Ranking the ACC QB situations

It’s fair to wonder if there’s even any sense in ranking quarterback situations these days. What does depth at QB even mean? Take a look back at what Clemson had on its roster or signed on Dec. 31, 2017:

Kelly Bryant
Hunter Johnson
Zerrick Cooper
Tucker Israel
Chase Brice
Trevor Lawrence
Ben Batson

Then remember that, when Lawrence was knocked out of a game in Week 5 — just nine months later — Clemson’s QB depth chart looked like this:

Chase Brice
Hunter Renfrow
Jimmy Greeenbeans

In other words, the transfer portal has complicated things.

Take Wake Forest, as another example. Today, the Deacons have, arguably, the second-best QB depth chart in the ACC. Both Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman saw significant action last season, and both played well. Add in former QB (who could return in a pinch from WR) Kendall Hinton and a solid freshman recruit in Michael Kern, and you’ve got a really good situation in Winston-Salem.

Of course, what are the odds that both Newman and Hartman stick around? Both have multiple years of eligibility left, which makes the idea of riding the pine in the age of the transfer portal seem a bit unlikely. And sure, Kern is in no hurry to bolt, but if Hartman wins the job and looks good again, that mindset could certainly change by year’s end. It’s happened elsewhere.

Clemson has the luxury of a guy like Brice. He’s talented enough to win some games for the Tigers (as he did vs. Syracuse in that Week 5 contest) and he could probably start at a lot of places. But he’s not a guy who came in with tons of recruiting hype, he’s seen first hand how close he is to seeing action, and he’ll be in position to start for a full season when Lawrence leaves for the NFL eventually (though, odds are, with the guys Clemson has signed, he’ll have more than a bit of competition for that job). Brice is the rarest of commodities at this point: A good QB willing to bide his time on the bench. And, of course, this assumes that Brice won’t get the itch to move on, too, at some point. It’s happened elsewhere.

No matter where you look, no matter how good the situation, QB depth charts are an inherently fluid thing. There are no safe situations.

Of course, there are some situations that are safer than others, and certainly there’s a pretty clear line of demarcation when it comes to the starters around the league. Some teams have answers right now. Some teams don’t. Predicting the future from there is a fool’s errand.

So, let’s rank ‘em right now, without overthinking things too much. The criteria is simple:

1.) Who’s got the best starting QB?

Bonus points for teams with a solid Plan B in place. More bonus points for teams that at least have options, if not exactly answers on their depth chart.

There are certainly some teams we’ll rank higher here based on anticipating success (Syracuse) and those that could get a lot better by year’s end but seem like immense wild cards today (UNC). But this is what I came up with for now, and we can forget this even happened by November. At least I feel pretty confident I got No. 1 right.

ELITE TIER

1. Clemson

The only question here is how much better Trevor Lawrence will be in 2019, which is something I wrote about a few weeks ago.

2. Virginia

If you pay attention to my offseason social media ramblings, you’ll have seen this before, but it’s worth sharing again.

QB A: 64.2% completions, 7.8 yards/att, 148 passer rating, 17 TD, 3 TO, 2,239 total yards on 293 plays

QB B: 66% completions, 7.7 yards/att, 152.4 passer rating, 20 TD, 4 TO, 2,078 total yards on 291 plays

Pretty good numbers for both QBs, right? And you’d expect that from QB A, who happens to be Trevor Lawrence. Those are his stats from Week 8 through Clemson’s Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame (8 games). The other QB though? That’s Virginia’s Bryce Perkins over the same span (7 games). Impressed? You should be. Perkins is arguably the most under appreciated QB in the country right now. He’s incredibly tough to bring down, but he’s also really athletic and has good downfield vision. Considering he played behind a mediocre O-line and doesn’t have Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Travis Etienne surrounding him, those stats are downright eye popping.

Long story short: If Perkins is healthy all year, Virginia’s going to be a pretty darn good offense.

IN GOOD SHAPE TIER

3. Wake Forest

We mentioned the work of Hartman and Newman above. It’s worth remembering, too, that it was Hinton who was set to the starter before a three-game suspension shifted plans. Neither had significant experience before 2018, and both more than held their own. It wasn’t all highlights, of course. But the aggregate performance was pretty solid: 57 percent completions, 25 TD, 12 INT, 130 passer rating, 3,067 passing yards. A few INTs aside, those numbers match up pretty comparably to Kellen Mond, Daniel Jones and Nate Stanley.

4. Boston College

Plenty of room for argument here because, when Anthony Brown was bad last year — hi, Purdue! — he was really bad. But when he was good, well he was pretty darned good, too. Here’s Brown’s stat line from the Eagles’ seven wins: 60% completions, 156 passer rating, 8.1 yards/attempt, 14 TD passes and 1 INT.

Another notable stat from Brown: On throws of 20+ yards downfield, he completed 49 percent with 12 touchdowns and just one pick. His 246 passer rating on such throws was better than Trevor Lawrence, Eric Dungey, Ryan Finely… actually, the entire ACC.

The big question is whether Brown can become more consistent in the intermediate game, and whether he’ll have a healthy A.J. Dillon to siphon an extra defender into the box as routinely in 2019.

5. Syracuse

We’re making some assumptions with Tommy DeVito, who played intermittently throughout last season, with some impressive games (UNC) and some less-than-stellar performances (Notre Dame). Still, he was an ESPN300 recruit, has two years in the system, and has the full confidence of Dino Babers. He’ll likely be a more traditional inside-the-pocket passer than Dungey was — and honestly, matching Dungey’s ability to extend plays is a near impossible task — but that may actually be a better fit for what Babers wants to do. Plus, he’ll be working with one of the league’s better O-lines, deepest running back corps and a solid group of targets downfield.

6. Virginia Tech

Here’s another example of a guy who compiled some pretty solid numbers last year, even if no one seemed to notice. From his first start on Sept. 29 vs. Duke through season’s end, Willis’ stat line — 2,521 passing yards, 59 percent completions, 23 passing TD and 9 picks — essentially matched Oklahoma State’s Taylor Cornelius, who was widely considered one of the pass-happy Big 12’s top QBs (and the numbers aren’t that far off from Will Grier’s either). The Hokies averaged 2.02 points-per-drive during his time as starter, which isn’t exactly great, but it was better than what they’d averaged under Josh Jackson in 2017.

Here’s the big red flag though: Virginia Tech’s offense looked different under Willis, and there are questions about how dynamic his arm can allow the Hokies to be.

On throws of 20+ yards downfield:
Jackson: 43% completions, 187 passer rating
Jerod Evans: 44% completions, 191 passer rating
Willis: 29.6% completions, 142 passer rating

Willis threw to receivers at or behind the line more often than his predecessors, threw deep less often, and his yards-per-attempt was a full yard less than Evans’ in 2016 and nearly a half-yard less than Jackson’s tenure as starter.

The good news for VT, however, is there are other options, too. Hendon Hooker and Quincy Patterson both have tons of upside and could see some regular action even with Willis as the starter. Add in an intriguing receiving groups – particularly at tight end – and the Hokies’ passing game should be an asset in 2019.

IT COULD BE WORSE TIER

7. Florida State

I’ve talked to multiple coaches who’ve suggested James Blackman should’ve been FSU’s starter last year. Perhaps. Obviously from an off-field standpoint, Deondre Francois was a problem. But Blackman also may have gotten killed behind that line, and that remains the biggest concern for 2019. The combo of Blackman and Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook gives FSU a pair of veterans who have upside. The question is whether the O-line can give them a chance to utilize their skills. As we saw in our O-line look, too, the pass blocking was at least borderline manageable at times last season, but if FSU can’t get any help from the ground game, it’s going to be impossible for either guy to have success. (And, of course, the longterm questions loom as FSU hasn’t inked a QB in its recruiting class since 2017.)

8. Louisville

What? Louisville? Really?

I know, I know. But it’s hard to judge by what happened last year when last year was such an unmitigated disaster across the board. Scott Satterfield told me he can’t remember seeing a QB whose confidence was as low as Puma Pass’s when the new regime arrived, but he was impressed this spring. Add in a decent backup in Malik Cunningham, who can be valuable as a runner even if he’s not getting regular reps as the starter, and there’s the makings of a good unit — and one that should be markedly improved simply by not having to work with Bobby Petrino anymore.

THIS COULD GO EITHER WAY TIER

9. NC State

Here’s the one QB group I just don’t quite know what to do with. Gone is the steady success of Ryan Finley. Gone, too, are some of the team’s top weapons in the passing game. A lot of folks around NC State really like Matt McKay, but he also has a ton left to prove. Bailey Hockman, the FSU transfer, will get better as he has more time in the system. Devin Leary had a solid spring. There’s upside here. But given the turnover on the O-line and the receiving corps and the loss of offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, it’s hard to bet too much on that upside for 2019. We’re sticking the Wolfpack at 9 because, frankly, we’re not sure where else to put them.

10. Miami

Should we be cautiously optimistic? Manny Diaz’s take on N’Kosi Perry’s spring certainly was. He felt Perry showed some things he simply didn’t appear capable of in the past. After getting a lot of experience – both good and bad in 2018 – you’d hope Perry is ready to take a big step forward. If he’s not, Miami has transfer Tate Martell, too, though the reports from folks who’ve seen him are mixed. He’s not a sure thing, despite his recruiting pedigree. Jarren Williams might be the most intriguing option. He’s gotten a year to watch and learn, and he has talent. The hope is that, somewhere in this mix, there’s a legitimate starter. Miami is in good shape on D and at the skill spots, but they’ll go only so far as this group and the O-line can take them.

HOPE THEY DON’T SCREW THINGS UP FOR THE REST OF THE OFFENSE TIER

11. Pitt

The Panthers were never going to be a pass-first offense, so there’s really only so much Kenny Pickett needs to do. Still, there are big questions remaining as to whether he can consistently do those things. He had some strong games last season — UNC, Duke, Wake — and he threw just one pick over his final eight games. But here’s the real red flag: On play-action throws last year — what should be the bread-and-butter of an offense like Pitt’s — Pickett posted a passer rating of 109.9. That was good for 105th out of 113 qualifying QBs, just behind Miami’s N’Kosi Perry. No other P5 QB with at least 100 play-action throws had a rating worse than 129. Pickett doesn’t need to be great, but he has to be better at supporting what the rest of the offense does well.

12. Duke

I should probably have more faith in David Cutcliffe. And, of course, Quentin Harris wasn’t too bad when he played last year (though 50% completions and 6.4 yards/attempt when half that production came vs. NC Central isn’t exactly ideal). Still, with an O-line I don’t think will be very good, Harris figures to be running a lot, and he simply hasn’t shown he’s a true threat as a passer. Again, I’ll probably be wrong here. Won’t be the first time.

WE’LL GET ‘EM NEXT YEAR (OR MAYBE 2021) TIER

13. North Carolina

Mack Brown says he likes his guys a lot. Says he had no interest in pursuing a transfer. Said he thinks they can run a modern offense with any one of his three options – freshmen Sam Howell, Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder – and I think that might be true. Just not in 2019. By 2020, this could be one of the ACC’s better groups, with Phil Longo running the show on offense. But they’re going to endure some growing pains in Year 1.

14. Georgia Tech

Geoff Collins said the three QBs he had on campus all ranked among the top performers this spring for Georgia Tech. That’s a good thing. But no one with experience was meant to be playing in this system, they’ll have virtually no established weapons to throw to, and they’ll be playing behind a line that’s learning how to block while moving backwards for the first time in their college careers. It’s gonna get rough.

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