Breakout quarterbacks define every season in college football, a sport where nobody remains at the top of the position for more than two or three years because the NFL always beckons.
2022 became the year of Caleb Williams, as the former five-star went from an up-and-down true freshman at Oklahoma to a Heisman Trophy winner at USC. Bo Nix went from a relative afterthought at Auburn to one of the most prolific players in the country at Oregon.
Drake Maye emerged as a star at North Carolina, Austin Reed at Western Kentucky, Frank Harris at UTSA, and on and on. They’re all back for more in 2023.
Who’s next? Last year’s performances provided a good hint.
Here are six passers whose 2022 statistical profiles, based on our advanced data, suggest good things are in store this fall. The list includes quarterbacks everywhere from the SEC to the MAC and every different archetype of the position.
Drew Allar, Penn State
Allar was a top-five QB recruit in the class of 2022, but Penn State had sixth-year senior Sean Clifford behind center and got enough out of the veteran to limit Allar to spot duty.
Penn State won a Rose Bowl with Clifford, who proved good enough to beat everyone on the schedule except Ohio State and Michigan – the two teams that tormented him the most during his career. Now, though, it’s Allar’s time.
Allar’s lack of experience makes him a riskier proposition than the solid passer Penn State had last year in Clifford. But the youngster offers more upside, too. Allar has a big arm, and he showed uncommon care for the ball when he got on the field.
Allar was one of just two quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision (minimum 50 attempts) who posted a pickable pass percentage (PKP%) of 0.0, meaning he didn’t throw one pass we deemed “pickable” in his 59 attempts in 2022.
He did it while still airing the ball out a decent bit, with an average air-yard distance of 8.6 yards (compared to a national average of 9.0) and while learning a collegiate offense under coordinator Mike Yurcich for the first time.
Allar got into 10 games behind Clifford, and it’ll now be on him to guide Penn State over the hump in the Big Ten.
Jalen Milroe, Alabama
Milroe may or may not even be Alabama’s starting quarterback, but he’s the most exciting near-term prospect in a three-man battle that’s also included Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner and redshirt freshman Ty Simpson.
Milroe was the primary backup to Bryce Young in 2022, and he showed flashes of what made him a top-100 recruit the year prior. Milroe replaced an injured Young during what had been a close-ish game against Arkansas and led his offense to 35 points on eight drives, highlighted by a 77-yard carry almost immediately after he spelled Young.
Milroe runs with as much authority as any quarterback in the country, and his pure arm strength is undeniable when he airs the ball out.
But Milroe’s year was rocky. He threw 53 passes and was the opposite of Allar, posting the highest PKP% in FBS at 12.0. Of his six pickable throws, three actually did get intercepted. Milroe’s well-thrown percentage of 68.0 was well off the national average of 78.4%, and in general, he showed way less polish throwing the ball than he did running it.
If Alabama can compel a better throw selection out of Milroe – and find some receivers to help him out – he’ll be an exciting riser in 2023.
And if he doesn’t win the starting job and whoever does struggles, Milroe will be an enticing alternative as the Tide try to replace Young and dislodge Georgia from its new perch as the best team in the SEC and country.
Kurtis Rourke, Ohio
The last time the MAC had a frontline national star at quarterback was in 2003 when the conference had both Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio) and Byron Leftwich at Marshall. A lot has changed since then, including Marshall leaving the league and the MAC becoming a weeknight TV property that has to scrape and claw for mainstream attention.
The simplest way for the MAC to get back into the sport’s collective brain space would be to find another star quarterback, and Rourke might be that guy.
Rourke had a 25-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and was fourth in FBS in yards per throw (9.2) and passer rating. The underlying numbers were similarly encouraging: Rourke was in the top 20 nationally in well-thrown percentage (82.2) and pickable pass percentage (1.8) despite the Bobcats not doing much of a job getting receivers open for him.
(Rourke’s open target percentage of 75.4 lagged behind the 78.4% national average.) Rourke tore an ACL late in the season, and his absence cost Ohio any real chance of beating Toledo in the MAC Championship.
But he’s back to start 2023 and could establish himself further with a clean bill of health.
Hudson Card, Purdue
Card became the odd man out at Texas, where prized former five-star recruits Quinn Ewers and Arch Manning will run the show for the foreseeable future. But Card was solid for the Longhorns last year, appearing in 12 games as Ewers struggled with injury and some ineffectiveness.
Card headed to West Lafayette after the Boilermakers lost Jeff Brohm to Louisville and hired Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters as their new head coach. Walters takes over a pretty decent team that emerged from the mess of the Big Ten West last year, and Card’s success will say a lot about whether Purdue can stay competitive in Walters’ first year.
In Austin, Card led all of FBS with an 82.9 catchable ball percentage. Card threw a lot of short passes, with a checkdown percentage of 9.5 that put him in the top 20 nationally. But he also took a lot of intermediate and deep shots, averaging 9.5 air yards per throw (above the 9.1 national average), and still managed to be the best quarterback in the country at throwing the ball where his receivers had a chance to catch it.
Card won’t have the receivers he did at Texas, but the West is one of the weakest divisions in the Power 5 conferences.
If Card makes strides, Purdue could make another dark-horse run.
Blake Shapen, Baylor
Baylor coach Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes are strong believers in Shapen, whom they made their starting QB in 2022 despite the presence of Big 12-winning QB Gerry Bohanon elsewhere on the roster. (Bohanon transferred to USF after Shapen’s ascension to the top job.)
Not everything clicked in Shapen’s first year, though, and the Big 12 champs declined to a .500 record. Shapen was reluctant or unable to really turn things loose in the way Baylor probably hoped. His 10.6 checkdown percentage was one of the 10 highest marks in FBS, and Shapen’s average of 9.0 air yards was just about at the national average.
Shapen’s open target percentage was third in the country at 90.2%, but having lots of open receivers at shallow distances only took him so far.
It wasn’t the expected first crack at things for a signal-caller who got the job because Baylor liked his proficiency in the downfield passing game. One of the Big 12’s most interesting subplots in 2023 will be if Grimes, who previously coached Zach Wilson during his bonanza of a 2020 season at BYU, can unlock something similar in his QB at Baylor.
Connor Weigman, Texas A&M
Few coaches will face more pressure this fall than A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, who became the most expensive hire in college football history when the Aggies brought him over from Florida State after 2017.
Fisher’s reputation as an elite tutor of quarterbacks has gotten tenuous as he’s spent a full decade looking for a passer who could be even fractionally as good for him as Jameis Winston once was in Tallahassee.
Fisher and new coordinator Bobby Petrino, then, have a lot invested in Weigman, a four-star recruit who debuted with five appearances (including four starts) as a true freshman in 2022. Weigman showed positive signs as a passer, stepping into a leadership role a year out of high school for a massively disappointing team in the toughest conference in the country.
Weigman averaged 9.5 air yards and posted a better-than-average 3.1 pickable pass percentage while taking challenging shots downfield.
A&M badly needs Weigman to emerge as one of the better QBs in the SEC. And if he does – on a team with tons of talent elsewhere on the offense and scattered around the defense – a quick bounceback will be in order.
Like this? Follow us on Twitter for more.