MAC Players to Watch: Quarterbacks

The Mid-American Conference has some really exciting talents behind center this year. It helps when most of the quarterbacks are both talented and experienced because what makes college football more exciting than that?

Last year, we saw Logan Woodside break school records for yards and touchdowns over the course of his career at Toledo, as did Brogan Roback of Eastern Michigan. Cooper Rush was a solid addition as a graduate transfer for Central Michigan, leading the Chippewas to an eight-win season.

As far as graduated quarterbacks, that’s as steep as it really gets. Sure, Thomas Woodson graduated from Akron, but the Zips have been itching to get its then-redshirt-freshman out on the field at the time and it’s not like Woodson was lighting it up out there either. There’s also Nick Holley who started the 2017 season as Kent State’s quarterback, but that was mostly because there were two freshmen on the roster that weren’t quite ready to lead its offense yet and shoulda-been starter Mylik Mitchell missed the year with an injury. Holley had to exit early last year with a season-ending injury, which led to more playing time for George Bollas, who is no longer with the team.

Other names of note that are gone from their respective programs also include Billy Bahl (Miami-OH, transferred to Ashland), James Morgan (Bowling Green, transferred to Florida International), Daniel Santacaterina (Northern Illinois, transferred to Southeast Missouri State), Elijah Cunningham (Bowling Green, transferred to Saginaw Valley State), Reece Goddard (Western Michigan, transfer destination unknown, but it’ll be for track and field) and Zach Blair (Ball State, transferred to Indiana Wesleyan).

What’s coming back is more notable than what’s being lost at these schools. There’s plenty of optimism to go around, so let’s get to it.

Returning Faces

Tyree Jackson

2017 stats: 8 games, 143-for-237 passing (60.3 percent), 2,096 yards (8.8 yards per attempt; 9.3 adjusted yards per attempt), 12 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 148.8 quarterback rating; 47 rushes, 197 yards (4.2 yards per carry), 4 touchdowns.

Career stats: 18 games, 308-for-548 passing (56.2 percent), 3,868 yards (7.1 Y/A, 6.8 AY/A), 21 TD, 12 INT, 123.8 QBR; 146 rushes, 596 yards (4.1 Y/R), 9 TD

If there’s one quarterback in the MAC that is absolutely must-see TV, it’s this one. Jackson’s entering his redshirt-junior season and easily one of the most talented players in this league. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, Jackson threw for 2,096 yards and ran for 197 on the ground in just eight games last season. Jackson missed four games in the middle of the season with a knee injury, came back and wasn’t as good of a runner. Actually, he lost 30 rushing yards on seven carries in the second half of the season, after coming back from injury. Since Jackson was running less frequently, he threw it up more. (It helps when Anthony Johnson is dominating at wide receiver.)

Buffalo finished last year with a 6-6 record (1-3 without Jackson), but there’s a lot of reason to believe that the Bulls can improve on that and make a run at the MAC East title. Jackson is a huge reason for that, but there’s still a few other details that need to be cleaned up for Jackson’s efforts to show in the win-loss columns.

Nathan Rourke

2017 stats: 13 games, 161-for-292 passing (55.1 percent), 2,203 yards (7.5 Y/A, 7.6 AY/A), 17 TD, 7 INT, 132.9 QBR; 137 rushes, 907 yards (6.6 Y/R), 21 TD

Rourke was the new quarterback coming onto the scene in Athens, Ohio and made a name for himself with how many times he got into the end zone, not to mention how much he moved around just to play some Division-I football.

Rourke’s a junior-eligible quarterback that’ll be expected to push Ohio towards the MAC title game in December, something Ohio fell short of last year with the 37-34 loss to Akron.

Maybe he won’t lead the nation in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback again, but Rourke should be able to show that he can be a better passer this year. Teams have to respect the 6.6 yards per rush Rourke posted last year, which should, theoretically, open up a passing window or two for him from time to time. If Rourke can add some big-play passes to his resume, Ohio’s bound to have an even better offense than it did last year. (And Ohio was No. 9 in the nation with 39.1 points per game!)

Gus Ragland

2017 stats: 9 games, 152-for-270 passing (56.3 percent), 2,032 yards (7.5 Y/A, 7.8 A/YA), 19 TD, 7 INT, 137.6 QBR; 73 rushes, 132 yards (1.8 Y/R), 3 TD

Career stats: 25 games, 287-for-478 passing (60 percent), 3,765 yards (7.9 Y/A, 8.8 AY/A) 39 TD, 8 INT, 149.8 QBR; 214 rushes, 668 yards (3.1 Y/R), 7  TD

Despite his misfortunes, Ragland’s been a good quarterback for the RedHawks. He’s suffered some injuries, he threw a pick-six that gave Cincinnati the comeback rivalry win last year and the RedHawks’ 5-7 record after going 6-7 the year before is exhausting. Now, Ragland’s a senior along with wide receivers James Gardner and Luke Mayock, which should continue to be big targets for Ragland.

Ragland had a remarkable sophomore season that’s still worth noting. He threw 17 touchdowns and was picked off once in seven games, adding 202 yards on the ground. All this came after he suffered a torn ACL his freshman year and came back midway through the 2016 season, leading the 0-6 RedHawks to a bowl game with six wins in a row, then a lost 17-16 to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

Sure, Ragland wasn’t the passer he was as a sophomore. More interceptions (9), lower completion percentage (56.3), but that’s not to say he can’t have a good senior season. If Ragland can improve on his passing accuracy and get a few long runs on the ground, then Miami’s offense is going to improve on its 24.4 points per game from last year (ninth in the MAC).

Marcus Childers

2017 stats: 12 games, 152-for-265 passing (57.4 percent), 1,674 yards (6.3 Y/A, 6.7 AY/A), 16 TD, 5 INT, 126.6 QBR; 143 rushes, 473 yards (3.3 Y/R), 5 TD

Childers won the MAC Freshman of the Year award for his breakout season with Northern Illinois last year, starting the final eight games of the year. It took a Ryan Graham injury and inconsistency from backup Daniel Santacaterina for Childers to get to the front of the depth chart, but NIU finally feels comfortable knowing that it knows who the quarterback will be this year.

While Childers is the recognized name to lead NIU’s offense and he’s got a few experienced receivers to play with in Spencer Tears, D.J. Brown and Juaun Wesley. The collective stability and experience ought to help NIU’s offense across the board.

Jon Wassink

2017 stats: 8 games, 124-for-193 passing (64.2 percent), 1,391 yards (7.2 Y/A, 7.7 AY/A), 14 TD, 4 INT, 144.6 QBR; 41 rushes, 126 yards (3.1 Y/R), 3 TD

Wassink was put into a unique situation last year. Then a redshirt-sophomore, Wassink had to replace the graduated Zach Terrell (who started just about every game of his four-year career at Western Michigan) while former Bronco great Tim Lester came home to coach his alma mater just after P.J. Fleck left for Minnesota — following a 13-1 season that ended with a close loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. No pressure, kid.

It took a while before Lester let Wassink take more chances with this throws, but by then, he had gone down with a season-ending injury and missed the final four games of the year.

Another year older, finally one with some in-game experience, Wassink is bound to improve on last year’s numbers and rebound positively after last year’s 6-6 run — which is quite the fall from grace.

Jarret Doege

2017 stats: 7 games, 120-for-188 passing (63.8 percent), 1,381 yards (7.3 Y/A, 7.9 AY/A), 12 TD, 3 INT, 143.4 QBR; 30 rushes, -74 yards (-2.5 Y/R), 2 TD

Doege was a true freshman that enrolled early last year and fought his way up the depth chart and through an in-season injury, but the sophomore’s here to stay and was en exciting quarterback whenever he was on the field.

Doege was the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Falcons since 1982, five total. In the last four games of the year, Doege threw 11 touchdowns and his 63.8 completion percentage for the season is eighth-best in school history.

Riley Neal

2017 stats: 3 games, 67-for-99 passing (67.7 percent) 659 yards (6.7 Y/A, 6.5 AY/A), 6 TD, 3 INT, 137.5 QBR; 24 rushes, 67 yards (2.8 Y/R), 0 TD

Career stats: 25 games, 537-for-884 passing (60.7 percent), 5,476 yards (6.2 Y/A, 5.9 AY/A), 35 TD, 21 INT; 239 rushes, 1,006 yards (4.2 Y/R), 10 TD

Neal only played in three games last year as a junior before suffering a season-ending leg injury. He was thrust into serious playing time as a true freshman and wasn’t as electric as one would hope. He threw for well over 2,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, but had 5.8 yards per attempt — the second-lowest among starting quarterbacks in 2015 — and was pretty split between touchdowns and interceptions as a sophomore.

Injuries suck a lot, but it allowed Neal to use 2017 as a redshirt season, giving him another year to develop and groom into the quarterback offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch would want for his alma mater.

Kato Nelson

2017 stats: 10 games, 70-for-140 passing (50 percent), 989 yards (7.1 Y/A, 7.6 A/YA), 8 TD, 2 INT, 125.3 QBR; 95 rushes, 198 yards (2.1 Y/R), 1 TD

As far as young, flashy quarterbacks go, Nelson is about as young and flashy as you can get. He took over for the Zips last year when starter Thomas Woodson was suspended for a couple of games at the end of the year and had favorable playing time during the MAC championship, then started in the Boca Raton Bowl against Florida Atlantic.

The best Nelson’s played so far was in the first half against Ohio, which helped the Zips win 37-34 and get the team to Detroit. If we take out that half of football, he was a 48-percent passer (56 of 116) with 6.3 yards per attempt and four touchdowns. Consistency, obviously, needs to be part of this redshirt-sophomore’s development. If he can make the throws on first and second downs, then he’ll be able to shine with his ability to run the ball as well.

Tony Poljan

2017 stats: 12 games, 13-for-21 passing (61.9 percent), 78 yards (3.7 Y/A, 3.7 AY/A), 0 TD, 0 INT, 93.1 QBR; 27 rushes, 125 yards (4.6 Y/R), 1 TD; 5 catches, 97 yards (19.4 yards per catch), 0 TD

It’ll be interesting to see how Poljan plays as the No. 1 quarterback for Central Michigan this year. Another big dude at 6-foot-7, 237 pounds, but he’s not put together like Jackson over at Buffalo. CMU’s going to use the redshirt-sophomore as a dual-threat because he’s, again, a big dude to bring down, so that’s an easy expectation to have out of the play-calling.

But passing? We just haven’t seen enough of it. He only threw the ball 17 times last year and was usually just gave Shane Morris a breather here and there or lined up as the H-back. If you enjoy trivia knowledge: Poljan had more yards receiving (97) than passing (78) last year.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be optimistic about Poljan. Out of high school, he was the No. 19 rated dual-threat quarterback by 247sports.com’s composite scoring (0.8553) and was once a Minnesota commit. He’s only entering his sophomore season, so there was a development curve to be had. Let’s just wait and see how far he’s come.

New Faces

Who’s going to play quarterback at Toledo? It’ll probably be one of Eli Peters or Mitchell Guadagni since those are the two to headline Toledo’s quarterback battle. Peters spent a hot minute with Illinois before transferring to Toledo and Guadagni has mostly been the place holder for field goals and PAT’s.

For what it’s worth, Peters’ profile reads more like a guy that’s bound to start for the Rockets.

Tyler Wiegers is likely the next person to start at quarterback for Eastern Michigan following Brogan Roback’s graduation. The grad transfer from Iowa is a local kid (Lake Orion, Mich.; Detroit Country Day) with one year to show that he’s worthy of playing time. It’s still early, but all signs of him learning EMU’s playbook are positive.

Kent State’s more than likely going to go with Woody Barrett, who enters the program via the junior college route. Barrett’s a dual-threat quarterback with big, big-play potential. Out of high school, Barrett was a four-star recruit that was originally set to play at Auburn.

But Barrett’s redshirt year with the SEC team didn’t go as planned. He wasn’t making any headway in the depth charts, so he transferred out to Copiah-Lincoln Community College, showed that he was still a really good athlete with size (6-foot-2, 231 pounds) and re-entered the Division-I ranks via Kent State with Sean Lewis as the newly-hired head coach. He still has to beat out the other quarterbacks that have been on the roster — Mitchell, Dustin Crum, Mitchell and Will Phillis. At least as of a month ago when Kent State held its spring game, that just hasn’t happened.

“The quarterback position is still very much up for grabs,” said Lewis. “We’ve got to get those guys to be more consistent with their decisions. A lot of our (spring practice) turnovers have been on them. They need to do a better job of seeing pictures and making cleaner decisions. We need to find a guy that we can turn the keys to the car over to for 100-plus snaps a game who is going to make the consistently good decisions that put us in the best position to win.”

(via The Record-Courier)

Since we’re on the subject of transfers, let’s add Alex Malzone to the mix. Normally, grad transfer quarterbacks don’t pick teams with a reliable senior still around. However, Malzone’s got two years to give, which is good for his future projection. The former Michigan backup and more formerly four-star recruit out of high school (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Brother Rice) has an arm, but will he be able to replicate Ragland’s mobility?

Barring any injuries, it’s hard to imagine Malzone being a starter this year. Only recently did Malzone graduate from Michigan, so he hasn’t been able to join Miami in spring practices. He’ll probably get some playing time here and there in 2018, but it’s doubtful that he’ll even average 10 throws a game, but Chuck Martin’s going to want to try him out and see what happens.

The last transfer quarterback to mention is Hank Hughes, who joined Ball State after leaving Texas A&M. Hughes didn’t see the field in his two years with the Aggies, so the sophomore will have to climb up through the ranks as he’s currently the third-string quarterback. Ahead of him on the depth chart are Neal and Drew Plitt.

Freezing cold take alert: Jairus Grissom might be EMU’s best-kept secret. The secret is that he signed with the Eagles for the 2017 class out of River Rouge High School (Dearborn Heights, Mich.) as a highly-touted dual-threat quarterback, but only now being added to the team’s roster — 15 months after he signed his letter of intent.

Here’s an outdated picture of Grissom last year as an 18-year-old boy:

Grissom was a three-star recruit out of high school and was approaching 20 offers out of high school, including Toledo, Miami-OH, Ohio, CMU, WMU, Houston, North Carolina State, Purdue, Rutgers, Syracuse and Wake Forest.

 

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