Every offseason, head coaches have to deal with roster turnover, whether that’s due to players graduating, leaving early for the draft, putting their name in the transfer portal or retiring from football due to injuries. All of this attrition causes open competition for starting spots on each team’s roster — some position battles being more significant to a team’s success than others.
As teams gear up for the 2021 season, The 33rd Team wants to dive into the top position battles in each Power 5 conference, rating them on the impact they will have on their chance at winning their respective conference and predicting who we think will end up earning the starting job.
Oregon: Starting QB
The reigning Pac-12 champions and head coach Mario Cristobal have a quarterback competition still unsettled heading into fall camp as the Ducks try to repeat as champions. It’s a wide open competition with four talented contenders.
First is sixth-year senior Anthony Brown, who led the way through spring practice and has by far the most experience of the group. He was a three-year starter at Boston College before a left ACL injury cut his third season short after six games. He transferred to Oregon following that season but was still recovering from his injury during the 2020 season. He rotated with Tyler Shough, now at Texas Tech, for the final two games of the season and logged 40 snaps with an overall grade of 69.5, per PFF. His experience, athletic ability and knowledge of the offense should give him a leg up on the competition.
The next three are all talented but inexperienced. Freshman Ty Thompson, a highly regarded 2021 recruit from Arizona, has great arm strength and a smooth release; he threw for almost 10,000 yards in his high school career. Second-year freshman Robby Ashford, a former two-sport standout at Hoover High School in Alabama, has the athleticism to run the Oregon offense, but was very raw as a passer coming out of high school. Second-year freshman Jay Butterfield, a Northern California product, was very polished as a passer coming out with a slender frame that has had time to fill out in his two years in Eugene.
Coach Cristobal has a bevy of options, and even with the competition ongoing, Oregon is still the odds-on favorite to win the Pac-12 at +320 odds, per FanDuel. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep all four players in his quarterback room after the starter is announced during or after fall camp.
Predicted Starter: Anthony Brown
USC Starting WRs
Todd Helton is tasked with replacing two talented receivers in Graham Harrell’s
Air Raid system as they try to make it back to the Pac-12 championship and bring home the title. There are a lot of candidates for these four positions, but plenty of talent to choose from.
First, junior Drake London, their leader in receiving yards from last season, is in line to start. The question with him is not whether he will start, but where he will line up. Out of 469 offensive snaps last season, he lined up in the slot 405 times. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, it’ll be interesting to see if Harrell puts him outside to showcase a different skill set for NFL evaluators.
The outside, where London may potentially move, already has redshirt sophomore Bru McCoy, redshirt sophomore Kyle Ford, and junior John Jackson III. McCoy, a very physical outside receiver listed at 6-3, 220, could be a breakout candidate in this offense with added snaps. He graded out at 64.9 in 2019. Ford, who dealt with a knee injury in 2020, hopes to be ready for the upcoming season. If healthy, he has an NFL-ready body with the physicality to win jump balls against defenders. Meanwhile, Jackson III has been a reserve player who is looking to make a push to move into the starting lineup.
If London lines up as an outside receiver, the slot candidates are Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon, Memphis transfer Tahj Washington, speedy sophomore Gary Bryant and freshman Michael Jackson III. Nixon is the most experienced, with 35 games played and 19 starts, showing good awareness and quickness lining up all over the field. He graded out during his four years at Colorado with a 64.3 overall grade, per PFF. Washington graded out at 64.3, per PFF. He was very productive last season for the Tigers, producing 43 receptions, 743 yards and 7 TDs. Bryant is a deep threat every time he is on the field and provides value as a returner for the Trojans. Meanwhile, Michael Jackson III, the Las Vegas product, was a YAC producer who thrived on underneath routes as a prep star.
Harrell has plenty of good options for returning quarterback Kedon Slovis and this offense should produce at a high level this fall. They should push for a Pac-12 title if these receivers and Slovis keep a consistent connection throughout the season.
Predicted Starters: Outside Receivers: Drake London and Bru McCoy
Inside Receivers: K.D. Nixon and Tahj Washington
Washington: Starting Safeties
Second-year head coach Jimmy Lake had an interesting first season. After being scheduled for six games, they went 3-1 with two games canceled due to Covid, while opting to skip out on a bowl game. Now the former defensive coordinator must find his pair of starting safeties, with six prime candidates competing for the two spots on the back line of Washington’s defense.
Last year’s starters are returning senior Alex Cook and junior Asa Turner. Turner, listed at 6-3, 210, graded out at a 65.0 overall grade with a knack for being a good run defender with a 75.6 run defense grade, per PFF. He should be a slight favorite heading into fall camp for one of the spots.
Cook, who graded out at 65.7, has little experience despite entering his fifth year on campus, only starting three of four games last season. He will need to improve his ability to key and diagnose plays in order to keep his starting role. Both Cook and Turner were limited throughout spring ball, which gave the competition an opportunity to make a move.
Junior Cameron Williams, a seven-game starter in 2019 at safety who graded out at 73.6 from PFF, was consistent throughout the spring. He has battled with Turner for one of the starting spots since they both arrived on campus in 2019. Julius Irvin is a very talented player that hasn’t quite put it together during his college career, but has the ability to be a big-time college safety. Making the switch from corner is redshirt sophomore Dominique Hampton. He brings very intriguing size, listed at 6-2, 225, and performed well throughout spring practice at his new position.
Coach Lake has been very complimentary of all these guys throughout the spring and summer. While all of these guys will be a part of the rotation, it seems like it will be tough to keep all of them happy in a very deep safety room, so it will be interesting to see if one of them jumps into the transfer portal during or after fall camp.
Predicted Starters: Cameron Williams and Dominique Hampton
Utah: Starting QB
Head coach Kyle Whittingham is tasked with replacing sixth-year QB Jake Bentley, who is spending his last college season at South Alabama. There are three legitimate options with some uniquely different skill sets.
First, let’s begin with sophomore Cameron Rising, who won the job coming out of fall camp last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in their first game against USC. That same shoulder injury held him out of spring football. He’s a very smart player with good accuracy who held off Bentley last season prior to the shoulder injury and had over 30 starts in the SEC. While it still may be his job to lose heading into fall camp, two Power 5 transfers will be battling him for the spot.
Baylor graduate transfer Charlie Brewer left Waco as a four-year starter, the second all-time leading passer with 9,700 yards, first all-time in completions with 828, and second in completion percentage at 63.5. He also rushed for over 1,000 yards in his career and brings fiery competitiveness that is contagious to people around him. He has a career PFF grade of 75.7, but struggled a bit in 2020 with only a 62.8 overall grade. Texas transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson brings a big physical frame at 6-2, 232, and has a strong arm. He has some development still needed to succeed at a high level, but his tools would make any coach excited to have him on the field.
Coach Whittingham is hoping to get back to the Pac-12 title with his talented roster and getting this quarterback position right could just land him there. Each one possesses a skill set to succeed and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out during fall camp.
Predicted Starter: Charlie Brewer
Colorado Starting QB
Second-year head coach Karl Dorrell saw last year’s starter in Sam Noyer hit the transfer portal and head to conference foe Oregon State. That leaves Colorado with two inexperienced options at the quarterback spot in Tennessee transfer sophomore J.T. Shrout and redshirt freshman Brendon Lewis.
Shrout has incredible arm strength with confidence in it, but has shown poor decision making in his time at Tennessee. He threw three INTs last season on 46 attempts and graded out at 63.6 on 74 snaps in 2020. The intriguing part with Shrout is his ability to make big-time throws. Of his 46 attempts last season, he had a big-time throw percentage of 8.7 percent. His arm strength definitely makes him an intriguing option. He showed some promise in their spring game, completing 9 of 13 passes with a touchdown.
Lewis only appeared in the last game of Colorado’s season, but showed an ability to lead this offense, driving them down the field for all three of the team’s touchdowns, including rushing for one of them. While Shrout is more of a pocket passer with limited mobility, Lewis provides a running element that would keep the offense similar to how it ran with Noyer running the show. He’s more raw as a passer than Shrout but shows promise in his velocity and accuracy, completing 8 of 9 passes in their spring game.
Coach Dorrell has an interesting battle on his hands. Shrout has big upside with his arm strength and big-time throws while being a more experienced college quarterback, but is still in the process of learning the playbook and can make questionable decisions. Lewis is a great athlete who can create with his legs, but will still need to continue to develop overall as a passer. This will be a tight race throughout fall camp.