The rarity and advantages of incumbent quarterbacks like OSU’s Alan Bowman

The rarity and advantages of incumbent quarterbacks like OSU’s Alan Bowman

Only 28 of 68 power-conference teams figure to start an incumbent quarterback in 2024, but OSU is one of them.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Jan 21, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Jan 21, 2024, 6:00am CST

The transfer portal numbers, like the national debt, can grow so high, they lose all meaning. More than 1,000 players entered on Dec. 4, the most recent opening day of college football free agency, and hundreds more have signed up since.

So focus is required. Chiseling down to information that can be comprehended. And in this college football off-season, much like last off-season and likely every off-season to come, that means quarterbacks.

Your head needs a swivel to keep up.

Dillon Gabriel from OU to Oregon. Will Howard from Kansas State to Ohio State. Kyle McCord from Ohio State to Syracuse. Cameron Ward from Washington State to Miami. Riley Leonard from Duke to Notre Dame.

We’re just getting started.

Tyler Van Dkye from Miami to Wisconsin. D.J. Uiagalelei from Oregon State to Florida State. K.J. Jefferson from Arkansas to Central Florida. Grayson McCall from Coastal Carolina to North Carolina State.

We can keep going.

Athan Kaliakmanis from Minnesota to Rutgers. Max Brosmer from New Hampshire to Minnesota. Brendan Sorsby from Indiana to Cincinnati. Blake Shapen from Baylor to Mississippi State. Will Rogers from Mississippi State to Washington to who knows where, now that UW coach Kalen DeBoer has gone to Alabama.

The portal is so overloaded at quarterback, sometimes it’s bigger news when a player doesn’t transfer, than when he does. Like Arizona’s Noah Fitita, who from reports might stay in Tucson instead of following coach Jedd Fisch to Washington.

All of which makes OSU’s retention of quarterback Alan Bowman, not so much keeping him out of the portal as obtaining an extra year of eligibility, so important. A veteran quarterback with experience at a school is becoming more and more rare.

“It’s the one position that can make or break all of us,” Mike Gundy said. “Forget the portal, forget the NIL (name, image, likeness). High school football, college football, NFL. Everybody goes with the flow regarding their quarterback.

“Pretty much every year, your team’s based on your quarterback, and quarterback play is based on maturity.”

The portal has changed college football quarterbacking. There is a little stomach for waiting. A good quarterback who is behind a better QB can hit the road and find immediate work. A great quarterback is in high demand, with plenty of suitors.

A team’s entire season arch can be changed immediately. That’s what Southern Cal did when it hired Lincoln Riley, who brought Caleb Williams with him from OU.

Only one transfer quarterback — Louisiana State’s Joe Burrow in 2019 — has led a national-championship team in the last decade, but the College Football Playoff has been loaded with them in recent years. Washington’s Michael Penix and Texas’ Quinn Ewers in 2023, Ohio State’s Justin Fields in 2020 and 2019, OU’s Jalen Hurts in 2019.

“It’s a unique position, because most people just play with one,” Riley told Los Angeles reporters in December. “So many people try to project out what they think’s going to happen. You think you gotta have all the answers right from the beginning, and the reality is, it’s competition, it’s fluid and you never know what’s going to happen. That’s just part of the position.”

Projecting can go sideways. We figured former OU commitment Malachi Nelson, who joined Riley at USC, would succeed Williams. But in the Holiday Bowl, with Williams sitting out, quarterback Miller Moss threw six touchdown passes, and now Nelson has transferred to Boise State.

The Sooners themselves project Jackson Arnold as a quick-rising star, which apparently made Brent Venables fine with Gabriel transferring to Oregon. 

In the old days, such competition would be staged as teammates. Not so much anymore. There are fewer and fewer quarterback derbies.

OSU staged an all-timer, of course, last September — a three-man rotation, which seemed kooky but eventually yielded Bowman as the winner. The Cowboy season took off, and now Bowman returns to lead a veteran-laden team in 2024.

“To have an experienced quarterback is valuable,” Gundy said.

Bowman’s return is even more valuable when you consider the improvement of players in their second year in a system. Burrow at LSU is the ultimate example. Jayden Daniels, too, who was solid in his first season at LSU in 2022, then exploded and won the Heisman Trophy in 2023.

Williams won the Heisman in his second year in Riley’s system, even if it was at a new school. More examples: Gabriel at OU, Ewers at Texas, Penix at Washington, Bo Nix at Oregon. All improved dramatically in Year 2.

Among the 68 Power Four conference teams, at least 40 are expected to have a new starting quarterback in 2024. So the teams with a veteran QB would seem to have an advantage.

“Defenses are more complex,” Gundy said. “That affects quarterbacks, from a maturity standpoint. Making mistakes, correcting them, so on and so forth.

“The second year, he just learns the system. He gets comfortable … they get experience in the system.”

Ewers particularly intrigues Gundy. Ewers showed some promise in 2022, but he also struggled at times. His quarterback rating was 132.6. Then Ewers jumped to a 158.6 in 2023, and Texas made the playoff.

“Ewers, his first year he was pretty average, right?” Gundy asked. “He might have been below average. But as he’s learned what Sark (Texas coach Steve Sarkisian) wants him to do, he’s played better.”

The same improvement could be awaiting Bowman, who had a quarterback rating of 123.0, though he’s much older than was Ewers and clearly has a smaller window of improvement.

But either way, the Cowboys having an incumbent quarterback is important in a league in which other contenders have veteran QBs — Kansas’ Jalon Daniels, Utah’s Cameron Rising (after a year layoff due to injury) and potentially Arizona’s Fitita among them.

Meanwhile, OU transitions to the Southeastern Conference with a new QB — and the likely best teams in the SEC return their quarterbacks. Georgia’s Carson Beck, Alabama’s Jalen Milroe, Ewers, Ole Miss’ Jaxon Dart.

Quarterback turnover is becoming more common. An incumbent, especially on a good team, is precious. Enjoy it while you can.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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