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Across the college football landscape, with teams becoming more pass-oriented, the signal caller is vital to the success of an offense. Expectations rise when a top-tier quarterback returns to command the huddle.

Gone are the days of Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Kyle Trask and Mac Jones at the college level. Their departure ushers in a fresh look at other ascending stars at the QB position entering 2021.

Sooners Wire breaks down the top five returning quarterbacks for this upcoming season. The compilation is based on established players. Spencer Rattler and Sam Howell are the obvious Heisman favorites and contenders to be the best in the nation but several other premier names will vie for the spotlight on Saturdays. At the snap of the football, here are the top quarterbacks to watch.

Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma

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Spencer Rattler is another prodigy under Lincoln Riley’s development. He continues OU’s dominance at the quarterback position. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, Rattler led Oklahoma to a Big 12 title. Despite a slow start, he took the college football world by storm down the stretch. Rattler completed 68.0 percent of his passes for 2,784 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He earned a 92.5 grade, the best mark PFF has ever given to a true or redshirt freshman quarterback. Rattler led all FBS passers with a 91.3 passing grade in 2020 and is poised for another mesmerizing season come fall in Norman. Rattler has been compared to a young Patrick Mahomes and for good reason. His electrifying arm-talent and improvisation skills are rare. Rattler’s off-platform throws are a thing of beauty with unconventional footwork. He is the genuine article. His supporting cast will return as well with top receivers Marvin Mims and Theo Wease, mismatch tight end Austin Stogner, Kennedy Brooks out of the backfield and a healthy Jadon Haselwood. With the addition of Eric Gray and Mario Williams, Oklahoma’s offense will once again be red-hot entering the 2021 season. The sky is the limit for the Sooners with Rattler under center. The coveted crown is not out of the question with No. 7 entering the huddle.

Sam Howell, North Carolina

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Sam Howell concluded the 2020 season as the sixth-highest graded quarterback at 92.3. His deep ball off play-action ignites UNC’s offense. He ranked first in the Power Five in 20-plus-yard completions (66), passing yards (2,654), and touchdowns (32) over the last two seasons. Howell is the key in Phil Longo’s system. Howell revamped North Carolina’s offense and in 2020, the team averaged 556.6 yards and 43.0 points. In 2019 as a freshman, he threw for 3,641 yards and 38 scores with seven interceptions. He had another stellar year in 2020 with 3,352 yards, 27 touchdowns and six interceptions. UNC is on the brink of greatness with Howell as the cornerstone.

D’Eriq King, Miami

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D’Eriq King will take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility in 2020, allowing seniors to return for another year. After transferring from Houston, the dual-threat quarterback set Miami’s offense on fire with elusive mobility. Since the move, King threw for 2,683 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions with the Hurricanes. He also made an impact on the ground, totaling 538 rushing yards and four scores. His 90.6 PFF grade for the 2020 year ranked 10th in the FBS. According to PFF, on 111 runs (85 designed, 26 scrambles), King notched 26 rushes of 10-plus yards. He can beat teams through the air and on the ground; a nightmare for defenses to game plan around. Of course there are the recovery and health concerns post-ACL tear, but with King ready to roll in Week 1, Miami will bring the heat. And I am not talking about the Florida heat.

Dillon Gabriel, UCF

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Dillon Gabriel’s decision-making and downfield accuracy make him elite. He ranked second in the FBS in deep passing yards in 2020 with 1,338. Gabriel’s vertical bombs were as close to perfection as it gets. As a freshman in 2019, he accumulated 3,653 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The next season, Gabriel racked up 3,570 yards, 34 touchdowns and four interceptions. He thrived in Josh Heupel’s RPO and play-action-centric system and his 357.0 passing yards-per-game last season were behind only Kyle Trask at 375.0. The question mark will be his production in a new offensive direction under head coach Gus Malzahn. Gabriel made a big leap in his second year at UCF and he is on track for another outspending campaign in 2021.

JT Daniels, Georgia

(Photo/Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald)
The USC transfer boosted UGA’s offense in 2020. JT Daniels threw for 10 touchdowns and 1231 yards in the Dawgs’ last four games. With his presence and command of the huddle, Georgia averaged 41.7 points in that span.

Daniels’ suffered a severe leg injury in 2019 that derailed his career and sidelined him for the rest of the season with Kedon Slovis stepping into the starting QB role. Knowing his dreams of becoming a first-round pick were slipping at USC, he entered the transfer portal and transferred to Georgia. With a supporting cast of Kearis Jackson, George Pickens, Jermaine Burton and Darnell Washington, Daniels has a chance to up his draft stock and compete for a title in 2021. His potential was hindered by injury and the transfer but if his production continues in 2021, he will once again regain his status among the QB hierarchy and climb draft boards.