|Keith Srakocic / Associated Press|
|PSU fans are hoping Christian Hackenberg won't suffer from a sophomore slump after a stellar freshman season.|
Whether you're a college coach or one in the NFL, winning games is a whole lot easier if you happen to have an elite quarterback on your team. If you don't have one, then you'll likely spend all offseason trying to draft or recruit a signal-caller who has that potential.
NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks recently examined the whole "Elite Quarterback" debate and looked into what Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and others have to do to enter the rarefied air occupied by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
That got College Football 24/7 to thinking. Florida State's Jameis Winston, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baylor's Bryce Petty and UCLA's Brett Hundley are among those considered to be elite college quarterbacks heading into the 2014 season. But who will be in the next wave this season or in the near future?
So with that in mind, here are 14 candidates, from seniors all the way down to a few freshmen, who can rise up and enter the conversation as elite quarterbacks.
Chuckie Keeton, senior, Utah State
Keeton burst onto the scene as a true freshman and looked as though he was going to be right there with the best of the best as a junior when he was completing 69 percent of his passes and had accounted for 20 touchdowns halfway through last season. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in October and has been rehabbing ever since. He isn't the tallest quarterback around (6-foot-1), but his skill set is in vogue nowadays and, with a strong arm and quick feet, he could be ready to make the leap in 2014 if fully healthy. We should know early on with a big opening-week game against Tennessee.
Taylor Kelly, senior, Arizona State
Given the fact that there's 10 returning quarterbacks in the Pac-12 this season and a number of potential first-rounders among them, it's understandable that Kelly can be overlooked from time to time. He shouldn't be, however, after throwing for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns last year. He's a little on the thin side at 6-2, 205 pounds but has a stronger-than-expected arm and the ability to run when needed. If he cuts down on the interceptions, then the Sun Devils' trigger-man could enter the Heisman conversation.
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Kevin Hogan, senior, Stanford
Hogan looks the part of a future NFL field general at 6-4 and 230 pounds. He'd probably get more attention for his 10-1 record against top-25 teams if he played in an offense that put up bigger numbers, but Hogan's talent is undeniable. He throws a nice deep ball, has good accuracy and can pick up a first down with his feet when he has to. However, he has a tendency to get rattled at times and struggled in all three Cardinal losses (all on the road). He's a clutch player for the most part, though, and could easily find himself as an elite QB with additional head-to-head wins against Hundley and Mariota.
Devin Gardner, senior, Michigan
He's moonlighted at wide receiver, but will be focused on becoming an elite signal-caller for the Wolverines after an inconsistent junior year that saw him pass for nearly 3,000 yards with a 21-to-11 TD-INT ratio. He's a streaky passer, however, and much of that is because he often breaks down mechanically. He does have size and a quick release to hit any target. If he improves mentally as a quarterback while drilling down on his mechanics, Michigan could be in for a big season.
Jeff Driskel, junior, Florida
A favorite of NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt, Driskel was once the best high school quarterback in the nation but has struggled as Florida has gone through multiple offensive systems the past three years. He has great size, can make all the throws and certainly brings a rushing element to the position similar to former Gator Tim Tebow. A broken ankle ended his season in 2013, but he appears to be fully healthy and had a good spring. The addition of Kurt Roper to the staff will do wonders for his development, and 2014 could be a big year for a guy that has all the physical tools to make the leap.
Connor Cook, junior, Michigan State
We waited years for Michigan State's offense to catch up to its mighty defense under Mark Dantonio, and when it finally did, the Spartans won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Cook's emergence was a big reason why, with things starting out rocky (32 yards passing in a win against USF in his first start) before hitting his stride down the stretch with big plays against Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Stanford. He has good size, moves well inside the pocket and has solid awareness and anticipation when he throws. He can make just about all the throws and has made strides over the summer, according to coaches. MSU will still rely on the run in 2014, but Cook's development as a signal-caller should allow them to open things up through the air some more.
Jacob Coker, junior, Alabama
Such is the legend of Coker that he lands on this list despite having never thrown a pass for the Crimson Tide. His former coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher (no slouch when it comes to developing quarterbacks), has heaped a ton of praise on him, and his strong arm seems to be the defining quality in bringing him to Tuscaloosa. Some coaches wonder about his decision-making when dropping back, and the pressure of replacing the steady AJ McCarron won't be easy. If Lane Kiffin could turn Jonathan Crompton into a fifth-round draft pick in just one year, though, it shouldn't be a stretch to say he can mold Coker into one of the SEC's best.
Christian Hackenberg, sophomore, Penn State
Hackenberg turned in a terrific freshman season for the Nittany Lions and is one reason why James Franklin is a happy camper in Happy Valley. He's got great size at 6-foot-4, 234 pounds and looks like a classic dropback quarterback who has all the potential in the world. He's sound mechanically and has a big arm that can put the ball just about anywhere he wants. At times he looked like a young starter by making mental mistakes, but a 20-10 TD-INT ratio without a ton of talent around him is still a really good start to his career. It's very possible he's the best in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the country by the end of the year.
Jared Goff, sophomore, California
The Bears limped through a 1-11 season, but one of the bright spots was the emergence of Goff in the team's Air Raid offense. He set several school records despite issues up front thanks to a quick release that paired nicely with his quality deep ball. Stanford coach David Shaw called him a budding superstar at the position, and it's easy to see why. The wins might be hard to come by in Berkeley, but at least a good quarterback won't be.
John O'Korn, sophomore, Houston
Houston has had a number of quality quarterbacks and O'Korn appears to be next in line. A terrific freshman season earned him AAC Rookie of the Year honors after he threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns in just 11 starts. He's 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and surprisingly mobile. O'Korn has a strong arm, and showed off good anticipation when dropping back and excellent accuracy. He should continue to get better, and the Cougars' offense should allow us plenty of chances to see him throw.
Davis Webb, sophomore, Texas Tech
In the bowl game against Arizona State, Webb showed he has all the tools to be considered one of the best in the Big 12. Despite splitting time as the starter, he still threw for 2,718 yards and posted a solid 20 touchdowns against just nine picks (in 361 attempts). He's bulked up significantly in the offseason, and is no longer rail thin, so that should help his case as much as bigger numbers and more wins will.
Trevor Knight, sophomore, Oklahoma
The nation was introduced to Knight thanks to his heroics in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, but that doesn't tell the whole story of his 2013 season. He looked average against teams like West Virginia, but spectacular against Kansas State and the aforementioned Alabama. He's got a little Johnny Manziel in him and finished the season very strong. Knight will be dealing with the loss of several receivers, but he has shown flashes of being a big name at a big-time program. Consistency will be key this year if he is to help the Sooners reach the College Football Playoff.
Kyle Allen, freshman, Texas A&M
Who will replace Johnny Football? Allen is one of two quarterbacks Kevin Sumlin is picking from, but offers the most upside for the Aggies as a former top-ranked QB recruit. He impressed during spring practice and looks like a more traditional Air Raid signal-caller at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. Facing SEC defenses at a young age won't help him put up big numbers, but Allen has all the qualities to develop into a top-flight quarterback.
Deshaun Watson, freshman, Clemson
Cole Stoudt will be the Tigers' starter, but offensive coordinator Chad Morris has already said Watson will play this year, a nod to his talent and dual-threat abilities. The staff really loves his potential and knows it's only a matter of time before he's up to speed in the offense at the college level. Considering how Tajh Boyd blossomed at Clemson, one shouldn't expect anything less for the talented Mr. Watson. A comparison to Jameis Winston has been thrown out a few times when it comes to Watson, and that's a pretty good one to have if you're Dabo Swinney.
Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.