College News & Analysis

PFF 2022 Preseason Davey O’Brien Award Watch List: Best QB in college football

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) passes against the Miami Hurricanes during the first high at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason awards are one part popularity, one part performance and all too often another part sheer dumb luck that voting broke a player's way. Look no further than former Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant winning the Jim Thorpe award over teammate Sauce Gardner — a top-five draft pick — a year ago.

Still, at the quarterback position, it’s usually those first two parts that win out. The performance part we feel we can track well at PFF, but it’s the popularity part that often revolves around one thing: winning. If you’re not leading a top-20 program by season’s end, you’re not winning this award. Let’s handicap the field to see where college football’s best quarterbacks lie.

Favorites

Bryce Young, Alabama

The reigning Davey O’Brien Award winner is obviously going to top the list. One might think that after losing his top two 2021 targets in Jameson Williams and John Metchie III to the draft, where they were both top-50 picks, Young may take a step back. If the last decade has taught us anything, though, it’s that Alabama doesn’t rebuild; it reloads.

The Crimson Tide landed two transfers in Jermaine Burton from Georgia and Tyler Harrell from Louisville who just so happen to land in PFF’s early top 10 wide receiver rankings for the 2023 NFL Draft. Surrounding talent may not be as big an issue as voter fatigue for the incumbent Young. Either way, don’t expect any drop-off from his 92.2 overall grade from a season ago.

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

I was outside The Horseshoe after the Buckeyes' loss to Oregon when fans were calling for Stroud to be benched. But after the run he went on across the final eight games of the regular season and into the Rose Bowl, those same fans will argue to the end if anyone so much as suggests he’s not the best quarterback in the country. And it’s hard to debate that too much.

Stroud’s average game over that stretch went for 385 yards, four touchdowns and .3 interceptions. If he does that for a full season with a playoff berth, you can start engraving the trophy right now. And if you’re worried about how Stroud will fare without first-rounders Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, we already got a preview in the Rose Bowl. In that game, he went 37-of-47 for 562 yards with six touchdowns and a pick (90.0 overall grade). I wouldn’t be too worried.

Caleb Williams, USC

The biggest wildcard in college football. Williams put up a scintillating 91.3 overall grade in eight games last year at Oklahoma after taking over for Spencer Rattler. Oh, and he did so as a true freshman — eclipsing Trevor Lawrence’s PFF record for first-year quarterbacks. Now he follows Lincoln Riley out west along with reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison.

Even if there were some holes to poke in Williams' 2021 season — especially when he faced better defenses such as Baylor (52.6 overall grade), Iowa State (65.6) and Oklahoma State (61.9) — he was still a true freshman. The two quarterbacks above and three below didn’t even start their true freshman seasons. Who knows what level the No. 1 quarterback in the 2021 recruiting class is capable of taking his game to this upcoming fall.

Proven Starters Who Need to Take the Next Step

Devin Leary, N.C. State

Let’s be real, there’s probably a 95% chance the Davey O’Brien Award goes to one of the three quarterbacks above. The starters in this tier simply don’t have the firepower around them to light up scoreboards in the fashion necessary to take home the award. We would have likely said the same thing about Kenny Pickett last year, though, prior to him looking like a different player entirely and ending up a finalist.

Leary rained down deep ball after deep ball in a breakout redshirt junior campaign last season. He ranked third among Power Five quarterbacks in big-time throw rate (6.8%) and fifth in total big-time throws (31). If he continues his upward grading trajectory, Leary could easily work his way into being a finalist. He went from a 57.2 passing grade in 2019, to 79.2 in 2020, to 85.1 last season.

Tyler Van Dyke, Miami

While Devin Leary ranked third among Power Five quarterbacks in big-time throw rate last season, Van Dyke was just ahead of him on that list at 7.1%. And he did it all after starting the season as a backup to D’Eriq King.

Van Dyke took over in Week 4 last season and firmly put his name on not only the college football map, but also the NFL draft radar. At 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds, the redshirt sophomore has the kind of arm talent to attack every corner of the football field. He did precisely that with a 10.7-yard average depth of target last season. He’ll need to improve on his accuracy a touch to get his name in the mix, however, after a middling 71.1% adjusted completion rate last season — the lowest of any quarterback in these top two tiers.

Will Levis, Kentucky

Levis already had his “breakout” with a 90.6 overall grade last season for the Wildcats. He looked like a completely different passer than we ever saw at Penn State before he transferred in 2021. That being said, there’s reason to worry about there being another next step in him from a performance standpoint despite his real-deal NFL tools.

The first is that he lost his offensive coordinator Liam Coen to the same position with the Los Angeles Rams. The second — and probably most important when it comes to statistically based awards — is that he lost far and away his leading receiver in second-rounder Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson’s 1,342 receiving yards were more than double that of the next closest Kentucky receiver — and 45.7% of Kentucky's passing offense for the season. Robinson’s ability to turn nothing into something will be sorely missed in Levis’ stat lines.

Breakout Candidates

  • Quinn Ewers, Texas
  • Anthony Richardson, Florida
  • Jaxson Dart, Ole Miss
  • Cameron Ward, Washington State

The above five quarterbacks have a combined 374 dropbacks at the FBS level. If there is anyone who's going to unseat the trio in the favorites tier, I’d bet on it being one of these quarterbacks.

Each one is compelling for their own particular reasons. Ewers is the former No. 1 overall recruit in the 2021 class and one of two perfect 1.0000 recruits all-time alongside Vince Young, according to 247Sports. Richardson is the single most physically gifted quarterback in college football with a howitzer for an arm and an 8.3 yard per carry average in 2021 at 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds. Dart earned a 70.9 overall grade on 200 dropbacks as a true freshman at USC and now gets to play in Lane Kiffin’s gaudy passing offense. And Ward threw for 4,648 yards and 47 touchdowns as a sophomore at Incarnate Word in the FCS last season.

While we can’t pin down any of the four as a known quantity, all are safe bets to light up scoreboards in 2022.

Dual Threats

  • Malik Cunningham, Louisville
  • Jayden Daniels, LSU
  • Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
  • K.J. Jefferson, Arkansas
  • Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA

This is not a strong tier to be in when it comes to the Davey O’Brien Award. You have to go all the way back to Eric Crouch in 2001 to find a quarterback who won the award based primarily based on what he did with his legs. Still, there are a couple in this tier to keep an eye on.

The first is Hendon Hooker, who not only is a true dual-threat talent, but also plays in an offense that caters to putting up gaudy numbers. Head coach Josh Heupel’s offense is as go-ball-heavy as you’ll see. The good thing about go-balls is that they rarely put the football in harm’s way. Hooker’s 31:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio from a season ago is indicative of that. Building on those numbers in the SEC will definitely draw attention.

The other intriguing quarterback here is Malik Cunningham because he's most dynamic as a pure runner. With 4.45 speed and three years of starting experience, Cunningham could be another late-career breakout. He led all returning quarterbacks with 1,142 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns last season.

Familiar Faces in New Places

  • Dillon Gabriel, Oklahoma
  • Spencer Rattler, South Carolina
  • Kedon Slovis, Pittsburgh
  • Bo Nix, Oregon

Although three straight transfers won the award from 2017-2019, this group doesn’t quite inspire confidence for that trend to start again. Gabriel would be a lot more intriguing if Lincoln Riley were still calling the shots in Norman, but it’s hard to see the same string of success at the quarterback position without him.

Rattler is the most talented name on the list, but all that arm talent managed to put up only three big-time throws and eight turnover-worthy plays on 219 dropbacks before he was benched last season. If there is any reason for optimism, it’s that Rattler reunites with his former Oklahoma assistant head coach Shane Beamer with the Gamecocks.

NFL Prospects Who Won’t Put up Numbers

  • Tanner McKee, Stanford
  • Phil Jurkovec, Boston College

Postseason awards could give a damn where you’re going to get drafted. Trevor Lawrence never took home a single such honor despite being heralded as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. Both McKee and Jurkovec have first-round caliber tools, but they'll very likely come up well short in this voting. McKee earned a 69.0 grade with Stanford in 2021, while Jurkovec put up a career-high 80.6 mark with Boston College.

High-Volume, Middling Team 

  • Will Rogers, Mississippi State
  • Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
  • Brennan Armstrong, Virginia
  • Jake Haener, Fresno State
  • Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
  • Tanner Mordecai, SMU
  • Clayton Tune, Houston
  • Aidan O’Connell, Purdue

Don’t get me wrong, these quarterbacks will all put up numbers that will stack up with anyone come season’s end. There’s also no guarantee that any of their respective teams will end ranked in the top 25 by the end of the year. For postseason award’s sake — fairly or unfairly — team success is often a prerequisite at a position like quarterback. Every single Davey O’Brien Award winner has come from a program in the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014.

Not Enough Volume

  • Stetson Bennett, Georgia
  • Cam Rising, Utah
  • Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina

While all the above quarterbacks should all be on teams with good records to end the season, it’s a tough sell for a Davey O’Brien Award when you’re attempting fewer than 30 passes a game. Bennett, Rising and Jefferson may very well be efficient in their numbers next season, but there’s little chance of them garnering the volume for postseason awards.

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