College football in 2015 was the year of the running back. From Derrick Henry to Christian McCaffrey to Leonard Fournette, there was no shortage of stud running backs scampering across your TV screen on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
2016 promises more of the same in that respect, but there are several quarterbacks to get excited about, too. There are pure passers, dual threats, electrifying runners – you name it, this crop of signal callers has it.
Here are nine FBS quarterbacks to watch in 2016.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson was one of three Heisman trophy finalists in 2015 and earned the most votes among quarterbacks for the award by a mile. And for good reason.
The Tigers QB threw for 4,104 yards and tossed 35 touchdown passes in comparison to 13 interceptions. His 8.36 yards per attempt mark was sparkling, and none of this takes into account his gifts as a runner.
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When the games got more and more important in 2015, Watson turned on the jets. He rushed for more than 100 yards in five of his final seven games; he hadn’t topped the 100-yard threshold all season prior to that stretch. He almost went full 2006 Vince Young in the national championship game, but came up just short against Alabama.
Expect Watson to be hungrier than ever in 2016.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Pure magic. Those two words capably describe Mayfield’s inaugural season as QB1 at Oklahoma, and he’s back for more in 2016.
Mayfield’s 9.4 yards per attempt ranked fourth in the country in 2015; that mark is the second-best among returning quarterbacks. For what Mayfield lacks in arm strength and size, he more than makes up for in intelligence and creativity.
The junior only threw seven interceptions last season compared to 36 touchdowns, and he was constantly escaping pressure and extending plays with his legs:
Mayfield is a joy to watch on the gridiron, and he could lead Oklahoma to glory once again in 2016.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
The reason for optimism with Barrett is his unprecedented run in 2014. Two seasons ago, he lit up the Big Ten to the tune of 2,834 passing yards, 34 passing touchdowns, 938 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.
Had it not been for injury, there’s a good chance Barrett would have been the starter on a national champion in 2014. In 2015, he struggled. By his standards, anyway.
But now, the stage is Barrett’s. Cardale Jones is off to the NFL, as are several of Ohio State’s best offensive weapons. If there’s going to be a star donning the scarlet and gray this season, it will have to be Barrett.
QB Brad Kaaya, Miami
Kaaya hasn’t put up the type of numbers the previous three quarterbacks on this list have, but it’s hard not to fall in love with his physical attributes.
At 6-4, 210 pounds with a rocket arm and nimble feet, there is plenty to like about Kaaya. He’s going to be playing in Mark Richt’s system now, too, which has produced NFL-caliber quarterbacks such as Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray.And it’s not as though his numbers weren’t good last season, but Hurricanes fans would have liked to have seen more improvement between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Kaaya cut down on his interceptions (12 in his freshman year; just five as a sophomore), but he threw 10 less touchdown passes in 2015 than in 2014. His yards per attempt also dipped.
Still, the promise with Kaaya is so obvious. Perhaps he just needs a new offensive mind to unlock his potential.
Josh Rosen, UCLA
‘The Rosen One’ showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, but also made his fair share of rookie blunders.
There were the highs against Virginia:
And the lows against BYU, a game in which he threw three picks and barely topped 100 yards. Rosen might be the best pure passer in college football. He just needs to be more consistent, and that will likely come as a sophomore.
Luke Falk, Washington State
Perhaps the most underrated quarterback in college football last season, Falk was a revelation for the Cougars. In his second season as a starter, Falk finished fifth in the nation in passing while Wazzu won nine games.
Falk threw a whopping 644 times last season and was only picked off eight times. That was good for a 1.2 interception percentage, one of the top figures in the nation among all qualified passers. If Washington State builds on its 2015 success, don’t be surprised to see Falk sneak in on some All-American discussions.
Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Jackson is the anti-Falk, in a way. Unpolished as a passer, the Louisville QB impacts the game in other ways. When the best athlete on the field is also the quarterback, that generally spells trouble for defenses.
Jackson had games of 121, 184, 186 and 226 rushing yards as a freshman – the latter two came in his last two outings, including a Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M.
The Cardinals’ signal caller only completed 54.7 percent of his passes last season, but he’s certainly dangerous as a thrower. He finished with 307 yards through the air against a vicious Florida State defense, and he showed flashes against Texas A&M, as well.
Jackson is a game breaker. If he improves marginally as a passer, he’s going to be one of the most fun players to watch in college football.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
In a conference that values stout defense and smash mouth football, Kelly is the exception to the rule in the SEC. The Rebel QB will lose LaQuon Treadwell, but he’s got more than enough to work with in Oxford.
Kelly finished 10th in the nation in passing yards in 2015, and he was efficient in doing so, completing 65.1 percent of his passes and averaging just a shade below nine yards per attempt.
Kelly showed up in some of Ole Miss’ biggest games last year, too. In a 43-37 win over Alabama, he threw for 341 yards and three scores. In the team’s Sugar Bowl win against Oklahoma State, the uber-talented quarterback finished with 302 yards and four touchdowns. Expect Kelly to take another leap in 2016.
Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
If you like offense, you’ll want to tune in to Red Raiders games next season. The Kliff Kingsbury-Patrick Mahomes combination is dynamite, and they were responsible for some fireworks last year.
Mahomes finished fourth in the country in passing yards (4,653) and totaled 46 touchdowns to boot.
The next step for Mahomes? Translate those off-the-charts statistics into Texas Tech wins. Against LSU last season in the Texas Bowl, Mahomes threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns. The Red Raiders still lost by 29.
Texas Tech has a great quarterback, but he may not be properly recognized until the team makes some hay in the Big 12.