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The Big 12 is known for its offenses that thrive on extending defenses to horizontal and vertical extremes and getting the ball to impressive athletes in space to take advantage of those defensive stresses.
Someone still has to deliver the ball.
In recent years, quarterbacks from the Big 12 put up huge numbers, drew national accolades, and found homes on NFL teams after thriving in offenses led by some of the best football minds in the country. Despite the conference losing yet another Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Oklahoma, most of the Big 12’s ten teams have a strong sense of who will be under center when game one comes around.
Two teams will have to wait until a training camp battle sorts itself out before they will know who takes the first snap under center. One of those situations is a battle similar to the one that took place in Austin prior to the 2018 season. The other has plenty of choices, but no clear frontrunner.
(In no particular order)
Texas – Sam Ehlinger
14 games: 275/425, 3292 yards, 25 TD, 5 INT, 164 car, 482 yards, 16 TD
Backups: Casey Thompson, Roschon Johnson
For the first time since 2014, Texas won’t have a quarterback battle prior to the season. The job is Sam Ehlinger’s and the expectations for him are high.
Landing on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football is illustrative of that. His name entering the early Heisman conversation is illustrative of that. His own words (“We’re baaaaack!”) are illustrative of that.
His game must follow.
Ehlinger protected the football last season, found Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey often, and answered the call when the Longhorns needed short-yardage. If Texas wants to eventually end up in the playoff conversation during Ehlinger’s career, he’ll have to continue to protect the football while picking up some of the touchdowns he left on the field last season.
Deep throws, and not just those to Devin Duvernay or a streaking tight end, must improve. He’ll also need to take care of himself, which is a tough task for someone who has always been a bull-headed, either-get-behind-me-or-get-out-of-my-way quarterback. Texas made it to the finish line with Shane Buechele backing up Ehlinger in two games last season, but they won’t have the luxury of a backup with a season of starts this year.
It’s a safe bet to assume that Ehlinger will be a captain for the upcoming season. He could be one of Texas’ representatives at Big 12 Media Days in July. If his game improves from its steady-to-spectacular levels last year, Texas could be looking at a spectacular season.
There was a reason Tom Herman often praised Shane Buechele last season. It wasn’t simply because he was able to carry Texas to wins over Iowa State and Baylor, but because he provided a safe floor for the team to fall to if Ehlinger were to miss time.
That same luxury isn’t available to the Longhorns this year, but the athletic ability at the position might be at a higher level. Gone to transfer are the QBs whose game revolved more around passing, Buechele and Cameron Rising.
Casey Thompson returns and holds the backup spot. When he received clean snaps in the spring game, he showed the strong running ability that set high school records in Oklahoma.
Roschon Johnson’s looks were limited, but he has physically and mentally benefited from enrolling in January.
However, if Texas wants to achieve this season and truly prove Ehlinger’s post-Sugar Bowl claim as true, Ehlinger making a jump like he made last season is the only way that can happen.
Oklahoma – Jalen Hurts
13 games: 51/70, 765 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT, 36 car, 167 yards, 2 TD
Backups: Tanner Mordecai, Spencer Rattler
Oklahoma has another accomplished transfer quarterback ready for his year in the spotlight in Jalen Hurts. Despite being overtaken by Tua Tagovailoa in the 2018 National Championship and playing backup to him in the 2018 season at Alabama, Hurts still can be counted among the best quarterbacks in the Big 12.
As Ian Boyd has explained several times, the reason Nick Saban chose Tagovailoa over Hurts is because Tagovailoa could run the Alabama RPO offense proficiently. Where Hurts had Tagovailoa beat in running ability, Tagovailoa had Hurts beat nearly everywhere else.
That isn’t to say Hurts won’t be able to run a competent passing offense, but it’s not a far-fetched idea to think Oklahoma won’t be as explosive from the quarterback position after losing yet another No. 1 overall pick at QB.
Or maybe it is?
Lincoln Riley has shown he can make great offense with almost anybody. Hurts certainly has the mental and leadership capacity Riley would want for someone at the helm of another run at a conference title and the College Football Playoff, but the standard for offense in Norman is very high.
More designed runs from a strong, willing, and tough runner in Hurts will come as no surprise, especially when paired with RBs Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon. The question for Hurts this season is just how much can Riley improve a quarterback’s ability to process a defense?
Alternatively, the question for Riley become can he tweak his offense enough to make the threat of Hurts’ running enough to open things up for receivers like CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo?
Behind Hurts is redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai and true freshman Spencer Rattler. Mordecai saw time in two games last year and completed two of his four passes. Rattler comes to Norman as one of the most lauded players in Arizona high school football history. As always, there’s talent in the QB room at Oklahoma.
The Sooner offense has been nationally elite since Lincoln Riley joined Bob Stoops’ staff several years ago. It should look a little different with Hurts under center, but there’s no reason to think there will be a significant drop off.
Iowa State – Brock Purdy
10 games: 146/220, 2250 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT, 100 car, 308 yards, 5 TD
Backups: Re-al Mitchell, John Kolar
It took five games for Matt Campbell to deem Brock Purdy ready for the spotlight. When he stepped in it, he lead Iowa State on one of its best runs in school history.
Purdy led the Cyclones to a 7-2 mark over the last nine games. The school lists him as the first true freshman QB to start a game for Iowa State since 1995.
In his first season, he had some help making sure all the responsibility for moving the football didn’t fall on him. Hakeem Butler was as good a target in conference for any QB, let alone a freshman making his first few starts. David Montgomery alleviated a lot of the pressure on Purdy in the run game. Now, those two are gone and Purdy has become the focus of opposing defensive coordinators.
When he finally saw the field, Purdy showed arm strength, touch, and mobility that looked advanced for a true freshman. His signature move, the pump fake, created several opportunities for big plays.
As many freshmen discover, the game is a lot more physical in college than in high school. He learned that lesson against Texas when he was knocked out of the game late. He also learned that solely relying on the pump fake can only go so far.
As long as he is in Ames, Campbell has lofty aspirations for his Cyclones. He wants being in the Big 12 title conversation to become the new normal for Iowa State. Having 2-3 more seasons of Purdy will help him stay close to that goal, but without two NFL playmakers, how will Purdy progress in his second year?
Behind Purdy is Re-al Mitchell, a redshirt freshman from St. John Bosco in California, and John Kolar, a transfer from Oklahoma State.
West Virginia – Austin Kendall
4 games: 12/17, 122 yards, 1 TD, 7 cars, 21 yards
Backups: Jack Allison, Trey Lowe, Jarret Doege
Austin Kendall’s 2018 was nondescript. He grabbed some garbage-time snaps in the opener versus FAU, started against Baylor and stayed in for one series while Kyler Murray was serving a suspension, completed the pass on the final play of the Red River Shootout that Oklahoma lost to Texas, and went 3/4 against a Kansas State team that OU easily handled.
After Jalen Hurts chose Oklahoma, Kendall knew he would need to go somewhere else to find playing time. He found it in West Virginia, a program starting over with first-year head coach Neal Brown.
Brown has raid tendencies – he played for Hal Mumme and Mike Leach at Kentucky – but isn’t a Raid Bro in the truest sense of the word. His Troy teams, teams that went 10-3, 11-2, and 10-3 in the last three seasons, could be designated as one of the more physical teams that ran a version of the Raid.
Though there will be differences between Brown’s offense and former WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense, there will be a lot of overlap as well. Both ran the ball a lot for a “pass happy offense,” and that should be no different in 2018.
Kendall should be a good two-year solution before Brown finds someone he can develop in his program (Alternatively, West Virginia could remain a favorite destination for transfers).
Jack Allison, who saw time when Will Grier was out last year, is the primary backup. Behind Allison is redshirt freshman Trey Lowe and Bowling Green transfer Jarrett Doege.
Baylor – Charlie Brewer
13 games: 240/390, 3019 yards, 19 TD, 9 INT, 133 car, 375 yards, 7 TD
Backups: Gerry Bohanon, Jacob Zeno, Peyton Powell
Matt Rhule is an old-school Big 10 coach at heart, but his head told him he needed to adapt when he arrived at Baylor. One of those main adaptations was adding spread, Big 12-style concepts to his offensive playbook. As he did that upon arrival, he was searching for a quarterback. Who better than a state-champion from one of the best offenses in Texas?
Baylor’s flip of Charlie Brewer from SMU turned out to be a program-defining move for Rhule. The 1-11 2017 season of constant growing pains and one win over Kansas turned out fruitful for Baylor, as they returned to bowl eligibility (and bowl-winning ways) for the first time since the program was launched into despicable depths.
Rhule may not place Baylor into CFP conversations this season or any time during his tenure, but there’s reason for optimism in Waco. Akin to fans in Austin, fans of the Bears can reasonably expect a big year from Brewer. He doesn’t have his go-to target in Jalen Hurd, but several talented receivers remain in Waco.
Baylor’s recruiting efforts in Rhule’s tenure has focused on recruiting pure speed and developing that speed into ability that translates on the football field. This season should show just how successful that long-term plan might be, and Brewer will be a big part of it.
If he can deliver the ball to those speedy players, then Baylor’s offense should have a good mix of Big 10-style ground and pound with Big 12-style getting the ball to playmakers in space. Brewer has shown an ability to find those playmakers, and to find plays for himself on the ground.
On offense, Baylor will go as Brewer goes.
Behind Brewer is redshirt freshman Gerry Bohanon, and two true freshmen in Jacob Zeno and Peyton Powell.
Kansas State – Skylar Thompson
11 games: 122/208, 1391 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT, 105 car, 373 yards, 5 TD
Backups: Nick Ast, John Holcombe
Kansas State under Bill Snyder was a bastion of consistency… until it wasn’t.
It wasn’t consistent in 2018. Whether it was constant cycling of QBs between Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton, assistant coach squabbling, and the overall shadow of removing the man the stadium is named after from his job, it was hard for any quarterback to succeed in Manhattan in 2018.
Delton has left Manhattan for Fort Worth, leaving Skylar Thompson as the heir apparent. Thompson profiles as a quarterback who can orchestrate an offense and make multi-level throws. That didn’t fit as well into Snyder-ball as Delton.
But now, Snyder-ball is gone. The new KSU coaching staff headed by Chris Klieman isn’t going to launch a massive overcorrection and go spread, pass-happy, and up-tempo. What Klieman ran to win FCS championships at NDSU isn’t too far from the personnel available to him in Manhattan.
Klieman didn’t make use of the transfer market for a new quarterback, implying faith in Thompson’s ability to run the offense.
Like the rest of his team, things either looked really good or really bad for Thompson last year. In relief of Delton against Texas, Thompson brought the Wildcats within one score of taking the lead, but Texas sat on the ball for the final 6:20 to close out the win in Manhattan.
Any time a QB is learning a new offense, there will be some growing pains. However, since the new offense Thompson is learning has a lot in common with what he ran last year, Thompson should be a capable signal-caller in year one for Klieman.
Texas Tech – Alan Bowman
8 games: 227/327, 2638 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT
Backups: Jett Duffey, Maverick McIvor
Texas Tech’s offense hasn’t been a question in a long time, but now several questions permeate through the plains. What will the offense look like in the first year under Matt Wells and offensive coordinator David Yost, and can Alan Bowman hold up to make it work?
Bowman put up ridiculous numbers in his first season after taking over the No. 1 QB role in the first quarter of the first game. He completed 69 percent of his passes, threw for 330 yards per game, and had a 17-7 TD to INT ratio.
That was only when he was healthy. Bowman suffered a collapsed lung against West Virginia and played in three games after September, including missing all of the Red Raiders’ loss versus Texas.
Texas Tech won’t be running Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid, nor is his offensive playcalling replacement Davis Yost as accomplished as the current NFL head coach. However, Yost brings a style that translated into double-digit wins at Utah State.
Yost has overseen two top 25 offenses according to S&P+ in the past three seasons (Oregon, 2016 and Utah State, 2018). It isn’t the Air Raid — it’s much more balanced — but it’s effective.
Bowman thrived last year with his ability to make all the throws in Kingsbury’s Air Raid, but his body couldn’t hold up to the test as a true freshman. Will he be able to remain active for an entire season in an offense he should capably lead? That’s one of the biggest questions facing the Red Raiders in Wells’ year one.
Behind Bowman is Jett Duffey, who added a unique running constraint to the Air Raid but couldn’t manage all the things asked of him in the passing game. Joining them in the QB room is San Angelo Central’s Maverick McIvor, who recommitted to Texas Tech when Wells got the job.
Wells has several tools to utilize in his offense, but how quickly those tools adjust to his style will dictate how successful his first season is.
Kansas – Thomas MacVittie
6 games (JUCO): 92/172, 1064 yards, 16 TD, 8 INT, 41 car, 252 yards, 4 TD
“Don’t waste your time on Kansas, lol.” – Ian Boyd
MacVittie had average stats and film from a partial JUCO season. He might not have his best offensive playmaker, Pooka Williams, available to him. Les Koenning is coordinating the offense.
TCU – A hulking mass of QBs
Options: Justin Rogers, Michael Collins, Max Duggan, Alex Delton, Matthew Baldwin
After waiting behind Kenny Hill for a season, Shawn Robinson was set to step into the TCU quarterback role. Robinson was a talented QB from DFW who helped lead DeSoto to its first state championship, and the Power 5 team closest to his hometown was his to lead.
Robinson lasted seven games as TCU’s starter, going 3-4. He was banged up with a shoulder ailment versus Iowa State, and was benched in favor of Michael Collins in late October versus Oklahoma.
He underwent surgery, decided to transfer, and found a home at Missouri behind Kelly Bryant.
Due to his erratic play and injury status, there was no guarantee that Robinson would have entered 2019 as the starter. His absence only removes one possible solution for the TCU offense’s biggest question.
Now, Gary Patterson and offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie will have to choose from a quarterback still dealing with effects from a major foot injury suffered in high school (Rogers), a former Ivy League QB who was under center when TCU lost to Kansas last year (Collins), a talented true freshman (Duggan), a running back who was told to throw the football for a different school (Delton), and an Ohio State transfer who might not receive a waiver for this season (Baldwin).
Someone I talk to with TCU connections surprised me when he told me he expected Delton to take the first snap at QB come the fall.
The second half of his answer made more sense, and I believe it applies no matter who actually takes the first snap: “If the Frogs drop a game early, look for Duggan to take his licks and take the mantle.”
Duggan seems to have the best traits for the offense. Baldwin could be successful too, but his waiver situation and prior health problems are marks against him.
This should be the biggest storyline surrounding the quarterback position among FBS schools in Texas.
Options: Dru Brown, Spencer Sanders
Option one: A 5-foot-11 transfer from Hawaii with a career 62 percent completion percentage who redshirted at Oklahoma State last season behind Taylor Cornelius.
Option two: 2017 Mr. Texas Football who redshirted at Oklahoma State last season behind Taylor Cornelius
For a team that has won double-digit games six times this decade and is known for prolific offenses, the decision is an important one. Unlike the situation in Fort Worth, Oklahoma State is picking between two safe options compared to picking between four options with plenty of mystery.
No matter who takes the first snap, or who holds onto the job, that QB will have help from Chuba Hubbard in the run game and Tylan Wallace through the air. Oklahoma State is working with a new offensive coordinator this year, but the offense is Mike Gundy’s and each has had the same amount of time to work with it.