The college football regular season is quickly drawing to a close, and perceptions of the top quarterback prospects are changing. Is the potential 2023 quarterback class as good as what many felt prior to the season?
Early in the process, draft commentary is often over the top looking at the potential of a prospect and ignoring the deficiencies. Relative to last year when there was not a clear candidate to be a first-round pick prior to the college football season, the upcoming class has two players (Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Alabama’s Bryce Young) who evaluators have been an anticipating for a year; expectations were likely to become outrageous based on that alone. The current season has raised some concerns. As a result, impressions of those top quarterback prospects are coming back to reality. When all is said and done, those two players, as well as Kentucky’s Will Levis, will go in the first round, and probably top-10 overall, but each situation warrants closer examination below.
In addition to providing a look at the trees that were this weekend’s performances, CBSSports.com peers into the forest in an attempt to provide some context for where these players could be drafted next April.
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
Stats: (21-7 win at Northwestern): 10-of-26 passes completed, 76 yards; 6 carries, 79 yards
Ohio State was averaging 48.9 points per game coming into the Big Ten affair against Northwestern. Stroud and the Buckeyes struggled in the first half with the junior quarterback missing high on multiple occasions. There were opportunities over the course of the afternoon though. Stroud laid a downfield pass perfectly into the hands of wide receiver Emeka Egbuka but the play was not completed. While completing just 38.4% of his passes, the California native was effective with his legs rushing for 79 yards on just six attempts. The Buckeyes continued their streak of games scoring at least 20 points but it was their lowest output of the season tying the opener against Notre Dame.
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Stroud is not a can’t miss quarterback prospect. The term itself may be overplayed considering the level of confidence many, including myself, had for Trevor Lawrence and the struggles he has shown early in his career. Stroud does not have quite the impromptu play-making ability as Alabama’s Bryce Young and the Buckeyes’ quarterback struggles in the NFL are well-documented. Stroud is certainly going to be a first-round selection when the dust settles but some of the shine has worn off. Prior to his first season as a starter, someone near the program told me that he would be a Justin Fields-caliber prospect and the interpretation of that has improved in recent weeks with Fields’ play in Chicago.
Bryce Young, Alabama
Stats: (31-32 loss at No. 10): 25-of-51 passes completed, 328 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 4 carries, 10 yards
Young was making full field reads and gouging the Tigers early. After marching downfield, pressure forced the quarterback up in the pocket to find wide receiver JoJo Earle breaking across the middle with plenty of green grass ahead of him. Unfortunately, Young was not able to get his hips pointing towards the intended target and the angles left to deliver a safe pass dwindled. The pass was a bit behind Earle and the LSU defender capitalized with a score-saving interception; an important moment considering the game was decided late with a two-point conversion.
LSU did a good job of getting the California native off-platform and in uncomfortable environments, similar to what Texas did against Young, all evening. He still did not make many poor decisions but the pressure was often enough for passes to be off-target. Young has a skill set capable of transcending when the play breaks down. On the play below, Young was able to sense the pressure, move around in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield and throw with anticipation to an open Ja’Corey Brooks down the right boundary to take the lead with under five minutes remaining in regulation.
Teams want a quarterback capable of willing his team to late game scores even when the rest of the game may not have gone as scripted and Young has a few examples of that this season. Alabama is not chock full of NFL skill talent outside of running back Jahmyr Gibbs and the team has already suffered two losses during the regular season for just the second time since 2010.
Young is an outlier by physical standards; always has been and always will be. Can he overcome that disadvantage or will it define his professional career? At some point, one has to pick a side of the fence and, for me, it is the side of him being a ball player capable of overcoming limitations. If not for the evolution of the modern NFL game, and quarterbacks were strictly asked to drop back and pass, then this would be an entirely different conversation. However, Young has a natural feel for the game and his ability to make plays when the pocket expires inspires confidence. According to TruMedia, Young has not had a pass batted down this season. Mississippi State’s Will Rogers has 14, which is the most in college football.
Young will be a polarizing prospect and he may not be for every team but his outlook is still Top 10 overall.
Will Levis, Kentucky
Stats: (21-17 win at Missouri): 13-of-19 passes completed, 170 yards, 3 TD; 7 carries, -36 yards
Levis showed a lot of composure against a stingy Missouri defense. He will occasionally work onto his second read but needs to get off his first read quicker. When the first read is open, there is not a quarterback that rips a prettier throw than Levis. He has the arm strength to hit digs on the backside of a play and recently told PFF that he feels capable of throwing 80 yards downfield.
Injuries have piled up over the course of the season but the Penn State transfer has only missed one game and never used as it as an excuse. Last year, he showed the ability to get chunk yardage on the ground when the play would break down; that element of his game has essentially been removed either by necessity or play-calling in 2022. He is an intelligent player who has the support of his teammates.
The season has not gone as expected for the Wildcats and Levis’ statistics will not stand up against college football’s leading passers, but his stock will still be high come April. When talent evaluators have the chance to sit down with Levis, they will come away impressed. When they see him throw, they will be enthralled. NFL coaches are eternal optimists having the belief that they can make the best of any situation; “just wait until this guy plays in our system.” The Connecticut native is an older prospect but do not expect him to be available beyond the middle of the first round.
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