Every year the quarterbacks who received the most amount of publicity are those who play for the big conferences. Every year there are a couple from the lower echelon of the FBS who sneak into conversations, and some even make headlines as potential Heisman candidates. Jordan Lynch, Derek Carr and David Fales fill the latter category; quarterbacks who did great things at their school. Of course, those guys have moved on, and now the next wave of “small-school” heroes are ready to enter those water-cooler conversations. We’ve a mixed bunch – two seniors, a junior and two sophomores; an option quarterback, a guy who didn’t make it through his freshman year and two stat monsters. It also must be noted that this article was made a lot easier by the attrition at the quarterback position this season. Also, apologies to BYU’s Taysom Hill, who is technically non-AQ, but the Cougars are a cut above the other teams on this list (cue abuse), while Carden sneaks in as his team is only stepping up to AQ status (for now) this year.
Shane Carden, East Carolina
The Conference USA MVP has been around for a couple of years now, going from strength-to-strength, and may have the best resume of all the guys on this list. After taking over from Rio Johnson in week 2 of 2012, Carden hasn’t looked back and was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country last season. After passing for a meager 3116 yards and 23 TDs, with 10 interceptions, in 2012, Carden lit up CUSA this season to the tune of 4139 yards and 33 TDs, completing 70.5% of his passes, and threw another 10 picks. He had a couple of bad days at the office against Virginia Tech and Marshall (combined 1 TD, 6 interceptions), but also lit up North Carolina and NC State for a combined 631 yards and 6 TDs (1 pick) as the Pirates roasted their ACC opponents. Carden wasn’t exactly a dual-threat, but he added another 10 TDs on the ground too. The Pirates may be stepping up to the AAC this season, but Carden has plenty of offensive talent, including his top 2 receivers, returning to help out.
Rakeem Cato, Marshall
Cato has a similar story to his conference foe Carden, taking over from AJ Graham early in his freshman year and never looking back. After an inconsistent rookie season in which he passed for 2059 yards and 15 TDs, against 11 interceptions, Cato took the conference by storm in his second season, completing 69.5% of his attempts and throwing for 4201 yards, 37 TDs and 11 interceptions. Despite the Thundering Herd winning just 5 games, Cato was voted conference MVP. Going into 2013, Cato had a bucketload of returning talent, and Marshall were expected to contend for the conference title. They didn’t disappoint either, apart from bombing against Rice in the championship game. Cato’s production was down in some respects, thanks in no small part to Marshall focusing on the run with their excellent stable of running backs. His completion percentage dropped to 59.7%, but he still passed for 3916 yards and 39 TDs in just 499 attempts. He also cut his interceptions down to 9, and ran more effectively, adding 294 yards and 6 TDs on the ground. This year, the Herd have a solid talent-base again, and relatively easy schedule, with not an AQ team to be seen. Let’s see what sort of numbers Cato can put up in 2014.
Chad Chalich, Idaho
In case you didn’t notice, the Vandals have been pretty horrendous lately, winning just 4 games over the last 3 seasons and being left adrift in conference limbo until the Sun Belt cast out a lifeline. The move to said conference should work in Idaho’s favor, as the SBC has been stocking up on FCS teams since CUSA stole a bunch of their members. The Vandals success has usually revolved around quarterback play, and it looks like the team has their best signal-caller since Nathan Enderle, if not before. Chalich sat on a redshirt in 2012, learning the ropes and getting more accustomed to the college game. Last season, he ran away with the quarterback job from the moment he set foot in camp, and was one of the bright spots on the team through the first 5 games of the season, despite some lopsided scorelines. After a tough day at the office against Fresno State, Chalich lasted 2 plays against Arkansas State before a shoulder injury ended his season. Now with a more experienced team returning, Chalich could be poised to lead the Vandals to their best record in 4 years. Last season he completed 61.4% of his passes for 1238 yards and 5 TDs, with 3 interceptions, while rushing for 209 yards. Assuming his shoulder is solid, and he can hold off Matt Linehan, Chalich could be Idaho’s next great quarterback.
Matt Johnson, Bowling Green
After playing sparingly, and not particularly well, in 2012, Johnson took over for incumbent Matt Schilz in the first game and became the rock on which the Bowling Green offense was built. Having the benefit of a strong running game certainly didn’t help, but the sophomore kept them ticking over, and was particularly effective on third down. After a tough early game against Indiana, Johnson played his best in the biggest games, torching Northern Illinois for 393 yards and 5 TDs in the MAC title game, and 272 yards and 2 TDs against Pittsburgh in bowl game, despite getting beaten to a pulp (7 sacks). If there are any concerns for Johnson for next season, he’s not only got a new coach, but he’s losing his top 2 targets, who accounted for 91 of his 237 receptions. His new coach, Dino Babers, is an offensive guru, and he has some pieces to work with. The clearout of star quarterbacks in the MAC certainly makes it look like the Falcons have the top passer in the conference, and with a very manageable schedule, Johnson could be leading BGSU to another league title this season. In 2013, he completed 64.2% of his passes for 3467 and 25 TDs, with 7 interceptions, and ran for 238 yards and 5 scores.
Keenan Reynolds, Navy
Reynolds may not play in an orthodox offense where quarterbacks get to stand back and throw to speedy receivers, but don’t doubt for a second that Reynolds is not put in a position to be the star of the show – and he delivered. Despite everyone and their mother expecting the sophomore to carry the football, they found it a lot harder to stop him as he ran for 1346 yards and an outstanding 31 TDs on 300 carries. Reynolds had 4 100-yard games and 2 200-yard efforts during the season, including a much-ballyhooed 240 yard, 7 TD game against San Jose State. To put Reynolds’ value to the offense in perspective, the second leading rusher, Chris Swain, had just 420 yards and 4 TDs on 107 carries. That’s enough about Reynolds running, he was also a decent passer, something the Midshipmen can’t always boast. Reynolds only threw 128 passes, but he completed 68 (53.1%) for 1057 yards and 8 TDs, with just 2 interceptions. While he struggled on third downs when Navy needed to pass, Reynolds was very effective on first down. Now, with most of his 2013 offense returning, and a manageable schedule, he could be in for a banner year, assuming he can stay healthy.