Friedlander: Way-too-early prediction of every ACC team's starting QB in 2023
Last season was billed as the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC because of the abundance of highly regarded passers throughout the league.
Ten of the league’s 14 teams returned their starters, including all 7 in the now-defunct Atlantic Division. And that didn’t even include the eventual conference Player of the Year, North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Maye will be back in 2023, as well as fellow Heisman hopeful Jordan Travis of Florida State and breakout star Riley Leonard of Duke.
So are super seniors Brennan Armstrong and Phil Jurkovec. Only they won’t be playing for the same ACC teams as they did in 2022.
Armstrong moved from Virginia to NC State while the Western Pennsylvania native Jurkovec returned home to Pittsburgh after spending the past 2 seasons at Boston College. They’re among a group of as many as 6 transfers projected to start under center in the ACC this fall.
Call it the Year of the Transfer Quarterback.
Though it’s still early and things could change dramatically depending on how things go in spring practice, here’s an early look at what to expect, team by team, at the most important position on the field:
Boston College: Emmett Morehead
The Eagles’ preparations for a bounce-back season in 2023 began in Week 8 of last season when Morehead took over as QB1 after Jurkovec injured his right knee early in the 3rd quarter of a loss to UConn. A strong-armed 6-5, 228-pound redshirt freshman, Morehead struggled in finishing that game and again a few weeks later in a shutout loss to Notre Dame.
But he also showed flashes of brilliance, particularly in driving BC 69 yards on 12 plays for the winning touchdown with 14 seconds remaining to beat NC State. He completed 59.9% of his passes for 1,254 yards and 10 touchdowns with 6 interceptions to firmly establish himself as the Eagles’ starter moving forward.
Clemson: Cade Klubnik
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 North Carolina 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 top-ranked passer in last year’s recruiting class, Klubnik put his potential on full display against the Tar Heels by coming off the bench to complete 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown. He also scored a touchdown on the ground while leading the Tigers in rushing.
Even though his inexperience showed in an Orange Bowl loss to Tennessee, the hype machine surrounding Klubnik is still going strong over the prospect of his work with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, the man who helped turn Max Duggan into a Heisman finalist at TCU.
Duke: Riley Leonard
It took until late in preseason camp for Leonard to beat out Jordan Moore for the starting job last fall. Suffice it to say there won’t be any competition prior to next season. Moore was moved to wide receiver, where he led the team with 60 catches. Leonard went on to engineer the biggest surprise story of the ACC season.
He threw for 2,794 yards and 20 touchdowns, and he 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.
Florida State: Jordan Travis
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 was the driving force behind FSU’s emergence back into the top tier of the ACC, leading the team to 9 wins, including 5 straight to end the regular season. Travis blossomed in 2022, throwing for 2,796 yards and accounting for a combined 29 touchdowns passing and rushing. He finished the season as the No. 1-rated college quarterback in the country in rankings compiled by Pro Football Focus.
Georgia Tech: Haynes King
You don’t bring in a transfer quarterback to have him be a backup. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule. But it’s 1 to which most coaches subscribe. So even though freshman Zach Pyron showed promise in his 3 games before suffering a broken clavicle, including a stirring 4th-quarter comeback to beat Virginia Tech, the Texas A&M transfer King is the favorite to take the 1st snap against Louisville on Sept. 2 in Brent Key’s debut as the Yellow Jackets’ permanent coach.
King is a former 4-star recruit who was the Aggies’ opening-game starter in 2022. He completed 56% of his passes for a team-leading 1,220 yards and 7 touchdowns before being replaced after seeing action in 6 games.
Louisville: Jack Plummer
Brock Domann proved to be a capable backup filling in for Malik Cunningham this past season. And that’s what he’ll likely stay with the arrival of Plummer. A transfer from Cal, Plummer is no stranger to new Cardinals coach Jeff Brohm and his brother, offensive coordinator Brian Brohm, and the “Air Raid”-style offense they run. Plummer spent his 1st 4 college seasons playing for them at Purdue.
Plummer threw for 3,405 yards and 26 touchdowns in 17 games with the Boilermakers before losing his starting job to Aiden O’Connell. He completed 62.5% of his passes for 3,095 yards and 21 touchdowns last year in his only season with the Bears.
Miami: Tyler Van Dyke
Van Dyke was the ACC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 and entered last season with visions of being a 1st-round draft pick this spring. But he struggled in his 1st season with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis before injuries finally ended his season.
While he’ll be 1st in line at regaining his freshman magic, the dynamic of the Hurricanes’ quarterback situation is anything but stable. For 1 thing, it’s unclear who will be calling the plays now that Gattis has been fired. And if things don’t go well early for Van Dyke, Jacurri Brown — 1 of 2 backups to have started games in 2022 — is waiting in the wings for another shot at taking over.
North Carolina: Drake Maye
Maye is on the short list of Heisman Trophy favorites heading into his 2nd season as the Tar Heels’ starter. He answered all the questions about how UNC would replace former star Sam Howell and then some in 2022 by throwing for 4,115 yards and 35 touchdowns while also leading the team to 9 wins and a Coastal Division championship on the way to earning ACC Player of the Year recognition.
NC State: Brennan Armstrong
Armstrong’s transfer to State reunites him with Robert Anae, his offensive coordinator at Virginia, where he led the ACC in passing while throwing for 31 touchdowns in 2021. His production dropped considerably in half last year after Anae left for Syracuse.
The most prolific left-handed passer in league history wasn’t just brought in to replace fellow transfer Devin Leary and lead a potentially explosive Wolfpack offense. He’ll also be asked to serve as a mentor for his heir apparent, MJ Morris.
Pittsburgh: Phil Jurkovec
After 3 injury-plagued seasons at BC, Jurkovec returns to his roots in hopes of giving the Panthers what last year’s transfer quarterback, Kedon Slovis, couldn’t. It’s a homecoming in more ways than 1. Like Armstrong, Jurkovec rejoins his former OC with the Eagles, Frank Cignetti Jr.
Despite his physical issues, Jurkovec still managed to amass 5,183 yards and 35 touchdowns on 59% passing in 24 games at Boston College.
Syracuse: Garrett Shrader
Shrader is coming off a career year in which he completed 65% of his passes for 2,640 yards and 17 touchdowns. The question is how much of his success can be attributed to Anae? The good news for the Orange is that their incumbent starter already had a good relationship with his new coordinator, quarterbacks coach Jason Beck.
Virginia: Tony Muskett
Holdover Jay Woolford might actually be the choice here if he’s able to participate in spring practice. But he’s also a key member of the Cavaliers baseball team and a legitimate Major League prospect. He compiled a 3-0 record with a 2.57 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 37.2 innings last spring.
Even if Woolford is available, there’s no guarantee he’ll beat out Muskett. The transfer from Monmouth, who has 2 years of eligibility remaining, threw for 5,687 yards and 51 touchdowns at his FCS school while twice earning 1st-team All-Colonial Athletic Association honors. The 6-2, 195-pound junior has completed better than 62% of his passes in each of his 3 seasons.
Virginia Tech: Grant Wells
So, you’re saying that incoming transfer quarterbacks should always start?
But here’s the exception to the unwritten rule. When the incumbent starter has only 1 year of eligibility remaining and the newcomer has multiple seasons left, it’s OK for him to at least start the year as an understudy.
In this case, Wells has earned the opportunity to see what he can do with a better supporting cast surrounding him. A former transfer himself, Wells ranked 9th in the ACC in passing efficiency in his 1st season with the Hokies while throwing the same number of interceptions as he did touchdowns (9 each).
If he doesn’t improve on that performance, it’s doubtful that coach Brent Pry will wait long before replacing him with Baylor transfer Kyron Drones. The former 4-star prospect, who has 3 years of eligibility remaining, played in 5 games in limited action as a freshman for the Bears in 2022.
Wake Forest: Mitch Griffis
Dave Clawson has the unenviable task of replacing 3-year starter Sam Hartman, the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. But the transition should be smooth.
Hartman’s replacement, Griffis, has spent the past 3 seasons being groomed in 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 last year’s season opener.