May 27, 2021

4 CFB Players Who Could Have Zach Wilson-like Rise in 2021

The 2021 NFL Draft wrapped up a month ago, and one of the hot storylines of the event was how BYU quarterback Zach Wilson jumped from a middling quarterback in 2019 to a star in 2020. His meteoric rise defied odds only one year after Joe Burrow did the same thing. Now evaluators are on the lookout for who the next Wilson might be.

The eventual No. 2 overall pick and New York Jets quarterback saw a massive statistical jump from his sophomore season to his junior campaign. He was healthier, but also improved against pressure and overall performance. His completion rate went up 11 percent, passing yards increased by 1,300, threw 22 more touchdowns, and dropped his interceptions from nine to three.

We've identified four candidates who could see a similarly massive jump thanks to the blend of a playmaker mindset and high-end physical tools. Little else can lead to a Day 3 prospect turning into a top-five selection in a one-year period. These four individuals have massive potential.

Michael Penix Jr., Indiana Hoosiers

A physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, athletic and with a strong arm, Michael Penix Jr. has the tools to be an elite QB if he's fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered last November. His debut as a freshman quickly led to serious expectations. But the COVID-19-impacted 2020 campaign saw a big drop in his completion rate and overall effectiveness. 

Some of this likely had to do with a lack of preparation time between Penix and his surrounding cast. But his mechanics visually looked off, and his balance throughout throws must improve. He tends to guide the ball rather than throwing his guys open.

Accuracy isn't a lost cause for the dual-threat, though. Unfortunately, it'll be tough for Penix to improve in the offseason while rehabbing. 

There's a ton of room for someone in the mold of Kyler Murray to rise up the boards. The QB2 race is wide open behind Spencer Rattler. Penix has a cleaner route than anyone in the country to claiming it if he can right some of his mechanical wrongs and stay aggressive throwing downfield.

Emory Jones, Florida Gators

Want a big leap of faith? How about believing in a former four-star recruit who to this point hasn't thrown the ball more than 86 times in his career. Nevertheless, Florida Gators' junior QB Emory Jones now has the keys to Dan Mullen's terrific system and his potential is sky-high.

Jones is a solid athlete with an absolute cannon. The difference between Jones and Kyle Trask was stark, and some felt that Jones managed the offense better than the wobbly-armed veteran who is now Tom Brady's backup in Tampa Bay. But Jones doesn't have the experience and polish needed to be more than a projection right now.

The Gators will be replenishing their playmaker corps after losing Kadarius Toney, Kyle Pitts and Trevon Grimes. There's always a ton of athletes on the roster and they'll have to step up to help Jones' development. Taking a one-year starter is always a risky play for NFL teams but the fruit can be worth the squeeze if the ingredients are right.

Dustin Crum, Kent State Golden Flashes

The 2019 version of Dustin Crum was awesome. He completed just under 70 percent of his passes for 2,625 yards, 20 touchdowns and just two interceptions. It was his first season starting after attempting a paltry 57 throws in his first two seasons. 

His explosion continued in the four games he played in 2020. He completed 73.5 percent of passes for 1,181 yards, 12 touchdowns and two picks. He's an exciting playmaker on a team that relies on him to create explosive plays. 

Listed at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, Crum won't wow anyone with his size and frame. But the same was said of Wilson. And the way Crum plays isn't too far off even if his arm strength isn't quite the same.

He has several positives that can help compensate for an average arm. He's feisty, athletic, tough, and has good traits overall. He plays better within the pocket than Wilson did in 2020. He has to own the game more in his final season at Kent State and find those splash plays. 

Grayson McCall, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

We saw plenty of great play out of Coastal Carolina in 2020. Their surprising performance as an upstart program was led by redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has a ton of moxie, a good arm, great touch and accuracy, and some playmaking chops. 

He completed almost 69 percent of his 250 attempts for 2,488 yards, 26 scores and just three interceptions. His efficiency in the RPO-based offense was extremely encouraging. He's a smart passer who did a good job of reading leverage and understanding where to go with the ball.

The next logical step might lead to worse statistics but a better grasp of the offense. He'll have to transcend the system more often and break the scheme. It's a fine line between being a cog in the system and being the catalyst, but he has the upside to rise quickly with more comfort being in control. 

Photo: Getty Images