On Sept. 3, Alabama beat USC 52-6 in one of the biggest games of a massive opening weekend in college football. When the game began, the starting quarterbacks were not surprising.
Blake Barnett, the No. 2 quarterback in the recruiting class of 2015, got the call for Alabama as a redshirt freshman. Max Browne, the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2013, got the call for USC as a redshirt junior who had patiently waited his turn. These were supposed to be the future stars of college football, two of the most coveted recruits in recent history, meeting in a clash of potential titans. These were supposed to be the faces of two of college football's most prominent programs.
Instead, by the end of September, both Barnett and Browne had been replaced. By the end of the 2016 season, both had subsequently declared their intention to transfer -- Barnett to Arizona State, Browne to Pittsburgh. In their place? Other next-big-thing blue-chip prospects: Jalen Hurts at Alabama and Sam Darnold at USC.
There are five starting offensive line spots, and multiple running backs and receivers can rotate in. But in most cases, only one quarterback is going to get meaningful snaps. When major programs sign a quarterback in almost every recruiting class, there is bound to be heated competition and impatience, making the quarterback position particularly boom-or-bust for top prospects.
Wednesday is National Signing Day. There is little mystery at quaterback, where every team rushes to lock up its guy beforehand. The top 31 quarterback prospects, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, have already made their choices, whether they verbally committed (unofficial) or already enrolled early (official), creating little mystery at the position by the time Feb. 1 arrives. History, however, says that there remains a whole lot of mystery going forward.
National Signing Day is always a time for excitement, for hope for the future. Given that quarterback is the most important position in football, it's always going to be in the spotlight. So how do the best and brightest quarterback prospects pan out? Let's take a trip back through the past 10 classes to see how elite quarterback recruiting actually plays out.
All recruiting rankings are via 247Sports' composite rankings, which combine the ratings of various recruiting services to form a consensus. All references to "blue-chip" prospects refer to players rated as either four- or five-star prospects by the composite rankings.
Where do blue-chip quarterback recruits come from?
It's no secret that California, Texas and Florida dominate the recruiting landscape, producing an overwhelming portion of the talent that floods college football each year. That holds true at quarterback, where those three states are clearly at the top. However, there's even significant disparity among them.
California is in a tier by itself with 43 of the 214 four- and five-star recruits over the past 10 years. Texas is in a second tier by itself with 32. And then there's Florida, which is a prep talent factory at all positions, but not quite as much as quarterback.
Below is a map with all 214 blue-chip quarterback recruits from the past 10 years plotted by city. Logos are based on the schools they originally signed with. Click the logos for name, class year, team, number of passes they attempted with the college they originally committed to and transfer information, where applicable.
Here are the states that produce the most highly coveted quarterback recruits:
1. California, 43
2. Texas, 32
3. Florida, 20
4. Virginia, 13
5. Georgia, 11
6. Ohio, 8
6. Pennsylvania, 8
8. North Carolina, 6
9. Washington, 5
9. Arizona, 5
9. Arkansas, 5
9. Indiana, 5
9. Michigan, 5
Where do blue-chip quarterback recruits sign?
As with the rest of recruiting, teams in the SEC (which has territory stretching from the fertile Houston area to Florida) have a significant advantage, as it is the only Power Five conference that has two of the three powerhouse prep states in its footprint, thanks to its expansion into Texas with Texas A&M. SEC territory also includes Georgia, with North Carolina and Virginia close by.
The Pac-12 also has an advantage in quarterback recruiting because it is the only major conference in California, while the Big Ten is at a disadvantage because it has teams in none of the three biggest states. Major programs tend to recruit nationally for quarterbacks more than other positions, because of the scarcity of talent and the importance of the position, but there are still local advantages.
The Pac-12 initially signed 30 of the 43 blue-chip quarterbacks from California in the past 10 years -- seven of which picked USC. In Texas, the next most quarterback-rich state, the SEC has equaled the Big 12, each signing 13 of the 32 prized quarterbacks.
Nobody dominates quarterback recruiting, because nobody can take too many top-tier quarterbacks on scholarship. In 10 years, USC's eight signees are the most. Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and UCLA landed seven each.
What happens during their career?
It would be a mistake to call it an epidemic. Transfers have gone up in college football, and that's especially true at quarterback, where there are only so many starting positions available. The wave of transfers is often treated like a problem, but players switching schools to try to find a better opportunity for themselves is hardly an actual problem. (Coaches do it all the time.) The graduate transfer rule in particular has made transferring easier, as veteran players with degrees in hand can switch teams without sitting out a year.
The massive wave of transfers is undeniably a big story, even if it's overblown as a problem. While a lot of coaches and fan bases will be excited on Wednesday when blue-chip quarterbacks sign to play at their school, there's a good chance that those QBs won't actually finish their careers with the same team or deliver on the hype.
In fact, from 2007-13, more than half of four- and five-star quarterback recruits didn't finish their college career at the school they originally picked, whether it's because they transferred, were dismissed, switched to baseball or gave up playing football. (This does not include players who left early for the NFL Draft.) Likewise, just 44.1 percent of the 145 blue-chip quarterbacks signed from 2007-13 attempted at least 300 career passes for their original team.
- The class of 2010's four- and five-star quarterbacks stand out, as only Missouri's James Franklin, Michigan's Devin Gardner, Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Oklahoma's Blake Bell started and finished their college careers with the same school … and Bell finished his stint at Oklahoma as a tight end.
- The class of 2008 did the opposite, with all but three sticking around, while 11 of 16 QBs attempted at least 700 passes with the team they signed with.
- Texas A&M has signed six blue-chip quarterbacks over the past 10 years, and none of them have finished their career as Texas A&M's starting quarterback. Of course, it's not as if the Aggies have been completely barren of quarterbacks: Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was a three-star recruit, as was first-round pick Ryan Tannehill.
- Only AJ McCarron and Jalen Hurts have stuck around at Alabama as blue-chip quarterback recruits since 2007. The other five have left, including Blake Barnett (Arizona State), David Cornwell (Nevada) and Cooper Bateman (Utah) all this year after Hurts locked down the starting job as a true freshman and five-star Tua Tagovailoa already enrolled for 2017.
- Of the 10 quarterbacks ranked No. 1 in the 247Sports composite rankings in the past 10 classes, four -- Phillip Sims, Jeff Driskel, Max Browne and Kyle Allen -- have transferred. So far, four have been drafted -- Jimmy Clausen, Terrelle Pryor, Matt Barkley and Jameis Winston -- and Josh Rosen and Shea Patterson join Browne and Allen as players who are still in school.
- Twenty-five of the 214 quarterbacks have thrown at least 1,000 career passes for the school they signed with (that number will grow as current young quarterbacks gain experience). Oklahoma's Landry Jones blows away the rest of the field with 2,183 career attempts, all for the Sooners.
- Twenty-seven of the 145 blue-chip QBs signed from 2007-13 attempted zero passes for their original schools.
What happens after college?
It needs to be repeated: Recruiting rankings matter. Go back and look at the numbers, as SB Nation has done, and see that five-star recruits have a better chance of getting drafted than four-star recruits and four-star recruits have a better chance of getting drafted than three-stars. There are significantly fewer blue-chip recruits compared to the rest of the pack every year, and broadly speaking, recruiting services do a relatively good job projecting which prospects have the best chance of panning out.
Evaluating quarterbacks, of course, is always a crapshoot. It's true in the NFL Draft, and it's true in recruiting. Last spring, No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was a four-star recruit who started a as a true freshman in the Pac-12. No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz was a late-blooming, no-star recruit from Bismarck who ended up at North Dakota State. Recent Heisman winners Lamar Jackson, Marcus Mariota and Johnny Manziel were underrated as three-star recruits; Tim Tebow and Jameis Winston were correctly pegged as five-stars.
So what are the chances of a blue-chip recruit being drafted? In the recruiting classes from 2007-13, 34 of 145 blue-chip QBs have been selected in the NFL Draft. Only eight of those players have been first-round picks.
Once again, the class of 2010 stands out as being full of misses. The only quarterback drafted was Oklahoma's Bell, who is now a tight end. And, again, the class of 2008 shines, with four first-round picks among the highly rated quarterback recruits.
Of 214 four-and five-star quarterbacks since the class of 2007, these are the ones who have been drafted in the first round, so far:
- Cam Newton, 2007 (Florida/Auburn)
- Andrew Luck, 2008 (Stanford)
- Robert Griffin III, 2008 (Baylor)
- Blaine Gabbert, 2008 (Missouri)
- EJ Manuel, 2008 (Florida State)
- Teddy Bridgewater, 2011 (Louisville)
- Jameis Winston, 2012 (Florida State)
- Jared Goff, 2013 (California)
Players like Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, DeShone Kizer, Mason Rudolph, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen will attempt to join them in the near future.
The recruiting class of 2017 features 24 blue-chip quarterbacks, and all of them give their schools ample reasons to be excited, led by five-stars Davis Mills (Stanford), Hunter Johnson (Clemson) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama). These are the best of the best at the high school level, productive prep passers vying to be the future of their programs as they attempt to be the next Luck, Watson or McCarron and take aim at All-America status.
Recent history, however, shows that there's a good chance that half of the 24 four- and five-star quarterbacks will transfer at some point in the next few years, and that maybe only one or two will achieve the dream of becoming a first-round draft pick. The excitement of National Signing Day quickly leads into a lot of lingering uncertainty.
The long recruiting road of the class of 2017 may end on Wednesday, but it's only the very beginning of the story, especially for the star quarterbacks.