The QB class of 2014: What on Earth happened?
If recruiting rankings actually worked out like they were supposed to, the first Will Grier vs. Keller Chryst matchup would likely happen in the early parts of their NFL careers.
Grier, the third-highest ranked quarterback in the Class of 2014, would have competed for All-SEC honors at Florida while finishing up an impressive career that vaulted the Gators back into the top tier of the conference.
And Chryst, the fourth-highest ranked quarterback in the Class of 2014, would have followed in the footsteps of Andrew Luck at Stanford and probably won a Pac-12 title or two en route to continuing that program’s recent success at the position.
But, much like life, the results of top-end recruits can be unpredictable and filled with twists and turns. Grier and Chryst will have their long-awaited matchup this weekend, but it won’t be in the NFL. Heck, it won’t even be a Florida vs. Stanford opening weekend clash.
Instead, Grier will be taking snaps for West Virginia for his senior campaign, the final year of a tumultuous career for the former top prospect out of North Carolina. Chryst will probably play for the Vols on Saturday in Charlotte, but he’s listed as a “co-starter” with Jarrett Guarantano, and who knows how that will shake out.
Chryst made the move to Tennessee in hopes of showcasing his skills after an up-and-down time at Stanford. While Chryst had an 11-2 record as a starter, he struggled with consistency, and midway through the 2017 season he was benched for K.J. Costello. In three seasons, Chryst appeared in 23 games for the Cardinal and completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 1,926 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Grier’s time at Florida was much more complicated.
One of the final top recruits of the Will Muschamp era, Grier redshirted for Muschamp’s final season at UF in 2014 and made his debut under new coach Jim McElwain in 2015.
Grier and McElwain seemed like a good fit, with the redshirt freshman improving every week and McElwain opening up the playbook little by little. Coincidentally, Grier had his first breakout performance against Tennessee when he rallied the Gators from a 27-14 deficit with two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including this game-winner to Antonio Callaway on fourth and 14.
That win propelled the Gators into the Top 25 for the first time in 2015, and a week later Florida would send the nation a message with a dominating 38-10 win against No. 3 Ole Miss. Grier was exceptional on that muggy night in the Swamp, going 24-of-29 for 271 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gators were back, and Grier was clearly the quarterback of the present and the future for Florida. A 21-3 road win against Missouri pushed the Gators into the top 10 at No. 8 and in the driver’s seat for the SEC East.
Then something bad happened. By Monday evening, rumors were floating around the college football world that Grier had failed a drug test for using supplements on the banned list. By Tuesday, it was confirmed that Grier would be suspended for violating NCAA rules for a full year.
Grier took responsibility and made a tearful statement in front of the media.
“I did not check with the medical staff before taking it,” he said. “I really hope that people can learn from this, learn from my mistake. I’m really sorry to everyone, just really sorry.”
Florida had to move on and did, but it lost to LSU at the Swamp the following Saturday to move from the ranks of the undefeated. The Gators rallied to win four in a row, including a 27-3 win over Georgia that effectively ended Mark Richt’s run with the Bulldogs, and took the East Division. But the Gator defense wore down in the final weeks, losing to FSU, Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. The offense missed Grier, and the Gators were outscored 97-24 in the final three games.
By the end of the year, Grier had opted to transfer, later saying that McElwain refused to give him the QB job back upon his return. McElwain was reportedly upset that Grier didn’t hang around the program and practice during his suspension despite having the opportunity to do so.
The Gators offense still hasn’t recovered from Grier’s departure. McElwain was relieved of his duties late in the 2017 season. Hard to say what could have been had McElwain and Grier stayed together and worked through the suspension, but I’m sure there are at least a few Gator fans who would have liked to have seen it happen.
Grier, however, has continued chugging forward and seems to have found himself at West Virginia in Dana Holgorsen’s pass-happy offense. In his first season with the Mountaineers, Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns. Many have him pegged as the top quarterback going into the 2019 NFL draft. It might not have been the way Grier planned it in his head five years ago, but the end goal is still in sight.
The QB class that never was
The 2014 quarterback class was supposed to usher in a new era of stars for the SEC. With guys like Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron long gone, SEC teams signed seven of the top 11 quarterbacks in the nation (including Grier), according to the rankings. The next group of Heisman contenders and future draft picks was here … or so we thought.
To call the 2014 quarterback class a bust is an understatement. It was a disaster. None of the top seven stayed with their programs, and several flamed out and left the sport altogether. The SEC missed out on the best quarterback in the class, Deshaun Watson, despite him playing in the heart of SEC country.
So let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and catch up with the not-so-magnificent seven.
* Kyle Allen was the top-ranked QB in the class and committed to Texas A&M. Allen played early in his career and had decent numbers in his first two seasons with the Aggies. He threw for 3,532 yards and 34 touchdowns over 20 games. But he was benched late in the 2015 season and was part of the great Aggie quarterback purge that saw Allen and Kyler Murray transfer from the program at the end of the season. Allen went to Houston and played in four games before losing the starting job to Kyle Postma. To the shock of many, Allen declared for the NFL draft rather than return for his senior year. He is on the Carolina Panthers roster and hoping to make it out of final cuts.
* Brandon Harris was the sixth-ranked QB in 2014 and was assigned with the tall task of helping Les Miles modernize the offense at LSU. Harris wasn’t great by any stretch, but he had a nice sophomore year as the Tigers started 7-0 before losing three straight and finishing 9-3. Harris threw for 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns that season. He struggled in 2016 until he was benched, and Miles got fired. Harris transferred to North Carolina for his senior year and flamed out in Larry Fedora’s offense, throwing for 346 yards and eight interceptions in six appearances.
* David Cornwell was ranked seventh in the 2014 class and committed to Alabama. He was stuck deep on the depth chart from day one and graduated in three years without throwing a pass. He transferred to Nevada and started the first game but was shuttered to third team after a poor performance and quit the program a few days later. Now Cornwell is at Division II East Central University in Oklahoma, looking to end his career on a high note.
* Drew Barker, the eighth-ranked QB in 2014, was expected to help Kentucky get out of the bottom half of the SEC East. The Wildcats did improve while Barker was there, but he spent most of the time on the bench watching Stephen Johnson. Barker was expected to compete for the starting job in 2018 but decided to give up football instead and work on his graduate degree. He threw for 747 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions in 12 games (five starts).
* Jacob Park, the ninth-ranked QB, is an interesting story that is still developing. He committed to Georgia and left during the 2015 season without throwing a pass. Park was supposed to go to NE Oklahoma A&M for a junior college season but instead attended tech school and worked out on his own. He got a second chance at Iowa State and seemed to have some good momentum going into the 2017 season. Personal issues, however, forced Park to leave the team and eventually the program. He was still on the transfer marker as of the spring.
* Sean White, the No. 11 QB in 2014, had a few cups of coffee with Auburn, but he wasn’t the athletic fit Nick Marshall was or the passing fit that Jarrett Stidham is. White had 2,845 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 18 games and was mostly underwhelming but did lead Auburn to the Sugar Bowl in 2016. White was dismissed from the team in 2017 after being arrested for public intoxication. He has yet to resurface.
And what about the No. 103 QB in 2014?
There are a few success stories in the 2014 class that tie into the SEC. Miami quarterback Malik Rozier was ranked 62nd in the class, and he’ll lead the Hurricanes against LSU in a Sunday night battle. Michael Scarnecchia, ranked 124th, has hung in there at South Carolina and earned the No. 2 spot out of camp.
But the biggest success story is the 103rd-ranked quarterback in the class – Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald won’t play this week because he was a bad boy about six months ago, but he is arguably the best quarterback in the SEC and might be a darkhorse Heisman contender if he can make up for the lost game and pull out a major upset somewhere along the way.
After redshirting in 2014, Fitzgerald spent 2015 as Dak Prescott’s backup, and apparently he learned a lot along the way. In two years as the starter for the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald has thrown for 4,440 yards, 39 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. He has also rushed for 2,476 yards and 33 touchdowns. At 6-foot-5, 228 pounds, Fitzgerald is a legitimate NFL prospect, with many believing he’ll definitely be selected in the early rounds.
Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the pot of gold.
The SEC quarterback recruiting class of 2014 will be remembered as one of the worst in conference history. There’s no denying that. The conference missed on a generational-type talent in Watson and was stuck with guys who didn’t pan out.
And th0se recruiting gaffes cost some coaches their jobs. Richt was fired. McElwain was fired. Miles was fired. Kevin Sumlin was fired. Gus Malzahn was almost fired.
But as Fitzgerald proves, recruiting is as much about fit as it is luck. Was Fitzgerald horribly underrated? Sure. But who’s to say how he would have performed in a different program that didn’t fit him as well as Mississippi State? I’m sure Bulldogs fans are happy to never know the answer to that.