There’s no need to beat around the bush here...Conference USA was a terrible football conference last year, and poor quarterback play was one of the largest contributors to the conference’s awful showing on the field in 2020. It should come as no surprise that the conference took advantage of new NCAA rules which allow for immediate transfer eligibility in an effort to upgrade their talent level at signal caller.
With ten incoming quarterbacks joining the conference, I made a best effort to rank each by not only natural football talent, but also how I project them to fit into their new team’s offense. For some of these quarterbacks, that was a difficult task, as some athletes hadn’t seen the field in years.
Overall, this is a really talented group but the top four really rise above the pack as potential all-conference players.
1. Bailey Zappe (Houston Baptist → WKU) - This is a guy that was pretty much made in a lab to run the air raid. Zappe shows excellent ball placement with the ability to throw at a high velocity on the run and deliver precise throws from several different arm slots. Zappe has completed 900 of his 1,477 passes (60.9%) for 10,004 yards, with 78 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. The crafty thrower single-handedly put the HBU program on the map in Texas by scorching FCS defenses without much talent surrounding him. Zappe has more passing yards to his name than any other returning quarterback in Division I. He also has the benefit of bringing his offensive coordinator and several of his receivers with him to Bowling Green, KY, a type of wholesale offensive re-haul I’m not sure we’ve ever seen before in college football.
2. Bailey Hockman (NC State → Middle Tennessee) - The southpaw had a nice showing in his 2020 season at NC State. The former four-star recruit played in 17 games for the Wolfpack and started in nine of them. Hockman has really good arm talent and isn’t afraid of taking the deep shot, even as the pocket collapses. With a 64% completion rate with 2,088 yards passing, Hockman should see pretty stellar success at the C-USA level but he’ll need to improve on his 13:11 TD-INT ratio.
3. N’Kosi Perry (Miami (FL) → Florida Atlantic) - While Perry is not as accurate as some of the other quarterbacks on this list, he’s as explosive of a quarterback as you’ll find at the G5 level. It’s concerning that he’s regressed each season, but his natural talent makes him an obvious starter for FAU this year in my opinion. Perry is not an elite runner or an elite thrower, but he does well with timing routes and can find the open receiver. Perhaps a (small) change of scenery allows Perry to get back to playing at his best. With the talent Perry will have at his disposal in Boca, it will only take average quarterback play for Perry to lead the Owls to a divisional championship.
4. Austin Kendall (West Virginia → Louisiana Tech) - Kendall signed with Oklahoma out of high school and played really well in limited snaps there. After getting stuck behind a few NFL talents in Norman, Kendall blossomed at West Virginia in 2019, starting nine games before losing the starting job. With Kendall it’s just a question of whether 2020 was just a one-off down year for him or not, as he played below standard last year. Kendall doesn’t have a huge arm but does a great job on intermediate depth targets. If Kendall bounces back and plays to his potential he could finish at the top of this list.
5. Darriel Mack (UCF → Old Dominion) - There’s a decent talent gap from the fourth spot to the fifth on this list, but Mack is no slouch. He was the primary backup QB at UCF in 2018 and 2019 and led an incredible comeback victory in the 2018 AAC Championship Game. Mack is average as a passer but is a good athlete when outside of the pocket and can find the end zone with the ball tucked under his arm. The former Knight has good improvisation skills which will probably be needed with ODU lacking in talent relative to the rest of the conference. There’s no doubt that Mack can be very effective in the right zone read, up-tempo scheme. Mack can throw the fade route well but I’m not sure ODU has any deep threats which come close to what UCF had in Mack’s time there.
6. Michael Johnson Jr. (Penn State → Florida Atlantic) - The youngest player on the list thus far, Johnson Jr. did not see the field as a true freshman in 2019 and entered the transfer portal before Penn State’s 2020 season. He passed for a jaw-dropping 7,300 yards and 86 touchdowns in high school as a 4-star recruit. Johnson Jr. is an explosive runner with nice touch on his throws. He’ll need to clean up his mechanics a bit compared to his high school film but don’t be surprised to see him jump Nick Tronti (another former Big Ten transfer) on the depth chart this year. This guy is insanely talented for a C-USA player and could develop into one of the best to come out of the league in recent years.
7. Tee Webb (Louisville → USM) - In terms of raw arm strength, Webb takes the cake on this list. The Louisville transfer with a Howitzer of an arm replaced Trevor Lawrence at Cartersville High School in Georgia so he’s definitely been tutored by the best. Reports out of Louisville’s camp had Webb struggling with the speed of the game in his first few practices, but he did draw some “oohs” and “ahhs” with a few of the spirals he let rip. Webb could become a really good players in this league, but he’s going to need some time to learn the Golden Eagles’ offense. If Webb’s eyes catch up to his arm he’ll be an NFL Draft prospect.
8. Luke McCaffrey (Nebraska → Rice) - The Big Ten transfer played in seven games for the Cornhuskers in 2020, two of which he started as a redshirt freshman. McCaffrey passed for 466 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. He also ran for 364 yards and three touchdowns, including 122 yards and two end zone appearances in a loss to Illinois. While McCaffrey’s running ability is impressive, his deep ball leaves a lot to be desired as he went 2/8 on deep shots with 2 picks last year. If Rice fully committed to a zone read offense then McCaffrey could be a weapon, but the Owls will likely need to take the top off of the defense through the air. We’ll have to see how much McCaffrey has improved his passing mechanics over the past year.
9. Jace Ruder (North Carolina → North Texas) - Ruder is a former 4-star recruit that barely saw the field through three seasons at UNC. Unfortunately he got stuck behind Heisman hopeful Sam Howell in the Tar Heels depth chart. It’s hard to predict Ruder starting for the Mean Green this season since he played sparingly over the past three years, while Austin Aune has been very solid for UNT. Reports out of camp have the two splitting snaps, but my money is on Aune to hold on to this spot.
10. Jake Constantine (Weber State → Rice) - Another FCS riser like Zappe, Constantine has jumped around a lot of different programs — signed with Boise State, played at Ventura College, transferred to Weber State, then signed with Washington State before ending up at Rice. Constantine won a lot of games at Weber State, but he lacks in arm strength and isn’t very polished in the pocket. He threw 22 interceptions in 24 games at Weber State. If C-USA defenses succeed in making Rice’s offense one-dimensional this fall then Constantine could enter into the fold, but he’ll also have to beat out returners Wiley Green and JoVoni Johnson.
11. James Foster (Texas A&M → Charlotte) - Foster is a raw talent at quarterback who has a high ceiling athletically but likely isn’t developed enough as a passer to run Charlotte’s offense this fall. He showed very little pocket presence or patience in his high school film but let’s not forget he picked up 24 scholarship offers for a reason. It would be a huge coaching success for Will Healy and Mark Carney if Foster beats out Chris Reynolds for the starting job this year.
Unranked: Nick Ast (Kansas State → UTEP), Kevin Hurley (Northeast Mississippi Community College → UTEP), Isaiah Velez (EKU → FIU), Drew Zaubi (Reedley College → WKU)