COVID may have given us a better way to develop quarterbacks

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One of the unintended side effects of the pandemic as it relates to college football is the extra year of eligibility for players, especially quarterbacks. There are a number of transfer portal QB1s making a name for themselves, and a case for an NFL team, with an added year of experience. Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Oregon’s Bo Nix, and Washington’s Michael Penix are but a smattering of notable signal-callers, and we could have another entry on that list after this weekend if Devin Leary and Kentucky topple No. 21 Florida.

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The current Wildcat came over from NC State, and while he’s a little under the radar now, he wasn’t a year ago. Leary was named the Preseason ACC Player of the Year in 2022 following a junior season in which he threw for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns, and five interceptions, but the senior campaign never really took off despite the team going 5-1 in his six starts before the Sicklerville, NJ, native tore a pec, ending his season.

So far in 2023, it hasn’t clicked for the Kentucky offense yet, but the team is 4-0, and should vault into the Top 25 given a win over the rival Gators in Lexington on Saturday. Leary has a 9-to-5 touchdown-to-pick ratio, and will have to clean that up against SEC opponents not named Vanderbilt, but the arm talent jumps off the screen, and we saw what physical assets did for former UK quarterback Will Levis.

The Cats were trash in his senior year, yet scouts still drank the mayo-flavored Kool-Aid — until it made everyone sick, and Levis was forced to sit in the green room for the entire first round. (He was eventually picked with the 33rd overall selection in the second round, but you get my drift.)

That said, Leary is 14-4 as a starter over the past three years, and I’m more convinced by that than anything else. Not saying let’s get Tim Tebow back under center, but when it comes to NFL prospects who have the requisite archetype to play at the next level, winning games cannot be overstated.

As previously mentioned, this quarterback class is littered with veteran prospects who’ve been in college so long that some of them have finally figured it out. While Tennessee’s Joe Milton will probably never be a competent NFL starter, he’s on draft boards simply because his arm is legendary, and he plays for a coach who can scheme him 200 yards and two scores, minimum, per outing.

Would I draft Milton? Absolutely not, but someone will, because he’s adjusted to the speed in this, his sixth year of college ball, and has enough highlights on film to fool some general manager, probably Jerry Jones.

If Leary can engineer a couple of upsets over the next six games — five of which are against ranked teams, with two of the programs being Georgia and Alabama — scouts will remember what they loved about him after the 2021 season when he could’ve went pro, but opted for another year (that turned into two, and ended at another school). Honestly, I have no clue what to think of Leary, or really any of these fifth- or sixth-year starters, because a lot of quarterbacks that I thought I knew have surprised me.

Take Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke for example. A year ago, they lost to Middle Tennessee, and he threw 10 touchdowns for the season. In 2023, he’s already tossed 11 scores, and is completing almost 75 percent of his attempts. Is he good? Can a quarterback, who spends enough time in school to earn a doctorate, develop into an NFL starter?

One of the things I hear coaches say all the time is it takes reps to learn the position, and these guys are likely more polished because of it. That leads me to as many questions as possibilities.

Could the NFL benefit from college players getting another season of experience in the minors? If there was an incentive to stay, other than a piece of paper to be traded for future employment, wouldn’t that help? Should we rethink this entire process when colleges finally agree to pay their workforce?

There has to be a better way to bring along quarterbacks than the current status quo of blindly lobbing darts. Look at the abhorrent success rate for the most important position in football. It’s atrocious, and often those are early-round selections that dictate the future of an organization.

I encourage college football fans to go look at the 2024 NFL Draft quarterback class, and marvel at all the names who’ve seemingly been around forever — and who we’ve all thought were washed at some point — that are now really good college players. Florida State’s Jordan Travis is freaking awesome, and he’s the 10th or 11th-best QB prospect on the lists I’ve seen.

Devin Leary is one of many sign-callers benefitting from this impromptu case study, and simply from a fan’s perspective, there are never enough good quarterbacks.

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