Experience is overrated. At least, that’s what the 2012 season taught us. Four of the top seven teams in the final AP Poll (No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 7 Stanford) were led by redshirt freshman quarterbacks, and the Aggies watched Johnny Manziel become the first freshman to win the Heisman in its 77-year existence. UCLA’s Brett Hundley and TCU’s Trevone Boykin were among other first-year starters to thrive, furthering a trend that permeated the college landscape.
As National Signing Day approaches, teams aren’t simply looking to restock their depth charts; many are searching for quarterbacks who can contribute immediately. And while it’s a long shot that any school will unleash the next Johnny Football, several could give newcomers — both true freshmen and juco transfers alike — significant playing time right out of the gate. Here are the five quarterback recruits in the best position to make an instant impact.
1. Anu Solomon
High school: Bishop Gorman High (Las Vegas)
Committed to: Arizona
Solomon doesn’t have the national name recognition of Max Browne, Christian Hackenberg or Shane Morris, and in the latest Rivals.com player rankings, he sits at No. 99, the seventh-ranked quarterback on the list. Still, of all this year’s incoming signal-callers, he boasts the most ideal confluence of opportunity and ability.
Arizona loses Matt Scott, who threw for 3,620 yards and 27 touchdowns as a redshirt senior. Backup B.J. Denker went just 25-of-37 as his replacement in 2012, and no other rostered quarterback has ever attempted a pass for the Wildcats. Most importantly, Solomon’s dual-threat profile makes him a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option offense.
Solomon was a four-year starter at Bishop Gorman. Over that span, the Gaels went 57-3 and won four state championships. Solomon passed for 10,112 yards and 138 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions throughout his career, and he participated in nationally televised showcases against high school powerhouses from California, Florida, Arizona, New Jersey and Maryland. He told Rivals.com analyst Dallas Jackson in October, “The coaches have told me that they want me to come in and compete for the starting job.”
Keep in mind: Rodriguez hasn’t hesitated to go young under center before. Pat White started the latter half of his redshirt freshman season at West Virginia, and Denard Robinson attempted a pass in all but three games of his first-year campaign at Michigan. Especially given the lack of experience elsewhere on the depth chart, don’t be surprised if Solomon is handed the reins to Arizona’s offense from the get-go.
Rivals100: Class of 2013 recruiting rankings
2. Christian Hackenberg
High school: Fork Union Military Academy (Fork Union, Va.)
Committed to: Penn State
Hackenberg has already been pegged as something of a savior in State College. The five-star standout committed to the Nittany Lions in February 2012, and he warded off offers from Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, among other suitors, even after the NCAA walloped Penn State with sanctions in July.
Now he’s poised to enter a program without an established starter and with a coach who has a reputation as a quarterback guru. During Bill O’Brien’s only year on campus, previously embattled starter Matt McGloin elevated his quarterback rating from 118.3 to 137.7; he threw for more yards (3,271) in 2012 than he did during the previous two seasons combined (3,119).
It also helps that Hackenberg boasts an established high-school résumé. The three-year starter and Under Armour All-America threw for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Fork Union. If he can win Penn State’s starting job over sophomore-to-be Steven Bench, he could excel under O’Brien’s tutelage.
3. Jake Waters
High school: Iowa Western Community College (Council Bluffs, Iowa)
Committed to: Kansas State
On Dec. 13, just days after Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, the Wildcats secured his potential successor. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Waters — a longtime Penn State lean and the top-ranked juco quarterback in the nation — announced his intention to head to Manhattan, Kan., instead of his expected destination in State College.
Though it went mostly unnoticed, Waters’ commitment shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Council Bluffs, Iowa, star just finished a season in which he completed an NJCAA-record 73.3 percent of his passes for 3,501 yards and 39 touchdowns en route to a 12-0 record and NJCAA Player of the Year honors. He even runs the 40 in 4.65 seconds, according to Rivals.com, an element that could help him mirror Klein’s role in K-State’s physical offense.
That said, winning the job won’t come easy. Rising sophomore Daniels Sams completed five of his six passes after Klein went down with an injury against Oklahoma State in November and will compete for the starting gig. But Waters — who didn’t throw an interception over his final 199 juco attempts — is likely the most polished prospect of any incoming quarterback in this year’s class. He should have Bill Snyder’s attention from the moment practice begins this spring.
4. Max Browne
High school: Skyline High (Sammamish, Wash.)
Committed to: USC
Browne is a known commodity by now. The Skyline High star and U.S. Army All-American was prolific throughout high school, racking up 12,742 passing yards, 144 touchdowns and just 25 interceptions during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. He pledged to USC last April as the heir apparent to Matt Barkley, and it’s all but a given that Browne will lead the Trojans once he masters Lane Kiffin’s playbook.
But that’s also what could keep him from starting right away. Browne operated in a spread-style system at Skyline; he’ll need to adjust to a pro-style scheme at USC. Though Browne enrolled early and will learn the ropes during spring practice, Max Wittek, who started the Trojans’ final two games after Barkley went down with a shoulder injury, has the apparent inside track for the job.
Wittek played well against Notre Dame (14-of-23, 186 passing yards, one touchdown, two interceptions), but he struggled mightily in last month’s Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech (14-of-37, 107 passing yards, one touchdown, three interceptions). If USC begins 2013 where it left off in 2012, Kiffin — who already has had to answer to speculation surrounding his job security — might have little choice but to turn to his prized recruit.
5. Jeremy Johnson
High school: Carver High (Montgomery, Ala.)
Committed to: Auburn
After an awful 2012 season, Auburn wants to hit the reset button in 2013. Former coach Gene Chizik was canned after going 0-8 in SEC play two years removed from a national title, and ex-coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought back to revive an attack that finished 115th in the FBS in total offense. The spread guru will have to make sense of the Tigers’ mess of a quarterback situation: Kiehl Frazier threw two touchdowns to eight picks, Jonathan Wallace accounted for just 633 yards in four starts and Clint Moseley announced his decision to transfer on Jan. 9.
Johnson, who was named Alabama’s Mr. Football on Jan. 16, could help spark the Tigers’ lifeless offense. And he’s making no qualms about his intentions to start: “I’m coming in and compete for the job,” he told AL.com earlier this month.
A few factors work in Johnson’s favor. His dual-threat proficiency is a natural match for Malzahn’s system, as Johnson accounted for 3,899 total yards (3,193 passing, 706 rushing) and 38 touchdowns as a senior. He’s the biggest quarterback (6-6, 215 pounds) of Auburn’s potential options, and as his game-winning 34-yard touchdown heave to James Quick in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl shows, he boasts a strong arm.
Johnson is raw and needs to adapt to the elite speed, size and athleticism in the SEC. But for a Tigers team in dire need of a fresh start, Johnson might emerge as the best starting point.
Five other quarterback prospects to note
? Shane Morris, De La Salle High (Warren, Mich.): The touted recruit is still on track to become Michigan’s quarterback of the future, but he could see limited action in 2013 now that Devin Gardner has shown his chops. Gardner accounted for 1,320 total yards and 18 touchdowns while starting the Wolverines’ final five games.
? Cody Thomas, Colleyville Heritage High (Colleyville, Texas): Thomas boosted his stock by throwing for 4,221 yards and 46 touchdowns against just seven interceptions as a senior, but he’ll likely wait his turn behind Blake Bell on the Sooners’ depth chart. That is, if he doesn’t pursue an alternate career path: Thomas hit .415 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs as an outfielder for Colleyville’s baseball team last season. He’s projected as a high-round pick in June’s MLB draft.
? Mitch Trubisky, Mentor High (Mentor, Ohio): It seems unlikely that anyone will unseat Bryn Renner as UNC’s starter next season, but Trubisky certainly has the pedigree to step in if Renner goes down. The Tar Heel pledge passed for 4,065 yards, rushed for 1,129 yards and scored 60 total touchdowns as a senior to generate hype as a Manziel-type recruiting sleeper.
? Asiantii Woulard, Winter Park High (Winter Park, Fla.): The top-ranked quarterback still on the market, Woulard won MVP honors at last summer’s Elite 11. After decommiting from South Florida following Skip Holtz’s ouster, the U.S. Army All-American is weighing offers from Clemson, UCLA, NC State and Kentucky — and he could immediately challenge for the starting gig at the latter two programs.
? Tyrone Swoopes, Whitewright High (Whitewright, Texas): Once regarded as a possible five-star prospect, Swoopes raised a number of red flags during his senior year. He completed just 42 percent of his passes as Whitewright finished 1-9. He still possesses enormous potential, but he appears to need significant skill work before making a serious run at the Longhorns’ starting spot.
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