|Chris O'Meara/Associated Press|
|Florida State QB Jameis Winston returns to sky-high expectations this season.|
We know which college quarterbacks NFL scouts will be watching the closest this season, but what will those scouts be looking to see from those top signal-callers? Not all clubs will be looking for the exact same things, of course, but each of the quarterbacks from the elite tier have work to do to solidify their standing among NFL evaluators. Here's a look at the five quarterbacks I consider to be in that top tier as we enter the season and something each needs to prove this season (players listed in alphabetical order).
UCLA's Brett Hundley
At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Hundley is built like the prototypical quarterback. He looks like the big, strong, strapping quarterback that will stand in the pocket and shake defenders off of him while making all the throws. He has good mobility, too. Now, last season, I thought he pressed a little at times and tried to do too much. This Bruins team has huge aspirations this season. They expect to contend for the Pac-12 title and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. If they're going to reach that goal, Hundley has to show he can play more relaxed and be more consistent. He also has to prove he can win against the Pac-12's best. Hundley is 2-0 against rival USC, but his all-time record against Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford is 1-5, with his lone win coming in an October 2012 game against the Sun Devils.
Oregon State's Sean Mannion
Mannion has the most experience playing in a pro-style offense of all the quarterbacks on this list and is the most traditional, dropback passer of the bunch. Scouts will be looking to see if he can lead his team to some signature wins this season. Last season, Oregon State lost to Eastern Washington to open the season before winning six in a row. Then they lost five straight to close out the regular season when the schedule turned tough before beating Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. The other thing scouts will be watching is Mannion's ability to succeed without a clear go-to guy. Former Beavers wide receivers Markus Wheaton (a third-round pick in '13) and Brandin Cooks (a first-round pick in '14) were great security blankets. If no clear No. 1 wide receiver emerges this year, Mannion will be tested to show his maturity and ability to make the players around him better.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota
Mariota has faced questions about his smaller frame, similar to the ones Teddy Bridgewater had to answer heading into the draft earlier this year. However, Mariota has already put in work in an effort to put some of those doubts to rest by bulking up this offseason -- it appears he did so without sacrificing any of his impressive speed. Now, he has to stay healthy after injuries set him back last season. He'll also eventually have to prove he can thrive in a pro-style offense and work from under center -- I don't think he'll get the opportunity to do that much during the season because Oregon's offensive system doesn't call for it. He has to show he can master the three-, five- and seven-stop drop run from under center. One more thing -- he has to show he can lead Oregon to a win in a tough November game against Stanford, something he's failed to do in two tries.
Baylor's Bryce Petty
Petty had already graduated from Baylor before he took his first snap as the team's starting quarterback, so he had to be patient, work hard and stay focused before he received an opportunity. He made the most of it when his time finally arrived last season, throwing for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Petty will have to continue to polish his game as he prepares for the next level, and scouts will be watching to see how Petty and Baylor respond now that they have a target on their backs coming off the school's first Big 12 championship. Petty is not going to be sneaking up on anyone this time around. Teams have had a full offseason to craft a plan for how they'll try to stop him. Everyone's coming after Baylor. Can Petty rise to the occasion and show scouts he deserves to be the first quarterback off the board in next year's draft?
Florida State's Jameis Winston
Winston came out of the gate as a redshirt freshman and was just on fire in his first season of college football. He exceeded the hype, and that's hard to do with the hype we give these youngsters. He took control of that team quickly in a season that culminated in being crowned as the Heisman Trophy winner and a national champion. He jumped over some incredible hurdles in his first year as the starter, but in 2014, can he steer clear of off-field issues that have plagued his young career? On the field, he has work to do correcting mechanical issues. He's an incredible talent, but there are times when he's long in his throwing motion and he'll need to speed that up, while also shoring up his footwork.
Follow Charles Davis on Twitter @CFD22.