Setting the Class of 2015 QB stage

Next year's draft was robbed of talent by underclassmen declaring this year, but there is still a lot of QB talent to be found, with the Pac 12, SEC and Big Ten providing some possibilities. NFL scout Dave-Te' Thomas sets the stage with an in-depth look at the varying opinions, the wild card in the class, conferences to follow, as well as small college and hidden talent that could emerge.

Thanks to the massive influx of underclassmen leaving college for the National Football League after last season, the senior class is sorely lacking at the quarterback position. While Braxton Miller (Ohio State) seems to be the "flavor of the week" among scouts, the defections by Blake Bortles (Central Florida/Jacksonville), Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M/
Cleveland) and Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville/Minnesota) severely depleted the talent pool.

Miller is an impressive-looking athlete, as the Buckeye has drawn comparisons to Donovan McNabb for his size, mobility and foot speed, but his inability to read defenses and sense pressure has others likening him more to Josh Freeman, a former first-round pick by Tampa whose career seems to be on a rapid slide to nowhere.

Others hail Sean Mannion (Oregon State) as the best in the senior class, after he set school and Pac-12 Conference records with 4,662 yards passing, setting another OSU mark while taking the third spot on the league's season chart with 37 touchdown tosses in 2013. Both Miller and Mannion do not appear to be anything more than "safe" mid-round targets, but two seniors have flown under the radar and are likely to emerge in 2014.

Scouts have yet to jump on the Bryce Petty bandwagon, but the Baylor signal-caller might be the best in his graduating class. He is just one of three Bears to have ever thrown for at least 4,000 yards in a season (4,200) and took the third spot on the school record chart with 32 touchdown tosses. His 174.45 passing efficiency rating is a program all-time record and his 14 scoring runs last season topped the old Baylor QB record of 13 by Robert Griffin III's Heisman Trophy campaign in 2011.

Injuries sidelined Nevada's Cody Fajardo for two complete games and parts of three others, but the replacement for San Francisco 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick was electrifying when he was 100 percent healthy. Operating out of the highly productive "pistol" offense, Fajardo's first three seasons as a starter favorably compare to the impressive numbers Kaepernick recorded during his first three years under Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault.

With underclassmen expected to continue the recent trend of replenishing a depleted senior class, many scouts feel that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the favorite to be the first quarterback, and possibly the first player taken, in the 2015 draft. While Fajardo has very similar statistical numbers to Kaepernick, Mariota has the same eye-opening athletic ability.

The Hawaiian native stands 6-foot-4 and has been clocked in the sub-4.4 range. In just two seasons at the helm, he is third in school history with 7,809 yards in total offense. The rifle-armed passer had thrown for 63 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions, adding 14 more scores and 1,467 yards on the ground, averaging 7.26 yards per attempt.

PAC-12 INFLUENCE

Mariota and Mannion are the more recognized names in a league that features a slew of potential future NFL signal-callers. Brett Hundley (UCLA) has drawn comparisons to former NFL "freak of nature" Randall Cunningham, but needs to address serious ball-security issues before a professional coach will trust him.

While he is not in the class of Andrew Luck, Stanford has received tremendous production from his replacement, Kevin Hogan, where it counts the most – in the win column. The red-shirt junior boasts a 16-3 record as a starter, winning 10 straight contests vs. Top 25 opponents before losing to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. At 6-4, 228 pounds with 4.72 speed, if he continues to progress, he could join Mariota as first-round picks in 2015.

Arizona State's Taylor Kelly was actually going to be the successor to Colin Kaepernick in Nevada, and not Cody Fajardo. A last-minute change of mind saw Kelly get his release and sign with ASU. After two seasons of languishing on the bench under Dennis Erickson, he's accounted for 6,674 yards and 57 touchdowns in the two seasons since Todd Graham took over as the Sun Devils head coach.

USC was looking for Max Wittek to replace Matt Barkley at quarterback last year, but injuries and other issues led to Wittek eventually leaving the program. The 6-4 four-star recruit would have been relegated to backup duty in 2015, as Cody Kessler was successful on 20 touchdowns vs. just seven interceptions, putting 2,968 yards in the air as USC's starting quarterback. Washington State's Connor Halliday and Arizona's Jesse Scroggins fill out the Pac-12's prospect chart, and is currently projected as a late round prospect.

THE QUARTERBACK CLASS WILD CARD

Maybe it is the award – maybe voters need to read the front page of the news as much as they read the back pages. The 2014 season turned into a magical year for two-sport star Jameis Winston, who beat out Jacob Coker for the starting job and went on to capture the Heisman Trophy, thus becoming the youngest player to do so.

But, in the process, he joins fellow "bad boys" Johnny Manziel, Reggie Bush and O.J. Simpson to bring embarrassment to the coveted award. Winston was under investigation for an alleged sexual assault, followed by a curious "liberation" of seafood at a local restaurant that led to another blemish and teams seriously questioning his character and makeup.

There is no questioning his talent on the football field, where he threw for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns last year. The biggest concern is if he is worth the potential problems that seem to follow him away from the field. Another caution for teams is the fact that he's been drafted twice in the major league baseball draft and has the makeup to be a pretty good relief pitcher, if he concentrates on that sport.

Winston is not the only red-shirt sophomore to keep an eye on when decision day arrives for underclassmen to declare for the 2015 NFL Draft. Illinois' Wes Lunt is regarded as the second-best pro-style passer among sophomores and Cincinnati's Gunner Kiel also steps into the spotlight as the Bearcats' starter this upcoming season.

THE BIG TEN AND SEC FEATURE MORE OPTIONS

Nick Saban ought to send Jameis Winston a "thank you" note for his stellar 2013 season. After all, if the Seminole did not shatter records on the way to the Heisman, Saban might be playing "Go Fish" in a search for a starting quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2014. Now, he has in his possession a player who might be the best pure passer he has ever had since taking over the ‘Bama program.

Jacob Coker was in a heated battle with Winston for the Florida State job, as they took the competition up to the final minute of fall camp before coach Jimbo Fisher went with the red-shirt sophomore over the five-star recruit from the state of Alabama. Having already graduated, Coker decided to head home and enrolled at Alabama, where he is eligible to play immediately under recent changes to the NCAA transfer rules.

Still, he is a bit of an unknown, having missed the end of the 2013 schedule due to a knee injury that required surgery. While Saban will not come out and openly anoint Coker as his starter heading into fall camp, Fisher put the transfer under the media microscope recently when he called his former student the "best" quarterback that Nick Saban has ever had during his tenure at the university. That is high praise for a player that has completed just 21-of-41 passes for 295 yards in three seasons.

While Georgia's Hutson Mason is not a household name to college football fans, he waited patiently for four years for his opportunity to play. A season-ending injury by Aaron Murray gave Bulldogs faithful a glimpse of what Mason has to offer this season, after he made 60.9 percent of his tosses with five touchdowns in two late 2013 season starts.

Florida's Jeff Driskel returns as the Gators' starter by default – no one else on the current roster has ever thrown a pass. That is not to say that Driskel can, either. He had his 2013 season cut short after three games due to a left knee injury and leg fracture. He was an observer as Florida would go on and lose each of their final seven games. In 14 starts before his injury, he managed just 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

The Southeastern Conference features junior college transfer Nick Marshall at the helm for national title runner-up Auburn. He's not going to be a quarterback at the next level, as he is more known for his running ability (1,068 yards and 12 scores in 2013) than his passing skills (1,976 yards, .5941 pass completion percentage). At 6-2, 207 with 4.48 speed, a shift to tailback or wide receiver is his true hope for an NFL career.

Others in the SEC that will be starting at quarterback for their respective teams are late round/free agent prospects Dylan Thompson (South Carolina), Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), William "Bo" Wallace (Mississippi) and Brandon Allen (Arkansas).

Much like Auburn's Nick Marshall, Michigan's Devin Gardner is at a crossroad in his dream to play in the NFL. He has the size and balance to possibly move to receiver, but it is obvious that his quarterbacking days will end when his college career does. Sorely lacking in field awareness, he took a terrible beating holding onto the ball too long last year, leading to 37 sacks that produced 11 fumbles. Turf toe and a foot injury kept him out of postseason action, but he struggled considerably while quarterbacking the team during 2014 spring camp, forcing head coach Brady Hoke to announce "open competition" for the starting job when the team returns in the fall.

Gutsy, cocky and athletically blessed, Michigan State's Connor Cook is a lot like Tennessee's Jake Locker – strong, physical and prone to costly mistakes if he becomes too enamored with his primary targets. He's not going to bolt from the pocket and be dangerous with his feet like Locker, but you see a lot of former Cardinal Jake Plummer in him, as he has an arm to be a "home run" threat throwing on the move.

While Braxton Miller is considered the best athlete and Cook the one with the most moxie among Big Ten Conference quarterbacks, Indiana's Nate Sudfeld might be the "cream of the crop" in this league before long. After his sensational second-half performance last season, two former starters at the quarterback position left the Indiana program. With the job his entering 2014, the 6-4, 230-pound talent already ranks seventh in school history with 29 touchdown tosses, despite starting only eight games.

Another Big Ten passer ready to stake claim as a starter is Trevor Siemian. After sharing time with Kain Colter last season, he enters camp as Northwestern's starter for his red-shirt senior campaign.

SMALL-COLLEGE PROSPECTS

After Jimmy Garoppolo emerged as an elite quarterback prospect last season, he was designated as the heir apparent to Tom Brady when the Patriots selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft. His departure lets New Mexico State transfer Andrew Manley to step into the lineup to see if he can follow the path by the former Eastern Illinois signal-caller.

Manley might be the "best-kept secret," even at the NCAA Football Championship Sub-division level, as he's only gained eight yards on two pass completions for the Panthers. One has to dig up New Mexico State film to appreciate his arm strength – compared to that of the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco. With the Aggies, he threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,764 yards while completing 53.91 percent of his passes in 2012.

Prairie View A&M is far from their glory days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but thanks to 6-5 quarterback Jerry Lovelocke, their return to prominence could come in 2014. He shattered school records last year, throwing for 23 touchdowns and running for nine more, hitting on 66.43 percent of his passes for 2,833 yards. He led a team that ranked 10th in the nation in first downs (319) and passing yards (301.7 ypg), placing ninth in scoring (39.0 ppg) and sixth in total offense (517.6 ypg).

Old Dominion steps up to the "big boy ranks" by joining Conference USA in 2014 and they bring with them one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in college – a bigger version of Seattle's Russell Wilson – in Taylor Heinicke. The senior's litmus test will come vs. the better competition at the FBS level, but in three seasons so far, his numbers are eye-openers.

Among all quarterbacks returning to college for the 2014 season, he leads that group in touchdown passes (102), total touchdowns (122), yards passing (11,483), yards gained in total offense (12,664), pass completions (949) and pass completion percentage (.6916). He is the only active player that was responsible for at least 100 touchdowns, one of two with at least 100 scoring passes, one of three with at least 10,000 aerial yards and one of just two to reach 10,000 yards in total offense.

Bryan Bennett is another player from a non-BCS school about to emerge. Having transferred from the University of Oregon to Southeastern Louisiana, he not only proved to be a highly effective passer (60.735, 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns), he has great mobility, evident by his 1,046 yards and sixteen scores rushing in 2013.

MORE HIDDEN TALENT

In the major independent ranks, the ever-resourceful Brigham Young Cougars seemed to have discovered another gem to line up behind center and take snaps. Taysom Hill, a 2013 first-time starter, originally committed to Stanford before heading off on a church mission. Upon his return, he moved into the lineup last season and threw 19 touchdowns and gained 2,938 aerial yards, showing off his 4.62 foot speed by taking the ball into the end zone on 10 tries.

East Carolina's Shane Carden might only weigh 220 pounds, but squat 510 and like Tennessee's Jake Locker would much rather run through tackles than elude, scoring 18 times as a ball carrier the last two years. He generated 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns while completing 70.49% (387-of-549) passes last season.

Standing only 6 feet tall, the ever-quick Chuckie Keeton is the "big man on campus" at Utah State. His pinpoint accuracy in the West Coast offense has seen him set the school all-time record for pass completion percentage (.6654), tossing for 56 touchdowns (second in USU annals) and 5,961 yards. With his 4.65 speed, the dual-threat signal-caller has also scored 13 times on the ground.

The Clemson Tigers will enter the season without Tahj Boyd starting at quarterback for the first time since 2010. Twelve-year NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt's son, Cole, finally gets his chance to shine on a one-year deal. The senior has only thrown the ball 118 times, but connected on 72.3% of his attempts. With Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martevius Bryant all leaving for the NFL, Stoudt will not have the weapons the former Clemson quarterback was afforded.


Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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