College Football’s 2023 Reminder:
Never Get Caught Without a QB
(That Means Next Season, Too)

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

College football’s 12-game regular season has not yet reached its halfway point, but already there’s a long list of reminders — including from almost every Football Bowl Subdivision program in the state of North Carolina — of one of the most important rules of the sport:

Never get caught without a quality quarterback.

P.S. Make sure you always have at least one functional backup QB, too.

By the end of the upcoming weekend, five of North Carolina’s seven FBS programs — Appalachian State, Charlotte, Duke, East Carolina and NC State — will have made a major change at the QB position, either because of injury or subpar performances at the most important position on the field. A sixth major in-state program, Wake Forest, has struggled mightily behind center since the transfer of record-setting QB Sam Hartman to Notre Dame, although new starter Mitch Griffis remains the Demon Deacons’ starter, at least for now.

That list shows that only UNC, among in-state FBS programs, has had the desirable trifecta of good health, stability and high-level production at quarterback so far this season.

That’s largely a tribute to 2022 ACC player of the year Drake Maye, who has led the Tar Heels to a 4-0 start. While some of Maye’s midseason numbers (e.g., only five touchdown passes and four interceptions) are not nearly as exceptional as they were for the entirety of last season (38 TD passes, seven INTs), UNC coach Mack Brown said such numbers can be misleading.

“If you take (Maye’s) QBR rating, he’s playing better now than he was last year at this time,” Brown said in an exclusive interview with David Glenn of the new North Carolina Sports Network. “So that’s what we do. We look at his production, we look at his leadership, we look at what he’s doing for this team. … This year’s team has been pretty dominant, with a much tougher schedule than we had at this time last year.

“We’re also running the ball so much better, especially in the red zone, that it takes up some of his touchdowns.”

Brown, 72, knows the importance of a great quarterback, in addition to the importance of reliable QB depth.

When Brown led Texas to a 13-0 season and the 2005 national championship, the Longhorns’ quarterback was Vince Young, who won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top signal-caller and finished second to Southern Cal tailback Reggie Bush in the Heisman Trophy voting.

While Brown’s best teams during his first UNC tenure (1988-97) were led mainly by dominating defenses, Brown showed incredibly important foresight by plugging a potential hole in the QB depth chart with Chris Keldorf, a rare UNC signee from the junior college ranks. Keldorf led UNC’s 10-2 team in 1996, then shared time with Oscar Davenport on one of Carolina’s greatest football teams, the 1997 group that finished 11-1 and #4 in the final coaches poll.

Brown’s best UNC teams during his current/second tenure in Chapel Hill, which overall have been far less effective on defense, have leaned much more heavily on brilliant quarterback play. His 2020 Tar Heels, who finished 8-4 and #17 in the final Associated Press poll, were led by Sam Howell, who’s now the starting QB for the NFL’s Washington Commanders. The 9-5 and 4-0 (thus far) Tar Heels of 2022 and 2023 have been led by Maye, who’s projected as one of the top picks in the 2024 NFL draft.

With these themes in mind, it will be interesting to see how Brown handles his ongoing QB depth chart, on the recruiting trail and otherwise, because Maye’s pending NFL departure leaves the Heels with another potentially gaping hole at quarterback.

UNC’s listed backup this season, Conner Harrell (6-0/205), is an untested redshirt freshman who was inconsistent during spring drills and preseason practice. The Tar Heels’ third-string QB is 6-7, 235-pounder Jefferson Boaz, who was recruited by many college programs as a tight end.

Besides Maye, the only highly recruited QB on the Carolina roster is true freshman Tad Hudson (6-2/225), who enrolled at UNC in January after an exceptional career at Hough High School near Charlotte. Hudson, who was considered one of the top five seniors in North Carolina last season, committed to the Tar Heels prior to his junior season in high school.

In the 2024 recruiting class, Carolina has a pledge from quarterback Michael Merdinger, a three-star high school prospect from Florida. Merdinger, who — unlike the QBs already on UNC’s roster — was recruited by first-year UNC offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, committed to the Heels in May over scholarship offers from Appalachian State, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Tech, Minnesota and others.

Will Brown consider the transfer portal with his 2024 quarterback depth chart in mind? In modern college football, given the rising prominence of the portal and the availability of immediately eligible (in most cases!) transfers, some would say it’s coaching malpractice to enter a season without a single QB who has had significant success at the college level.

The transfer circuit clearly has paid off this season for 3-2 Appalachian State, 4-0 Florida State (Jordan Travis started his college career at Louisville), 4-1 Syracuse (Garrett Schrader, formerly of Mississippi State) and 5-0 Louisville (Jack Plummer started for Cal last season but previously spent four seasons at Purdue with first-year Cardinals coach Jeff Brohm), along with many additional programs that are located beyond the ACC and the state of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, as UNC continues to enjoy Maye’s prowess behind center, App State (freshman starter Ryan Burger) and Duke (dual-threat star Riley Leonard) already have been bitten by the QB injury bug.

The Mountaineers’ season may have been saved by junior college transfer QB Joey Aguilar, who is leading the Sun Belt Conference’s second most prolific offense (36 points per game) since coming off the bench in the opener and came close to leading his team to a victory over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill (a 40-34 Carolina win in double overtime). With Leonard out with a scary-looking high-ankle sprain suffered in a narrow loss to Notre Dame, the Blue Devils are turning to redshirt freshman Henry Belin IV, perhaps for an extended stretch.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, Virginia transfer Brennan Armstrong just lost his starting job at NC State to backup MJ Morris, who initially had planned to redshirt this season. At Charlotte, neither Bethune-Cookman transfer Jalon Jones nor walk-on Trexler Ivey has been able to elevate an offense that struggled during the 49ers’ 1-4 start. At ECU, new starter Mason Garcia has given way to backup Alex Flinn, and neither QB has had much success during the Pirates’ 1-4 start, which has some in Pirate Nation calling for fifth-year coach Mike Houston’s job.

In stark contrast to Maye’s ongoing success story in Chapel Hill, such other quarterback dramas often lead to some combination of painfully ugly offenses, losing records, locker room angst, fan frustration and sometimes even high-level administrative scrutiny.

Unlike many lessons of life and/or the gridiron, these things seem much better learned by watching others’ struggles rather than experiencing such scary QB gauntlets oneself.

2023 QBR Rankings
(NC FBS Teams; # = national rank)

#10 Drake Maye, UNC (4-0) — 86.0
#33 Riley Leonard^, Duke (4-1) — 72.9
#43 Joey Aguilar*, Appalachian State (3-2) — 67.0
#99 Brennan Armstrong, NC State (3-2) — 41.0
#101 Jalon Jones, Charlotte (1-4) — 39.9
#117 Mitch Griffis, Wake Forest (3-1) — 30.7
#123 Alex Flinn*, East Carolina (1-4) — 24.8

2023 QBR Rankings
(ACC Teams; # = national rank)

#2 Tyler Van Dyke, Miami (4-0) — 92.0
#10 Drake Maye, UNC (4-0) — 86.0
#10 Jordan Travis, Florida State (4-0) — 86.0
#28 Garrett Schrader, Syracuse (4-1) — 75.6
#33 Riley Leonard^, Duke (4-1) — 72.9
#35 Anthony Colandrea*, Virginia (0-5) — 72.4
#46 Haynes King, Georgia Tech (2-3) — 66.2
#48 Jack Plummer, Louisville (5-0) — 65.2
#53 Kyron Drones*, Virginia Tech (2-3) — 63.9
#64 Cade Klubnik, Clemson (3-2) — 58.8
#80 Thomas Castellanos*, Boston College (2-3) — 51.9
#99 Brennan Armstrong, NC State (3-2) — 41.0
#107 Phil Jurkovec, Pittsburgh (1-4) — 37.5
#117 Mitch Griffis, Wake Forest (3-1)—30.7

^—currently injured
*—began season as backup

David Glenn ( is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987.