The discussion around Redshirt Sophomore Quarterbacks in 2018 starts and ends with USC’s Sam Darnold at this juncture and rightfully so. For a gross majority of players entering just their second year of playing experience, the talk of the NFL is nothing but a glimmer on the horizon. But it’s difficult to ignore the growing trend of passers leaving for the NFL without a great deal of experience in recent years.
The 2017 Draft featured former Notre Dame passer (and current Cleveland Brown) Deshone Kizer coming out as a prospect with just two years of playing experience. The 2015 Draft had Buccaneers franchise Quarterback Jameis Winston go as the first overall selection as a Redshirt Sophomore. And of course there’s 2014 wild child Johnny Manziel, who has already flamed out of the league. Three very different Quarterbacks with three very different backgrounds and profiles.
These Quarterbacks (and their high draft status) in four years is enough to concede these players are willing to make the jump. For the 2018 Draft, Darnold figures to be a shoo in as we enter the college football season. But what others are lurking on the horizon, who may be a great 2017 season away from deciding to test their luck in the pros?
Here are three candidates, including Darnold, and their likelihood of making a push to leave early with their play.
Will Grier, West Virginia
Grier was once a freshman prodigy at the University of Florida, helping lead the Gators to a 6-0 start as a redshirt freshman in 2015. His inaugural season was abruptly cut short after being slapped with a year suspension for violating performance enhancing drug policies; a widely publicized affair.
After the team distanced itself from Grier, he made the decision to transfer to West Virginia and sit out all of 2016 under NCAA transfer regulations. With the news recently that Grier would be eligible to start the season opener in 2017, a high profile match-up with Virginia Tech, Grier was immediately penned into the starting role in Morgantown.
Having gone back and watched Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee from 2015 plus the 2017 West Virginia Spring Game, some notable trends exist with Grier and his game. First and foremost, he’s a gunslinger. Willing to work to get the ball off at any number of arm slots or throwing platforms, you can expect the trigger pulled and risks to be taken. Take this dagger against Ole Miss from early 2015, for example.
— NDTGifs (@NDTGifs) July 21, 2017
This throw takes some guts, especially with a defender collapsing the pocket in his face. Yet the throw gets out and it flashes Grier’s ability to place the ball in all areas of the field. Grier doesn’t have a blue chip arm but he’s got enough juice to make a lot of throws while on the move. I fully expect his quick game and vertical eye to translate well to Coach Holgerson’s wide open offense at West Virginia in 2017.
A lack of playing experience will be an issue with any QB, but Grier enters the year with just 6 starts and a lot of unknowns. While I do think he’s going to find himself with outstanding production this year, I don’t think that he’s going to check all the boxes with the confidence needed to push for a one and done scenario in Morgantown.
2018 NFL Draft declaration forecast: Not likely
Deondre Francois, Florida State
What an absolute treat it was to watch Francois come into his own throughout last season. After a rocky first half against Ole Miss in the season opener, Francois buckled down and showed a situational maturity well beyond his years. Florida State rallied to win the game and went on to win ten total on the season; much behind Francois’ toughness, arm and leadership.
Yes, the Seminoles leaned heavily on new Minnesota Vikings RB Dalvin Cook throughout 2016; but Francois was a constant fixture in the team’s success. You’d have a hard time selling me on the idea that any Quarterback in college football took more big hits than Francois; who was pounded by free running pass rushers like this one on what felt like a weekly basis.
— Jaison Davis (@JaiHawkFly) September 17, 2016
Francois will have to once again prove his mettle in 2017, as the team faces a murder’s row of gifted pass rushers. Teams on the Seminoles’ schedule include Alabama (Hand), Miami (Thomas, Norton, McIntosh, etc.), North Carolina State (Street/Chubb), Wake Forest (Ejiofor), Boston College (Landry) and Clemson (Ferrell, Lawrence, Wilkins, etc.).
The good news for Florida State is WR Auden Tate is poised for a huge season and Francois should be better with a year of seasoning, provided the team is able to keep him upright. There are a ton of NFL throws littered throughout his Redshirt Freshman season:
5 step hitch and out. Eyes hold to the MOF until back foot. This is NFL caliber timing from Francois. Threw a dart, too. pic.twitter.com/IO1ZZ3fOf8
— Kyle Crabbs (@NDTScouting) July 3, 2017
Everything from the drop to the timing to the zip on the throw screams NFL potential. Having watched a lot of the team from start to finish last year, I think Francois’ ability and mental make-up have the potential to be something special. I want to see him take that next step but the skill around him in Tallahassee should help Francois reach that ceiling.
2018 NFL Draft declaration forecast: Not out of the question
Sam Darnold, Southern California
The obvious candidate, Darnold impressed me this past spring when I looked into his situational football resume. His ability to stay poised and make things happen on money downs (and under pressure) were really eye opening and an indication of why I’m willing to work around that “non-traditional” throwing delivery.
Darnold will have every opportunity to solidify his standing as the potential top signal caller in the class. Many will be lured by the enticing ceiling of Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Fellow PAC-12 passer Josh Rosen of UCLA has become something of a forgotten prospect thanks to an injury filled 2016 and senior signal caller Mason Rudolph brings back his top target (WR James Washington); so there will be no shortage of competition.
But when taking the time to survey Darnold’s schedule, there aren’t many roadblocks to a prolific season. The top passing defense from 2016 the team will face is Colorado, whose secondary was gutted by the 2017 NFL Draft. Darnold’s sitting pretty and could potentially be the second Redshirt Sophomore passer in the past four years to have his name called 1st overall.