If anything has been made abundantly clear in college football over the past decade it’s this: first-year starting quarterbacks, those new to a program and scheme, are as capable as any of winning national championships. Fourth-year gunslingers and cerebral upperclassmen might seem like more intuitive options under center, but since 2009 six of the quarterbacks who ended their seasons draped in confetti were first-year starters.
The adoption of the NCAA graduate transfer rule made it even easier for new faces to head to different college campuses—and for that decision to pay immediate dividends. A new QB succeeding in a new system is no longer a rare occurrence; it’s something to be expected.
This season, three transfer quarterbacks are capable of shifting the balance of power in college football.
Dakota Prukop, University of Oregon
Formerly a zero-star high school recruit, Prukop set a school record at Montana State with 37 total touchdowns a season ago, accumulating 3,822 total yards of offense, 3,025 of which were through the air. Only 20 Division 1 players racked up better than 3,800 yards of total offense last season, though admittedly against much stronger defensive units.
There’s no talent shortage surrounding him: Oregon returns eight of its 10 top receivers, including Devon Allen, who spent a portion of August attempting to win a gold medal in Rio in the 110-meter hurdles (he finished fifth). There’s also Darren Carrington, whose 144.9 wide receiver rating ranks second among all returning Power 5 wide receivers, and perhaps the most talented tight end trio in the country.
Should Prukop’s arm grow tired, he’ll have Royce Freeman to hand the ball off to. The junior All-American leads the conference with a 108.6 elusive rating, and ranked second nationally last year in yards after contact (1,067) and forced missed tackles (80). He could become the program’s all-time leading rusher this season, too.
Many project Washington and Stanford to win the Pac-12 North; both teams have better odds, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. However, a strong season by Prukop could raise the Ducks’ trajectory, returning them to a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Kenny Hill, Texas Christian University
There was a time when Hill was dubbed the heir to Johnny Manziel’s throne in College Station; when the Heisman Trophy was a possibility; when he ranked near the top of the national leader board in valuable passing metrics and was the only quarterback in the country to account for 850 passing yards without throwing an interception.
Then he threw six interceptions over a three-game stretch, got manhandled by Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama, and lost the starting job.
He’s had a year in the incubator and is finally ready to take over for Trevone Boykin, who led the Horned Frogs to 6.79 yards per play (No. 14 in the nation), 562.8 yards per game (No. 3) and 42.1 points per game (No. 7) last season.
Plenty will be asked of Hill’s arm as he enters a system increasingly reliant on passing: TCU has racked up more passing yards each of the past three seasons, while increasing its yards-per-attempt average.
Accuracy was a strength for Hill while at Texas A&M — he completed 66.7 percent of his passes, ranking 12th nationally in the metric. Boykin never reached 64 percent in his four years as a starter. Since 2001, Patterson’s first full season at the helm, the Horned Frogs are 54-3 (.947 winning percentage) when the team completes at least 65 percent of its passes, and an unblemished 11-0 over the past two seasons.
This much is clear: Hill can sling the ball; he graded higher than Jameis Winston in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.
He has above-average lateral agility, capable of planting his foot and sidestepping defenders to keep plays alive if the pocket collapses.
Should chaos break through the line, KaVontae Turpin will be waiting nearby as Hill’s go-to target. As a freshman last year, he accounted for 910 return yards and was a menace in the slot, accruing 649 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He caught 45 passes and had one drop, meaning Hill will have a sure-handed receiver with track speed to hone in on. As Pro Football Focus noted, Turpin put up 11.8 yards after the catch per reception last season, which was more than 82 percent of his total yards gained.
Despite the loss of No. 1 receiver Josh Doctson, TCU returns a top-eight receiving corps, according to noted college football analyst Phil Steele. Deante Gray and Ty Slanina join Turpin, LSU graduate transfer John Diarse and two elite receivers from the junior college ranks.
If Hill finds a rhythm this season, TCU will be a contender in the Big 12. Mental errors are capable of being covered up too, considering the Horned Frogs tout the second-best defense in the conference, according to Steele.
Davis Webb, California
Replacing the No. 1-overall selection of the NFL draft is just about the most difficult thing a quarterback can attempt, but Webb looked comfortable as the Cal starter. A former Red Raider, beat the Hawaii defense to the tune of 441 passing yards, a quarterback rating of 88.1, and five total touchdowns. Some draft analysts believe Webb will be the top QB selection in next year’s draft.
As a true sophomore, Webb finished fifth in the Big 12 Conference in passing grade, but injuries essentially derailed all of last season. Then came an opportunity to play for an offensive coordinator who cut his teeth with Texas Tech, to play in a familiar system, albeit one bereft of last season’s top six receivers.
While throwing downfield has led to turnover issues in the past, Webb’s Week 1 production with screens can’t be overlooked. It opened up the field for him to take shots later in the game, and should be a sign of things to come for the team, mitigating the risky throws that marred his stat sheet.
Webb is working behind a top-20 offensive line, according to Steele’s college football preview, and had an average of 2.12 seconds to throw in the season opener, with 72 percent of his passes being released in 2.5 seconds or less. That shows the 6-foot-5 QB has grown comfortable rocketing the ball as soon as its snapped, rather than waiting for plays to deteriorate.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives California the fifth-best odds (2.4 percent) to win the Pac-12 North. Put another way, few expect the Golden Bears to contend in a loaded conference that accounts for 20 percent of The Associated Press’ top-25 preseason rankings. But should Webb continue to dazzle the way he did in the team’s season opener, California could open up the conference to yet another contending team. The weight of the season unquestionably falls on Webb’s shoulder.