1. SOUTHERN CAL
With a position like quarterback where only one guy can play at a time, depth is not necessarily the most important factor. With that said, depth is the reason why the Trojans top our list despite not having the best passer. Junior Mark Sanchez was the nation’s number one ranked high school quarterback in the Class of 2005 and finally gets his shot after waiting behind Matt Leinart and John David Booty. Sanchez started three games last year, including a 38-0 win at Notre Dame, and finished the season 69 of 114 (60.5%) for 695 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions. At 6-3, 225 pounds, Sanchez is a strong-armed, fundamentally sound athlete. While he is not the best passer that the Irish will face this year, he tops the richest depth chart. Behind Sanchez is the Class of 2006’s top passer and former Arkansas starter Mitch Mustain. Mustain has already proven that he can play after winning his first eight starts in the SEC before transferring to USC. Redshirt freshman Aaron Corp is third on the depth chart and was ranked as the third best quarterback in the Class of 2007 behind Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett. While Corp probably won’t get too much playing time this season, look for Mustain to push Sanchez throughout the year and take advantage of any chance that he gets. While no team can feel good about losing their number one quarterback, the Trojans would still have to be considered a national title contender even if Sanchez went down.
The Boilermakers boast the best pure passer on Notre Dame’s schedule in senior Curtis Painter. For his career, Painter is 760 of 1,269 (59.9%) for 8,763 yards and 54 touchdowns. After leading the nation with 19 interceptions as a sophomore, he made a concerted effort to cut down on his picks and had a 29-11 touchdown-interception ratio last year. Before the season is over, Painter could break Drew Brees’ career records for passing yards, completions and total offense. In two career starts against the Irish, Painter has thrown for 650 yards and four touchdowns. But the Boilermakers have very little depth behind Painter and if he were to go down, Purdue’s season would probably follow suit. Purdue coach Joe Tiller gave senior Joey Elliott the edge over redshirt freshman Justin Siller in the race for the backup quarterback position. For his career, Elliott has played in seven games, completing 19 of 34 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Still, Painter is considered by many to be the top senior passer in the country and some have him as the top quarterback for the 2009 NFL Draft.
Based on potential and depth, Notre Dame really could have grabbed the third spot on this list, but Jake Locker’s productivity as a freshman and his sheer value to his team give the Huskies the edge. Locker was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention choice. Locker set a conference rushing record for quarterbacks with 987 yards and is the top returning rusher in all of the Pac-10. He was 155 of 328 (47.3%) for 2,062 yards to account for a total of 3,048 yards of offense. Locker needs to improve on his 14-15 touchdown-interception ratio, but his ability to make plays with his feet is what makes him a game changer. If he does become more consistent through the air, Locker could easily be the most dangerous quarterback that the Irish will face this year. But behind Locker, there is virtually no depth as redshirt freshmen Ronnie Fouch and Taylor Bean have never taken a snap in a game. Of all of the teams on this list, Washington is the one that can least afford to lose its quarterback.
4. NOTRE DAME
The Irish might have more potential at the quarterback position than any team they play, Southern Cal included. Unlike 2007, Jimmy Clausen is the clear starter and has packed on 20 pounds of muscle after being limited in the offseason last season. To anyone that saw him throw during the spring, it is clear that he was nowhere near 100% last year as the zip and accuracy that made him the highest profile high school recruit of the decade returned. Clausen finished the season 138 of 245 (56.3%) for 1,254 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games and nine starts. It was obvious that Clausen became healthier and more comfortable as the season went on. Clausen threw three touchdown passes against Air Force in the tenth game of the season and came back with another trio of scoring tosses against Duke the next week. For all of his talent, Clausen will not get the chance to display it if his offensive line cannot keep him on his feet. But if he is given time, Clausen seems poised for a breakout season as a sophomore and could even approach the hype that followed him to South Bend. Senior Evan Sharpley proved that he is perfectly suited for his role as a backup when he completed 77 of 140 (55.0%) for 736 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions in six appearances as a reserve and two starts. Behind Sharpley is incoming five-star recruit Dayne Crist, who has said that he is here to compete, but also is mature enough to accept his role. Crist may have more physical tools than any of the quarterbacks and could be number two on the depth chart by next season whether or not Sharpley comes back for his fifth year in 2009.
5. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans top the next group on the list after the four teams with the potential for elite quarterback play. Brian Hoyer is back for his fifth year in East Lansing and his second full year as a starter. With a 7-7 career record as a starter, Hoyer has experience, now he just needs to translate it into wins. He completed 223 of 376 passes (59.3%) for 2,725 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, as he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection last year. While the Spartans have a Davey O’Brien candidate as their starter, transfers have left Michigan State short-handed behind him. Backups Nick Foles and Connor Dixon transferred between the 2007 season and this summer, leaving the Spartans with just one eligible scholarship quarterback behind Hoyer. Redshirt freshman Kirk Cousins is next in line if anything was to happen to Hoyer. Cousins (6-3, 181) is a solid all-around athlete, but he was not as highly regarded coming out of high school as Foles or Dixon was and he has yet to take a college snap.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
T.J. Yates had a record-setting 2007 season after redshirting in 2006. Yates passed for a single-season school-record 2,655 yards and tossed 14 touchdowns last year. The two-time ACC Rookie of the Week completed 218 of 365 passes (59.7%) last year and had 300-yard passing performances against East Carolina (344) and Virginia (339). The Tar Heels aren’t bare behind Yates either as junior Cam Sexton and redshirt freshman Mike Paulus got plenty of first-team reps during the spring. Sexton completed the only pass he threw last year, but in 2006 he started five games as a freshman and completed 57 of his 136 passes (41.9%) for 840 yards for four touchdowns and eight interceptions. By his own admission, Paulus was not ready to play in 2007, but with the work he got this spring, that should not be the case this season. With a strong group of receivers back look for the Tar Heels to improve on their 2007 average of 226.2 passing yards.
In 2007, the Panthers struggled to replace three-year starting quarterback Tyler Palko as starter Bill Stull went down with a thumb injury early in the second half of the season opener. Stull was replaced by Kevan Smith, who started the next three games before being replaced by true freshman Pat Bostick. Bostick started the final eight games of the season completing 155 of 252 passes (61.5%) for 1,500 yards eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Stull is back for 2008 and nailed down the starting job with a strong spring. Bostick appears to be the number two guy, but junior college transfer Greg Cross has passed Smith on the depth chart and the dual-threat QB could be moving up. With a premier runner in the backfield, whoever is throwing the passes for the Panthers will needs just to be effective.
The nation’s worst passing offense in 2007 ranks ahead of others because the quarterback was also responsible for the country’s top rushing attack. Senior Kaipo-Noa Kaheauku-Enhada runs the Midshipmen’s famed triple-option attack and he runs it well. He only completed 55 of 98 passes (56.1%) for 952 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in 2007. But as a runner, Kaheauku-Enhada rushed for 834 yards and 12 touchdowns on 180 carries while distributing the ball. Backing up Kaheauku-Enhada will be classmate Jarod Bryant who is such an athlete that he will see time as a running back and punt returner in 2008. Bryant solidifies the depth at quarterback for the offense that Navy wants to run.
Ninth may seem high for a team with zero meaningful experience and a new offensive system being installed that does not seem to fit the personnel. But the thinking here is that Rich Rodriguez is able to tailor his offense to the talents of redshirt freshman Steven Threet instead of trying to turn him into the next Patrick White. Threet (6-5, 220) was a four-star recruit coming out of high school as a big guy with a big arm and look for Rodriguez to take advantage of his talents with a variety of passes. Redshirt sophomores Nick Sheridan and David Cone will back up Threet and depth will be an issue. If Threet doesn’t work out or was to go down with an injury, there is no way to predict what Rodriguez would do, but he could try to get junior running back Carlos Brown, who played quarterback in high school, some snaps.
The Orange could be the worst team that Notre Dame plays this year, but their junior quarterback Andrew Robinson has shown some flashes when he has been given time to throw. Robinson lit up Louisville for 423 yards and four touchdowns and had 419 passing yards and three scores against Cincinnati. He finished the season 154 of 292 (52.7%) for 2,192 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The son of a Notre Dame legend will back up Robinson. Senior Cameron Dantley, son of Irish basketball great Adrian Dantley, is number two on the depth chart and his mobility could give the Orange an interesting option. Whoever is the quarterback will not only need to rely on the offensive line to protect them, but will also need some new receivers to step up big time. Syracuse will be without their number one receiver and an incoming freshman receiver because of academic issues.
11. BOSTON COLLEGE
This ranking is less of an indictment of the talent on the Eagles’ roster and more of an acknowledgment of what BC lost in quarterback Matt Ryan. Fifth-year senior Chris Crane has been Ryan’s backup for the last two years and will finally get his shot in 2008. Crane has already said that he will not be Ryan and while he would be foolish to try, the loss of the top quarterback in the draft will also be felt in the huddle. Crane completed half of the four passes he attempted in 2007. Crane did see more action in 2006, but not much. He played quarterback in six games, completing 22 of 32 passes (68.8%) for 193 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Dominique Davis will give BC an exciting option as a dual-threat, but the staff is hoping that won’t be until next year.
If Jim Harbaugh is not sold on his quarterback situation then why should we be? Harbaugh has junior quarterback Tavita Pritchard back after he led the Cardinal to last year’s historic upset over Southern Cal. Instead of naming Pritchard as the starter heading into the spring, Harbaugh left the competition between Pritchard, sophomore Alex Loukas and Michigan transfer Jason Forcier open. Harbaugh had another opportunity to select Pritchard or somebody else as the guy upon the close of spring, but again he chose to continue the competition into fall camp. Pritchard did struggle over the six games after the USC win and finished the season 97 for 194 (50.0%) for 1,114 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions. All three signal callers can make plays with their legs, but all of them need to improve their passing skills. With three quarterbacks seemingly so close in ability, depth should not be an issue and with hotshot five-star recruit Andrew Luck coming in this fall, neither should potential. But until Luck takes over the position and becomes comfortable with it, the quarterback situation in Palo Alto will be an uneasy one.
13. SAN DIEGO STATE
Of all of the teams on this list outside of Boston College, the Aztecs may have been hurt the most by graduation. With last year’s starting quarterback and four-year captain Kevin O’Connell gone, so is 77% of the Aztecs’ offense. O’Connell completed 257 of his 439 passes (58.5%) for 3,063 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. O’Connell also led the team in rushing with 408 yards and 11 scores on 135 carries. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley is at the front of the line to replace O’Connell. Lindley is a strong-armed quarterback, who at 6-3, 205 pounds has decent size, but coming out of high school the same year as Clausen, he was the 47th ranked quarterback on Scout. Junior college transfer Drew Westling and sophomore Kelsey Sokoloski are behind Lindley, but neither has any meaningful experience. The Aztecs quarterbacks do have a relatively high ceiling, but that is mainly because the expectations are so low.