look at this year’s Heisman odds pretty much anywhere and you’ll find a who’s who of the nation’s top signal callers: USC’s Sam Darnold, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (what a tremendous quarterback name), Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, etc. These are the guys who are virtually guaranteed to rack up ridiculous stats and keep their teams in the mix for prestigious bowl games. But at some point, they were all prospects or backups.
College quarterback is a glamorous position, but most of the great ones are only in the spotlight for two years or so. And that means as captivating as it is to watch the Heisman contenders, it’s also a lot of fun to look for up-and-comers at the position. I spent some time doing just that and came up with five breakout candidates you might not see coming.
(Note: I’m not going for total obscurity here, but you also won’t see names like Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham or West Virginia’s Will Grier, because those are the breakouts you probably do see coming.)
5 – Chase Forrest (Cal)
I’m going out on a bit of a limb with this first pick, because the truth is we have no idea who’s going to start for Cal at QB. You can try to find out online – believe me, I did – but staff and insiders alike are being pretty tight-lipped. The job will likely go to junior Chase Forrest or sophomore Ross Bowers, both of whom played in Cal’s Spring Game. But Forrest has edges in seniority and game experience, and seems to have a very slight inside track on the starting job.
I realize that doesn’t exactly make him out to be a stud. But Cal has sent quarterbacks to the NFL in each of the past two seasons in Jared Goff and Davis Webb, and will return two of its top three wide receivers (though top pass catcher Chad Hansen is now with the New York Jets). The early word on new offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is that the players love him, and Baldwin helped Eastern Washington to some strong offensive seasons as head coach. It’s an environment where even an unproven QB might find success this season. And if Forrest doesn’t, Bowers may, and we can pretend I picked him instead.
4 – Jacob Park (Iowa State)
Unless you happen to be a fan of the Cyclones, chances are you’re not exactly zeroed in on Iowa State football. This team has gone 3-9 in three of the past four seasons, with the only exception being a 2-10 campaign in 2014. It’s not exactly a football school these days. But there might be some excitement in Ames this season if Jacob Park can assert himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the Big 12.
That may not seem likely, but Park has a lot going for him. The 6’4’’ junior started only five games last season, but accounted for two of the Cyclones’ wins in that span. He posted completion percentages of 76.9 and 77.8 in those wins, and threw 8 touchdowns to 3 interceptions in his starts overall (12 to 5 on the full season). Park showed promise, and he’s now had the benefit of a full offseason as the prospective starter. Throw in the fact that some see Iowa State’s receiving corps, led by All-Big 12 senior Allen Lazard, as one of the best in the conference, and Park could certainly break out.
3 – Daniel Jones (Duke)
Head coach David Cutcliffe has succeeded in turning the Blue Devils’ program around, but some who are familiar with his career have still been waiting for him to produce an elite quarterback. Thaddeus Lewis was a star in Durham and made it to the NFL, as did is predecessor Sean Renfree; Thomas Sirk won the program its first bowl game in 4,027 years. But long before his ACC days, Cutcliffe had a hand in both Manning brothers’ development, and some feel that eventually he’ll help produce a bona fide star QB.
That QB might just be Daniel Jones. Jones was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role as a redshirt freshman when Sirk was injured last season, and while his youth and inexperience showed at times, his poise and performance were impressive overall. He completed 62.8% of his passes for 2,836 yards, throwing 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions (though 5 of those interceptions came in one disastrous game). At 6’5’’ he’s surprisingly efficient on the ground as well, having notched 486 yards and 7 running touchdowns. No one’s saying he’s the lost third Manning brother just yet, but Jones has a chance to become Cutcliffe’s best QB since the coach took the Duke job.
2 – Ben Hicks (SMU)
Hicks might be the surest bet on this list to post big numbers in 2017. But given that he plays for an American Athletic Conference team that went 5-7 last year, he doesn’t exactly soak up national attention. Still, this is a program on the rise (they were 2-10 in 2015), and Hicks got some excellent experience last year, starting 11 games after beginning the season as a backup. That’s what happens when the starter gets injured (in this case Matt Davis), and the results were pretty encouraging.
Hicks threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions – not bad for a guy who didn’t expect to start (and in fact not dissimilar to Daniel Jones). But Hicks also improved as the season went along. His only three games with a completion percentage at or above 60% were the last three of the season, and in those games he threw 7 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, notching an average of 315 yards. He’ll look to build on that strong finish this season, with top receivers Courtland Sutton and James Proche, who combined for 1,955 yards, both back in the fold. SMU looks like a good candidate to keep improving in the AAC, and Hicks could lead the way with a very strong season.
1 – Shea Patterson (Ole Miss)
This might be flirting with the category of quarterback breakouts you maybe-kinda-sorta see coming. Then again, Ole Miss wasn’t exactly lighting the SEC on fire in 2016, so the QB situation may have escaped your attention. So here’s the deal: 2016 starter Chad Kelly, who had 6,800 yards, 50 touchdowns and 21 interceptions in two seasons with the Rebels, has moved on to the NFL. Kelly left the job wide open for Shea Patterson, who could make serious waves in his sophomore season.
We know this not only because Patterson was ranked as the best quarterback in his class coming out of high school, but because of how he’s looked at Ole Miss and what he has to work with. Kelly was injured toward the end of the 2016 season, giving Patterson the opportunity to start three games. In those games, he managed 880 yards, 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. And though he went 1-2 in his starts, the win was a memorable victory at Texas A&M. This year, Patterson should have a lot to work with. The Rebels brought in three top-100 wide receivers to add to returning receivers Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown. They also hired a new offensive coordinator in Phil Longo, who happens to be known for having created a dominant offense in his time at Sam Houston State. Patterson should thrive in 2017.