Welcome to the great ACC Quarterback Derby. All are welcome to attend — dual-threats and drop-backs, experienced veterans and younger pups, rising stars and struggling passers. No position serves as an equalizer like quarterback and no conference possesses four quarterbacks in 2016 like the ACC.
The ACC Quarterback Derby kicks off Saturday with the first of four high-profile matchups over the next seven weeks.
Sept. 17: Deondre Francois (Florida State) at Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
Oct. 1: Lamar Jackson (Louisville) at Deshaun Watson (Clemson)
Oct. 8: Deondre Francois (Florida State) at Brad Kaaya (Miami)
Oct. 29: Deshaun Watson (Clemson) at Deondre Francois (Florida State)
The last man standing may be the quarterback who buys into his hype the least.
The first two weeks have been tough for Watson and Kaaya, who generated the ACC quarterback buzz in the preseason. But the ACC is so deep at the position that Francois vs. Jackson is a top-10 game with ESPN’s College GameDay in town on a day when Ohio State-Oklahoma, Ole Miss-Alabama, Stanford-USC and Michigan State-Notre Dame are also scheduled.
“I’ve never seen these many good quarterbacks in the ACC at once,” said ACC television analyst Tommy Bowden, a former Clemson coach. “Right now, the most impressive guy is Lamar Jackson, then Francois, then Kaaya and Watson kind of tied for third. Who would have ever thought those two would be third?”
Why is the ACC nationally relevant again? Look no further than its quarterbacks. Jameis Winston won the national title and reached the College Football Playoff at Florida State. Watson took Clemson within a few plays of beating Alabama for the national championship. The SEC may still be king, but the ACC owns the quarterback crown this year.
Jackson left Pompano Beach, Florida, out of high school for Louisville despite a late push in 2015 by new Gators coach Jim McElwain. Francois, who is from Orlando, went to Florida State after Florida swung and missed on him, too. Watson — out of Gainesville, Georgia — chose Clemson, causing then-Bulldogs coach Mark Richt to get heavily criticized for losing him. Only Kaaya, who is from Los Angeles, came from a non-SEC/ACC state.
From 2012-15, SEC teams signed 31 four- or five-star quarterbacks, according to 247Sports. So far, only one of those recruits turned into a very important player who will finish his career at the same school: Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. Highly-recruited quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen, Kenny Hill, Will Grier, Maty Mauk, Hayden Rettig and Zeke Pike have come and gone through the SEC.
Over the same period, ACC teams signed 16 four- or five-star quarterbacks. As of now, four of them look like they’re elite and will stay at their school the entire time: Winston, Kaaya, Watson and Francois. Jackson was a three-star recruit. Another top ACC quarterback recruit, Chad Kelly, started at Clemson and now is at Ole Miss after going to junior college.
The hit-rate scoreboard on these quarterback recruits: 25 percent for the ACC, 6 percent for the SEC.
“Quarterback is where I think the rest of the country, especially the ACC, has been able to close the gap to a degree on the SEC,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager. “The quarterback play is just better than in the SEC. People argue the defenses in the SEC are better, and that’s probably true. But for just the pure spinning of the football and the overall arm talent, that’s a quartet of [ACC] guys right now that can really throw it.”
Against Syracuse last week, Jackson became the first FBS player with 400 yards passing and 175 yards rushing in one game. He was one rushing yard shy of turning into the charter member of the 400/200 club.
Jackson ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game and ninth in passing yards. He’s already responsible for 13 touchdowns in two games (seven passing, six rushing). Only 12 other teams in all of FBS have 13 touchdowns through two weeks.
Jackson’s completion percentage may look spotty at 59.7 percent. But Louisville receivers have dropped nine passes, so Jackson’s adjusted completion percentage is 76.7 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
Yes, Louisville’s opponents were Charlotte and Syracuse, who have weak defenses. That makes Jackson’s first real test in the ACC Quarterback Derby against Florida State all the more compelling.
Jackson threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to the Seminoles last season. Florida State will be without injured star safety Derwin James, a key player for a defense that allowed four touchdowns and made three interceptions against Kelly in Week 1.
Francois ranks 11th nationally in passing yards per game for Florida State. Most impressively, he led a 22-point comeback against Ole Miss on national television while taking some serious hits.
“The kid didn’t get rattled,” Savage said. “He throws such a clean ball.”
Kaaya is coming off one of the worst games in his three-year Miami career. His passer rating (93.69) in a 38-10 win over Florida Atlantic was the second-lowest of his career as he threw two interceptions in a game for the first time since October 2014.
“He’s in a good spot,” Richt told 560 WQAM radio in Miami. “Some of it was just flat-out the protection issues, some was a couple dropped balls, and he missed a few wide-open guys. We can’t do that and be really effective. We could have worked ourselves out of it by throwing and throwing and throwing, in my opinion, but we have the ability to run the football, and if that’s what we have to do to settle the game down that’s what we’re going to do.”
NFL scouts are watching Kaaya’s development under Richt. “There are people in the NFL that think he will be a top pick at some point whenever it is,” Savage said.
Then there’s Watson, who has struggled in his first two games. The biggest challenge for each passer in the upcoming ACC Quarterback Derby will be to handle what Watson is currently experiencing: living up to the hype.
Watson spoke in the offseason about Clemson possibly having the best offense in college football history and his desire to build a personal brand. At a press conference on Monday, Watson apologized to Clemson fans for his “negative energy” that he thinks contributed to the offense’s sluggish start.
With Clemson struggling to run the ball, Watson hasn’t been as accurate on his throws and is making some poor decisions. He ranks 93rd nationally in passer rating, last in the ACC. When factoring in dropped passes, Watson’s adjusted completion rate is 65.1 percent, well below his mark of 77.1 percent in 2015, according to PFF.
“It just kind of got away from me for a little bit with all the attention I’ve gotten,” Watson said. “I’ve just got to find myself and be the Deshaun Watson that I always will be.”
Watson is too good and has too many playmakers to think this slump will continue. Clemson is in trouble if it does.
Still, it’s a sign of the ACC quarterback depth that in Week 3 there’s a high-profile matchup without Watson. There are other ACC quarterbacks who could make noise in 2016: Syracuse’s Eric Dungey (Dino Babers throws so much that the stats will follow), Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans (five TDs, no INTs) and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky (his scholarship offers included Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan State and Tennessee).
The ACC has arguably never seen a quarterback season like 2016 could produce with Watson, Kayaa, Jackson and Francois. Since Florida State joined the league in 1992, the closest examples would be Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub and Charlie Whitehurst (2002-03); Russell Wilson, Tyrod Taylor and Christian Ponder (2009-10); and Watson, Kaaya, Jackson and Jacoby Brissett (2015).
One of the fascinating parts of the ACC Quarterback Derby: There is no fourth-year player among the four stars. The trend at quarterback these days is youth given how developed passers are at earlier ages. Jackson and Francois will be back in 2017, and it’s possible Kaaya will return, too. Watson is expected to turn pro.
“Not only are these guys young, they’re getting great coaching,” Bowden said. “I think three of the best quarterback head coaches in the country are Jimbo Fisher, David Shaw and Bobby Petrino, and not necessarily in that order because Petrino may be the best.”
Four games featuring elite quarterbacks over the next seven weeks will give us a better picture of the ACC and playoff race. Proceed with excitement and caution.
Talent plus maturity equals the winner of the great ACC Quarterback Derby.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / The nation’s best quarterbacks are in the ACC, and it’s not even close