Friedlander: A way-too-early look at every ACC QB room in 2023
This was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC.
Things just didn’t exactly go as planned.
While a quarterback did end up winning the league’s Player of the Year award, it wasn’t 1 of the 10 returning starters, including a few that were being touted as serious Heisman Trophy candidates.
North Carolina freshman Drake Maye was barely on the radar when the season began. But he’ll be the first name mentioned in the conversation of the league’s best passers heading into 2023.
It’s a list that will include plenty of newcomers, including some that have already given us a sneak preview of what to expect, and at least one familiar face in a new place. And you never know who else might show up thanks to the transfer portal.
With the understanding that a lot can and probably will change between now and next September, let’s take a peek inside the quarterback room of all 14 ACC teams to get an early idea of what to expect.
The Eagles never got off the ground in 2022, thanks in large measure to a rash of injuries that decimated their offensive line and eventually caught up with veteran quarterback Phil Jurkovec. If there was anything positive to be taken away from the disappointing 3-9 campaign, it was the play of Jurkovec’s young replacement Emmett Morehead.
A strong-armed 6-5, 228-pound redshirt freshman, Morehead took over as QB1 after Jurkovec hurt his right knee early in the 3rd quarter of a loss to UConn on Oct. 29. He struggled in finishing that game and again in a shutout loss to Notre Dame a few weeks later. But he also showed flashes of brilliance, as he did in driving BC 69 yards on 12 plays for the winning touchdown with 14 seconds remaining at NC State.
Morehead completed 59.9% of his passes for 1,254 yards and 10 touchdowns with 6 interceptions.
With both Jurkovec and redshirt junior Daelen Menard leaving via the transfer portal, the only other quarterback on the Eagles roster is redshirt sophomore Matthew Rueve, who was rated as the No. 1 pro-style prospect in Ohio out of high school, and 4-star freshman Peter Delaportas.
Cade Klubnik was already penciled in to take over as the Tigers’ starter next season even before he supplanted incumbent DJ Uiagalelei with his MVP performance against UNC in the ACC Championship Game.
So the loss of Uiagalelei to the transfer portal will have little to no impact on coach Dabo Swinney’s plans moving forward.
The Tigers also lost graduate Hunter Johnson, who returned to Clemson for his final year of eligibility after leaving for Northwestern following his true freshman season of 2017. That leaves former walkon Hunter Helms, current walkon Trent Pearman and incoming recruit Christopher Vizzina to battle it out for the role as Klubnik’s backup.
Vizzina is a 4-star prospect from Birmingham, Ala., who threw for 5,089 and 43 touchdowns in 3 high school seasons.
Riley Leonard emerged from a preseason competition with Jordan Moore to engineer the biggest surprise story of the ACC season. He threw for 2,794 yards and 20 touchdowns, and led the team in rushing with 636 yards and 11 scores to help the Blue Devils more than double their win total from 2021 and earn Mike Elko conference Coach of the Year honors.
Despite coming in 2nd to Leonard and being listed as a quarter/wide receiver on Duke’s roster, Moore’s role has shifted primarily to catching passes rather than throwing them. He recorded a team-best 57 catches and 5 touchdowns in his 1st season at his new position and would likely only take snaps in an emergency moving forward.
That leaves the backup duties to freshman Henry Belin IV, who saw action in 1 game this season, going 5 of 6 for 43 yards in a lopsided win against NC A&T. With graduates Ty Lenhart and Gavin Spurrier both having moved on, Elko will bolster his quarterback depth this week with the signing of 3-star recruit Grayson Loftis of Greer, S.C.
Jordan Travis’ decision to come back in 2023 rather than enter the NFL Draft was a major victory for coach Mike Norvell and the Seminoles. Travis blossomed in 2022 in leading the team to 9 wins, including 5 straight to end the regular season while throwing for 2796 and accounting for a combined 29 touchdowns passing and rushing.
His return also makes for a crowded quarterback room and arguably the best depth at the position in the ACC.
Lining up behind him are primary backup Tate Rodemaker, who filled in admirably by going 6-of-10 for 109 yards and 2 touchdowns in a win at Louisville after Travis went down with an injury, along with freshman AJ Duffy and walkon Dylan McNamara.
Four-star recruit Brock Glenn, whom Norvell flipped from Ohio State, will also serve as an understudy and Travis’ likely heir apparent once he joins the program on signing day.
Brent Key promises to have a battle royale on his hands for the starting quarterback job when he begins his first spring practice as the Yellow Jackets’ permanent coach. No fewer than 4 viable candidates will be competing for the job, including 3 that started games in 2022.
And that doesn’t include Jeff Sims, who has announced his decision to transfer after missing the 2nd half of the season because of injury and other issues.
Among the returning in-house candidates, Zach Pryon will go into next season as the early front-runner. A 4-star from Pinson, Ala., he stepped in and led an exhilarating 4th quarter comeback that beat Virginia Tech in his 1st career start before suffering a season-ending injury the following week at Miami.
Gibson, a sophomore transfer from Akron, wasn’t as effective in his 4 starts, although he did distinguish himself by leading Tech to an upset of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A 3rd returning quarterback, Clemson transfer Taisun Phommachanh, saw limited action, but did contribute 44 rushing yards and a touchdown in the victory against the Tar Heels.
Challenging the Zachs and Phommachanh for the starting job will be Texas A&M transfer Haynes King, a former 4-star recruit who was the Aggies’ opening game starter in 2022. King completed 56% of his passes for a team-leading 1,220 yards and 7 touchdowns, but was replaced after seeing action in 6 games.
The coaching change from Scott Satterfield to Jeff Brohm has complicated the Cardinals’ quarterback situation greatly.
How Louisville moves forward in replacing 4-year starter Malik Cunningham will depend largely on whether star recruit Pierce Clarkson sticks with his commitment to attend Louisville. Brohm, a former Cardinals quarterback himself, has been putting the full-court press on Clarkson — a 4-star dual-threat quarterback from St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif. — since taking the job last week.
The new coach will likely be holding his breath on signing day until (of if) he gets a signed letter-of-intent in hand.
Regardless of Clarkson’s decision, Brock Domann will have something to say about who starts for the Cardinals next season. The junior filled in admirably when Cunningham was sidelined with injuries. He led the team to victories against Virginia, NC State and most recently Cincinnati in the Fenway Bowl.
The other quarterbacks in the mix for the Cardinals are junior Evan Conley, freshman Khalib Johnson and junior college transfer Sam Vaulton.
Like their Sunshine State neighbors in Tallahassee, the Hurricanes’ quarterback room is a crowded place, stocked with 3 highly-rated talents. Unlike Florida State, there are questions as to how the pecking order will ultimately shake out for coach Mario Cristobal.
Tyler Van Dyke will get the first crack at the starting job after an injury-plagued sophomore season. But if he’s unable to recreate the magic that saw helped him win ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2021, the duo of Jake Garcia and Jacurri Brown will be eagerly waiting for another shot at taking over.
Both freshmen started games in Van Dyke’s absence this season, but neither proved to be ready for the opportunity as the Hurricanes sputtered to a 5-7 record and out of bowl contention.
The other quarterbacks on Miami’s roster are redshirt sophomore Peyton Matocha and walk-on Jayden George. Three-star recruit Emory Williams will be added as part of Cristobal’s top-10 recruiting class, but isn’t likely to fit into the mix in 2023.
Maye answered all the questions about how the Tar Heels would replace former star Sam Howell and then some in 2022. The redshirt freshmen threw for 4,115 yards and 35 touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing to earn ACC Player of the Year recognition.
With his return to the final Coastal Division champions, the only real question about UNC’s quarterback situation is who will back Maye up?
Last year’s understudy Jacolby Criswell has transferred to Arkansas, leaving freshman Conner Harrell and 6-7 sophomore Jefferson Boaz as the only other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Coach Mack Brown is expected to add to that depth with the signing of 4-star recruit Tad Hudson.
Losing 3-year starter and 2022 preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary to the transfer portal was a blow to the Wolfpack. But it was hardly unexpected. Because Leary was already ticketed for the NFL Draft before missing the final 6 games with an injury, coach Dave Doeren and his staff were already prepared for his departure.
They even got a sneak peak at the potential of his replacement MJ Morris in wins against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, before the true freshman also went down with a season-ending injury.
While Morris is the current favorite for the starting job in 2023, he could face some competition from redshirt sophomore Ben Finley. The younger brother of former Wolfpack star Ryan Finley emerged from the scout team to lead State to an upset of rival North Carolina in the regular-season finale and could see action again in the team’s upcoming Duke’s Mayo Bowl matchup against Maryland.
Doeren is also set to add 3-star recruit Lex Thomas to the roster and there’s a possibility he could dip into the transfer portal for a 1-year rental if he feels as though Morris and/or Finley aren’t ready. Among the possibilities is Brennan Armstrong, who thrived under new State offensive coordinator Robert Anae when they were together at Virginia in 2021.
Kedon Slovis wasn’t the answer to replacing Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett. So now, with Slovis having re-entered the transfer portal, coach Pat Narduzzi has brought in 2 more veterans to try and add a viable passing attack to one of the best ground games in the country.
Option 1 is a familiar name in the ACC. Former BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec, who also had a brief stop at Notre Dame, has decided to return to his hometown in hopes of finally staying healthy and fulfilling his potential as an elite passer.
He’ll battle it out with Penn State expat Christian Veilleux for the starting job. Veilleux played in 5 games during his 2 seasons with the Nittany Lions, completing 23-of-35 passes for 282 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Redshirt freshman Nate Yarnell, who completed 9-of-12 for 179 yards and a touchdown when pressed into service in a win at Western Michigan this season, could also have something to say about who ends up winning the job before all is said and done. Three-star recruit Ty Dieffenbach is set to job the program as part of Narduzzi’s 2023 signing class.
The Orange is set with Garrett Shrader set to return after a career year in which he completed 65% of his passes for 2,310 yards and 17 passes.
Top backup Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, a transfer from Florida, also saw significant action while Shrader was sidelined with an injury, though he was much less effective.
The depth behind them includes promising redshirt freshman Justin Lamson, a former top-20 dual threat prospect out of California, fellow redshirt freshman JaCobian Morgan, who started 2 games in 2020, and incoming 4-star recruit LaNorris Sellers, assuming he signs.
Tony Elliott wasted his opportunity with Brennan Armstrong, the ACC’s leading passer in 2022, in his rookie season as a head coach. But at least now he has a chance at bringing in a quarterback better suited to running his style of offense.
He took a step in that direction by landing Tony Muskett off the transfer portal. A 6-2, 195-pound junior with 2 years of eligibility remaining, the Springfield, Va., native completed better than 62% of his passes in each of his 3 seasons at the FCS level at Monmouth.
Sophomore Jay Woolfolk is the most likely challenger to Muskett, provided he’s willing to put his potential baseball career on hold to participate in spring practice. Woolfolk is also a promising pitcher who was 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 37.2 innings for the Cavaliers last spring. He’s seen action in 9 football games over the past 2 seasons, throwing for 245 yards and rushing for 104.
The next 2 in line after Woolfolk are a pair of freshmen Delaney Crawford and Davis Lane Jr. Crawford is an elite sprinter who won the California state title in the 300 hurdles as a high school senior while Davis is a 3-star dual threat prospect who passed for 1,500 yards and ran for 600 yards as a senior at Liberty Christian School in Lynchburg.
Another potential factor in the 2023 quarterback derby is incoming 3-star freshman Antony Colandrea.
Starter Grant Wells is back. But after a season in which the former Marshall transfer ranked 9th in the ACC in passing efficiency while throwing the same number of interceptions as he did touchdowns (9 each), he’ll have to work hard to keep his starting job in 2023.
His top competition will come from incoming Baylor transfer Kyron Drones, a former 4-star prospect who played in 5 games as a freshman for the Bears in 2021.
Highly regarded redshirt freshman Tahj Bullock, who made a cameo appearance in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl against Maryland, may also be ready to challenge for the starting job while true freshman Devin Farrell is also waiting in the wings.
A wildcard in coach Brent Pry’s quarterback deck could be incoming freshman William “Pop” Watson III. A 3-star dual threat prospect, Watson flipped to the Hokies last weekend after originally committing to Nebraska and its new coach Matt Rhule.
Dave Clawson has the unenviable task of replacing 3-year starter Sam Hartman, who will surpass Clemson’s Tajh Boyd as the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes by throwing 1 more in the Deacons’ Gasparilla Bowl game against Missouri on Friday.
The good news is that Hartman’s replacement, Mitch Griffis, has been groomed for the job and should be prepared for a smooth transition after 3 seasons of learning the intricacies of Wake’s slow-mesh RPO offense. He gave a glimpse of his potential by throwing for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns while filling in against VMI in this year’s season-opener.
Griffis’ backup Michael Kern has also been in the program for multiple years and has seen game action. Redshirt freshman Santino Marucci and incoming freshman Charlie Gilliam are the other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
While it’s possible that Clawson could bring in a veteran off the transfer portal as an insurance policy, given the collective lack of game experience in his quarterback room, it’s not likely because of the time it takes to adjust to the team’s unique offensive scheme.