Five QB battles that could produce stars

Max Wittek (left) and Cody Kessler both have what it takes to be USC's starting QB this fall. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, we were only beginning to hear about Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. And Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel was not a known commodity, really, until the 2012 season started -- or just before it, when he won the starting job.

Much has changed the past year. Manziel, as a freshman, won the Heisman Trophy, and Mariota could be a dark-horse candidate to win the Heisman this fall as a sophomore.

So sometimes it doesn't take long to go from battling for a starting QB job to college football stardom. On the other end, the players who were competing with Mariota (Bryan Bennett) and Manziel (Jameill Showers) since have transferred.

What about 2013? Are there breakout candidates among those vying this spring and summer for starting QB spots? And could offensive systems or surrounding casts -- Manziel and Mariota were certainly beneficiaries, independent of their own talent -- be assets to boost these first-year starters?

Here are the nation's top five quarterback battles that could produce stars this fall.

1. USC Trojans

Leader: Max Wittek

In pursuit: Cody Kessler

Let's be honest: Throwing to wide receiver Marqise Lee should make a star out of whoever wins what is a blossoming duel between Wittek and Kessler. And it is a blossoming battle, because Kessler is making it one.

Some presumed Kessler might transfer after Wittek got the bulk of the late-season snaps when Matt Barkley went down with a shoulder injury. That presumption really took hold with highly regarded freshman Max Browne's enrollment in January.

But Kessler showed guts in staying, and that fortitude has extended to the spring. WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz posted earlier this week that coach Lane Kiffin has been highly complimentary of Kessler, admitting that he's pushing Wittek -- whose 52.2 completion percentage, 5.62 yards per attempt and 3-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio in relief of Barkley did, in fairness, leave the door open.

Of course, when dealing with programs like USC, it's important to remember that Kessler is not just some dude who rolled in from out of nowhere. He was a prep All-American who got a look from Alabama.

"I have to look twice sometimes to see who just threw the last pass," USC receivers coach and former Tennessee QB Tee Martin told me. "[Wittek and Kessler] are both doing that well. We're going to have a good quarterback, no matter who it is."

Martin also didn't dismiss how well Browne has done in his first spring.

"We treat these guys like they're NFL guys, even the freshmen," he said. "We throw the whole playbook at you. He's done really well. He's a sharp guy."

2. Florida State Seminoles

Leader: Clint Trickett

In pursuit: Jameis Winston

Trickett had some experience relieving EJ Manuel, but Winston is the player whom most people close to the program are buzzing about -- and that's with Winston's focus theoretically divided between pitching for the baseball team and spring football practice.

What would seem to be a distraction actually has started to become a point in Winston's favor because he's handling his responsibilities so well. That, after all, is the only way coach Jimbo Fisher would sign off on the incredibly difficult two-sport commitment. Fisher has told reporters that Winston will not miss a meeting or practice in lieu of baseball; football is still the priority, because Fisher has plans for the young Alabamian.

ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer, who worked with Winston a couple of years ago at the Elite 11 camp, told reporters at this past Super Bowl that he sees Winston as an emerging "rock star" and a future No. 1 overall draft pick.

"I know what's coming," Dilfer said of Winston, who went viral this winter for airmailing a football over a frat house from across the street.

From the sounds of it, Winston is Manuel -- but with the turbo button held down.

3. Oklahoma Sooners

Leader: Blake Bell

In pursuit: Trevor Knight

It felt like Landry Jones was going to stick around and be Bob Stoops' all-time quarterback. Alas, his time ran out.

A year ago, especially after a strong spring game performance, it was assumed that Bell would be the successor. But Knight, who enrolled in June 2012 despite the fact he initially wanted to go to Norman in January, has been coming on strong.

When I was in town a couple of weeks ago, those who follow the program told me they thought the Knight talk was more than lip service. Some are even tossing around the idea that he might be some sort of "Johnny Football-lite." It is extremely early for those comparisons, but it does give you the idea that the Oklahoma offense could look a bit different this fall.

Really, the Sooners' offense figures to have a running element either way. That's what Bell, a junior, is most known for at this point in his career. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound hulk has already run for 24 touchdowns in the "Belldozer" short-yardage package.

However, don't believe that he's just a one-trick Sooner. One Big 12 coach I spoke with last fall theorized that OU might have been better off playing Bell over Jones, just because of the element of surprise -- and because Bell's arm is more effective than you might think.

4. California Golden Bears

Leaders: Jared Goff, Austin Hinder, Zach Kline

The Bears and first-year coach Sonny Dykes already had their spring game, and it didn't give much of an indication as to which of the three quarterbacks has the lead entering the summer. Goff threw 15 times, Kline 14 and Hinder nine.

Perhaps Cal is this season's version of Oklahoma State -- with all three QBs getting playing time. Hinder, a junior, is the veteran, but Dykes got a long look this spring at Kline, a redshirt freshman, and Goff, who just arrived in January.

Goff, a top Elite 11 performer who had offers from Boise State and Washington State, was the first quarterback in the spring game. He reportedly faltered some on deep throws, but no worries -- there's time (and opportunity) to refine.

While playing for Dykes last season at Louisiana Tech, Colby Cameron ranked fifth in the country in attempts (522). He also ranked seventh in the country in yards (4,147) and tied for 12th in touchdowns (31).

Regardless of who lands the starting QB position, expect monster numbers this fall. That, after all, is why Cal went after Dykes. It was tired of having highly rated quarterbacks and skill players but putting up unsexy results (relative to the rest of the offensively driven Pac-10/Pac-12).

The Bears ranked seventh in the league last season in yards per play (5.75) and eighth in yards per pass attempt (6.83).

5. Tennessee Volunteers

Leader: Justin Worley

In pursuit: Nathan Peterman

This will be a position to watch for a couple of seasons as Butch Jones settles into his Knoxville digs. Worley, a sophomore, and Peterman, a freshman, could not have felt great about the Volunteers signing two quarterbacks in the 2013 class. But it will take time for Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson to get a feel for the offense, so Worley or Peterman could be entrenched by then.

Or perhaps not.

Worley is a mercurial case. He put up silly numbers in high school (13,385 yards, 157 TDs) and won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award two seasons ago -- even though Jadeveon Clowney played ball across talent-rich Rock Hill, S.C., from Worley. Yet the in-state schools did not really look Worley's way, as the Vols were his only major offer.

It wasn't anything personal, people in the Palmetto State have told me; Clemson and South Carolina were set at QB and he did not figure into their plans. Derek Dooley liked Worley, and Jones told me in February that he does, too. Then again, he did sign those two freshmen.

Haven't heard of Peterman? Don't worry. One of my friends on the beat joked that there are a lot of unsung types in the mix for positions. A part of it is the fairly bare offensive cupboard that Jones and offensive coordinator Michael Bajakian have inherited. And a part of it is how Tennessee's staff is encouraging competition this spring. This should be Worley's job. How long he has it is up to him -- and how much the newcomers push him.

Other notable quarterback situations

Arkansas Razorbacks: In addition to the new coach on the sideline this season, there will be a number of new faces on offense. That includes the QB position, where Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell are competing this spring.

There's a lot of curiosity in the league as to how coach Bret Bielema's style of play will suit the SEC, but note that the offensive coordinator is Jim Chaney, who has been in the league since Kiffin was at Tennessee. While Allen and Mitchell might not be as naturally gifted as Tyler Bray was, it does at least indicate the Hogs could throw the ball more than you would think.

Auburn Tigers: Kiehl Frazier wouldn't technically be a first-year starter if he beats out Jonathan Wallace, though in a sense he would. Gus Malzahn, before there was Cam Newton, made Chris Todd into a serviceable QB. Some in the SEC are betting he can do the same with Frazier or Wallace.

Malzahn's offenses are that innovative. Don't believe me? Ask Ryan Aplin, the Arkansas State QB who went from a 19-to-16 TD-to-INT ratio prior to playing under Malzahn to 24-to-4 with the coach (and up-and-coming offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee).

Baylor Bears: I keep hearing very good things from those close to the Bears program about Bryce Petty, who is following Nick Florence, who followed Robert Griffin III. Petty worked some in the pre-spring with QB guru George Whitfield.

Petty can lean on a talented group of running backs and several potential breakout receivers, including Antwan Goodley and Corey Coleman, to get his footing. If you've got to be a "system quarterback," wouldn't Art Briles' offense be a fun one to play in? It's sort of like playing for Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams. And that worked out just fine for Kliff Kingsbury.

Oklahoma State Cowboys: I mentioned the Cowboys earlier, so I thought I'd circle back to them. A year later, and a new offensive coordinator in place, there's still little separation among the trio competing for the starting QB job. Senior Clint Chelf is the veteran, but Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh were effective enough to merit snaps last season when healthy. Both Chelf and Walsh can run the ball, which is an important asset in that it gives defenses different looks.

Perhaps one will eventually separate, but playing three QBs didn't break the team last season and it likely would not again this fall.

South Carolina Gamecocks: With Connor Shaw shelved following offseason foot surgery, Dylan Thompson is getting a lot of the spring reps for the Gamecocks. Shaw and Thompson, veteran leaders who their coaches say are virtually ego-less, laugh off the idea of a QB competition. In reality, both will play. It's the Steve Spurrier way.

The Ol' Ball Coach has said he thinks Thompson has an NFL arm. He's not going to leave that on the bench, even with Shaw playing so efficiently the past two seasons.