Reloading: College football playoff teams all feature new starting QBs

John Zenor
AP Sports Writer

Bryce Young was mostly a spectator for Alabama’s march to the College Football Playoffs last season. Ditto for Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.

DJ Uiagalelei was a superb fill-in when Clemson needed him most. Notre Dame’s Jack Coan was at a different school altogether.

All four teams from last season’s playoffs sent its starting quarterback on to the NFL, ushering in successors trying to carry their teams into contention again. And they’re all ranked in the preseason top 10 so it doesn’t seem far-fetched heading into the foursome’s first games as the fulltime starter.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud runs through a drill during an NCAA college football practice in Columbus, Ohio, on April 5, 2021.

They don’t get to settle into their new roles with cupcakes either.

Defending national champion Alabama is preseason No. 1 heading into Saturday’s opener against No. 14 Miami in Atlanta. No. 3 Clemson faces fifth-ranked Georgia in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stroud and No. 4 Ohio State are visiting Minnesota Thursday night. Coan and the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish play at Florida State on Sunday.

The Crimson Tide have turned to the much-ballyhooed Young, whose last few successors have set high bars on their way to the NFL. Not even Tua Tagovailoa arrived in Tuscaloosa with as much anticipation as Young, a 6-foot, 194-pounder who’s built more like Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray than Trevor Lawrence.

“Bryce is a young guy but he doesn’t act like it,” Alabama offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor Jr. said. “He has a lot of character and he carries himself pretty well so I think the rest of the team respects that and respects him and his play.

“So it’s really good to see our quarterback take that leadership role just like how Mac (Jones) did last year and I think the team is pretty much under his wing and following him.”

Clemson’s Uiagalelei, successor to No. 1 overall pick Lawrence, did nothing to diminish the buzz or expectations in his two starting chances last season.

Ohio State is also going with the youth movement in picking the redshirt freshman Stroud to replace Justin Fields. Notre Dame is turning to the more seasoned Coan, a graduate transfer from Wisconsin.

They all have big arms to fill. Fields and Alabama’s Jones were also first-rounders while the New Orleans Saints picked Notre Dame’s Ian Book in the fourth round.

Young was the nation’s top-rated dual threat quarterback coming out of high school and No. 2 overall, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. He was mostly relegated to mopup duties as a freshman.

Alabama coach Nick Saban doesn’t usually rave about his newly anointed quarterbacks until they’ve got some wins under their belts. Saban, however, does like how Young has handled the job even with a number of other new starters around him.

“Bryce has a really good knowledge of the offense,” Saban said. “He’s a really bright guy. He makes good choices and decisions. He has a really good feel in the pocket. And he’s played really, really well.”

Uiagalelei had the best chance among the new guys to flash his potential last season while Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19. He directed the largest comeback in Memorial Stadium when he led the Tigers back from an 18-point deficit against Boston College in his starting debut.

Then, his 439 yards against Notre Dame were the third-most in school history.

After that, it was back to waiting his turn behind Lawrence.

“D.J. probably could have started at about 125 schools, realistically, but he chose to come to Clemson,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “He wanted to, to grow and develop and he wanted to learn from Trevor and I think that speaks volumes about his mentality and his long-term goals and just his maturity.”

The most experienced of the foursome is Notre Dame’s Coan. He started 18 games for Wisconsin in 2018 and 2019, before missing last season following foot surgery.

Coan won the competition to replace Book, whose 30 wins as starting quarterback is a Notre Dame record.

“He set a very high standard for the quarterbacks here, and I’m looking to follow him and be like him,” Coan said.

None of the contenders to replace Fields at Ohio State has thrown a pass in a college game.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Stroud from Rancho Cucamonga, California is a pro-style quarterback with a strong arm and a quick, compact release. He isn’t quite as mobile as Fields but Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said “he’s shown us all the things that we needed to see” leading up to the Minnesota game.

Winning the job is just Step 1. Now, the trick is to hold onto it.

“I think he knows that this is just an opportunity,” Day said of Stroud. “It’s not an accomplishment, it’s an opportunity, and I think he looked at it like that. Now we got to go about the business of going to put it on the field.”

Stroud beat out fellow second-year freshman Jack Miller III and true freshman Kyle McCord. He said competition is “just the culture of ‘fight’ and the culture of Ohio State.”

“It makes you so much better,” Stroud said before fall camp. “At the end of the day, if you don’t have anybody pushing you, you’re not going to get better at anything. So I definitely think that competition and somebody on your heels is the best way to get better.”

Associated Press writers Pete Iacobelli, Mitch Stacy and John Fineran contributed to this report.

–––

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP–Top25