LINCOLN — The ink was barely dry on Luke McCaffrey’s signature, and the Nebraska quarterback recruit wanted to kick-start his career. So he put in a call to quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco.
“It’s Thursday or Friday of the early signing period and the guy’s asking me questions,” Verduzco said. “And (I’m) like, ‘What the hell? He shouldn’t be there yet.’ He’s really, really sharp and really high-energy.”
McCaffrey is now on campus as one of seven early enrollees, and he’s one of the highest-rated Big Ten quarterback signees in the 2019 class. He might be a little easy to overlook, since Adrian Martinez will be just a sophomore and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate who won’t plan on losing his job.
But using McCaffrey at other positions — like receiver, which his dad, Ed, played for 13 NFL seasons — is not in Verduzco’s plans. That’s because McCaffrey, who started at quarterback for only one high school season, has “such a high ceiling.”
“We wanted that whole part to grow. That’s why we recruited him as a quarterback,” Verduzco said. “And we want to make sure every moment of his waking life here is focused on being a quarterback. Even in those moments in practice when he might be on the sideline, he’s looking at it and thinking, ‘Well, what would I do?’ instead of running a route.”
McCaffrey ranks high on our annual list of Big Ten quarterback signees, though he’s not No. 1. That spot belongs to a Wisconsin recruit. We’ve also included an Ohio State transfer who intends to seek immediate eligibility next season, which effectively makes him a recruit.
Some of these classes have been abject disasters. Take 2016, when I ranked Dwayne Haskins No. 3 — mistake there — behind Michigan’s Brandon Peters and Nebraska’s Patrick O’Brien. The class was awful. Only Haskins and Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey and Richard Lagow became regular starters. But not everyone can be a starter.
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What does 2019 have in store? Here are the rankings, with the name of the recruit, college and 247Sports composite rating:
1. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin, .9689
His stock rose after he threw for five touchdowns in the All-American Bowl, but Mertz had a dominant high school career at Overland Park (Kan.) Blue Valley North, where he showed off an accurate, fairly strong arm with top-shelf touch on deeper throws. He’s a textbook passer listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. Given some of the Badgers’ struggles in the passing game last season, Mertz should compete immediately for the starting job.
2. Justin Fields, Ohio State, .9998 in 2018 A transfer from Georgia, Fields will likely seek immediate eligibility at OSU after being the target of a racial slur at one of UGA’s games. Fields, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, has all the tools — the 60-yard arm, breakaway speed as a runner, the size to see over defenses, a nice release — but he needs more polish in making basic, on-schedule plays, since much of his high school highlight film featured out-of-the-pocket, improvisational wonder plays. At Georgia he was very good in limited action, especially as a runner (42 carries for 266 yards). OSU coach Ryan Day got a good one if Fields is immediately eligible, which many expect. He’s not Haskins, though. Haskins would have been the starter at Georgia. Fields wasn’t. Take note.
3. Luke McCaffrey, Nebraska, .9070 He’s an elite athlete, maybe not at the level of his superstar brother Christian, but he’s not far off. McCaffrey very much wants to be a quarterback, and his highlight tape shows him turning down big run gains to make plays as a passer. McCaffrey’s first and only full year as a starting quarterback was good — 2,202 yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions — but keeping him at quarterback will be a challenge while Adrian Martinez plays at least the next two years. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound McCaffrey could probably be the team’s fourth or fifth receiver next season.
4. Isaiah Williams, Illinois, .9479 He’s the most fascinating quarterback signee. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound four-star turned down every flashy wide receiver offer — including from Ohio State and Alabama — to play quarterback for a program that sure could use one. Williams threw for 8,000 yards and rushed for 2,752 yards as a quarterback at St. Louis Trinity Catholic, so he can do this, especially in an offense that will use him the way Arizona has used Khalil Tate. He’s closer to Tate than to the similarly sized Kyler Murray. It will be hard to keep Williams off the field as either a quarterback or a receiver.
5. Michael Johnson, Penn State, .8905 Interesting prospect. Johnson, 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, is a natural, fast, “wow” runner whose passing skills come and go a little. The son of a college coach and former college quarterback, Johnson probably isn’t going to play much this season — senior Tommy Stevens is starting for Penn State — but there’s a ton of intrigue around his ability. He threw just 154 passes as a senior but rushed for 1,290 yards and 18 touchdowns.
6. Taquan Roberson, Penn State, .9045 A very different kind of quarterback from Johnson. He’s maybe 6 feet and more of a tough-guy pocket passer who wants to hang in there, whereas Johnson is a natural, free runner. Roberson appears to have some Trace McSorley “gamer” traits. He’s a no-frills, north-south runner. He lacks great size and throws the ball from somewhere around his ribs — that’ll have to change — but he has some good tools.
7. Paul Piferi, Purdue. .8581 There’s a lot to like about his senior tape at Villa Park, California. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, he’s mobile enough, throws a dart on the skinny post, and has a variety of plays from both the shotgun and under center. He’s also good on the play-action throw. Purdue has a history of finding sleeper/value quarterbacks, and Piferi looks to be one.
8. Cade McNamara, Michigan .9052 A straight-up slinger of the football with an arm slot somewhere between his shoulder and ribs. McNamara doesn’t look as polished as the quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh has signed in recent years, but he’s got mobility and ball-handling mojo reminiscent of current Wolverines signal caller Shea Patterson. McNamara threw for more than 12,000 yards in his career at Reno (Nev.) Damonte Ranch.
9. Payton Thorne, Michigan State, .8511 His tape grows on you. His delivery is too low, but the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Thorne threw for 7,008 yards in three varsity seasons and has some mustard on his passes. He can also throw the quick outs and bubble screens common in spread passing offenses. He doesn’t seem a perfect fit for MSU’s pro-style offense, but if the Spartans are moving to more of a spread, he might be pretty good.
10. Alex Padilla, Iowa, .8485 Not a big guy (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and doesn’t appear to have an overly strong arm, but Padilla steps up in pockets and completed 66.2 percent of his passes in three varsity seasons at Greenwood Village (Colo.) Cherry Creek. He keeps plays alive and, since he’s not a runner, he does it the way quarterbacks are supposed to. Iowa fans can compare him to Drew Tate.
11. Jacob Clark, Minnesota, .8850 At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, Clark was bigger than most guys on the field, even in Rockwall, Texas, where he threw for 31 touchdowns as a senior. He’s a pocket guy — though Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck clearly wants a spread passing offense — and he needs to clean up his throwing motion and footwork to play in the Big Ten. He has good raw material and a big arm, but he’s not a runner.
12. Zamar Wise, Rutgers, .8534 He wore No. 8 as a senior at Newark (N.J.) Barringer, and there’s definitely some Lamar Jackson to his game. He has speed and shake as a runner and looks on film to be a passable thrower. Wise also reportedly played receiver and kick returner as a senior. Rutgers, arguably sporting the worst offense in FBS, can use him somewhere.
13. Cole Kramer, Minnesota, .8519 Signal caller for the powerhouse Eden Prairie program in Minnesota, Kramer was a natural, resourceful playmaker. You can tell he doesn’t have the strongest arm, and he has to put extra air on passes beyond 25 yards. But it’s clear the 6-foot, 185-pounder is a gamer, and he’s probably the kind of guy Fleck will love having around.
14. Cole Snyder, Rutgers, .8280 An undersized, who-really-knows prospect who’s probably on the border between FCS and FBS, which describes the state of Rutgers’ program pretty neatly. Snyder has a shot-put throwing style, so the ball comes out a little funny, but he’s a decent athlete from small-town New York who could translate into one position or another.