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Returning MAC Quarterbacks of 2023, Ranked
Austin Smith finally got some playing time in 2022, where does he rank among other MAC QBs entering 2023?
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Top 10 Returning MAC Quarterbacks
#1 Kurtis Rourke, Ohio
Career stats: 443/655 passing (67.6%), 5,444 yards (8.3 Y/A, 8.7 AY/A), 39 TD, 11 INT, 153.7 QBR; 165 rush att., 609 rush yards (3.7 avg.), 7 rush TD
The Maple Missle’s coming back, and he’ll certainly be a huge attraction for the November MACtion heads.
Kurtis Rourke’s high-flying 2022 season came down to a halt when he went down to an injury and had to miss the final three games of the year — the home finish vs. Bowling Green, the MAC title game vs. Toledo, and the Arizona Bowl vs. Wyoming. Despite being sidelined late into the year, Rourke’s passing numbers were simply eye-popping for the season.
They were the kind of numbers this conference needed out of a star quarterback; 3,257 total passing yards, 296 per game — the MAC’s highest average since Logan Woodside’s 317.2 yards per game in 2016 — 9.2 yards per attempt, 69.1% pass completion rate, 25 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, and 4 rushing touchdowns to boot.
By Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics, Rourke was sacked just 16 times on 121 defensive pressures, the best pressure-to-sack rate (13.22%) of any returning starting MAC QB from last year. He also returns with the highest adjusted completion percentage (78%) and big-time throw percentage (7.4%) of last year’s starting MAC QBs.
Rourke returns as the MAC’s reigning conference MVP and is in a good position to repeat as the league’s top quarterback. If the wide receivers around him, like Sam Wiglusz and Jacoby Jones, continue to improve, then Ohio’s bound to have another season where it finishes as one of the best-scoring teams in the conference.
#2 Dequan Finn, Toledo
Career stats: 189/316 passing (59.8%), 2,269 yards (7.2 Y/A, 6.9 AY/A), 23 TD, 12 INT, 136.5 QBR; 130 rush att., 632 rush yards (4.9 avg.), 9 rush TD
Dequan Finn, I think, still has his best football ahead of him.
The Detroit native, who flipped from Central Michigan to Toledo during the recruiting process, is a great athlete with the dual-threat ability that all MAC coaches need on their team. Last season he finally had Toledo’s starting spot all to himself, when healthy, instead of sharing the time with Carter Bradley, who transferred to South Alabama.
Finn’s the first Toledo quarterback in my ten-or-so years covering the MAC to be one of the fastest players for his team’s offense. This is a program that loves explosive plays, and has a history of guys throwing deep passes for monster gains. Compared to other starting MAC QBs in 2022, Finn led the in rushing TDs (9), was second in rushing average (4.85), and rushes for 10+ yards (24; 7 for 20+ yards).
Helps that Toledo always has a ton of talent on the offense’s perimeter, too. The team’s #1 and #3 receivers from last season (Jerjuan Newton and Devin Maddox) return this year, and the offensive line added two transfers from the Power 5 for added protection.
#3 Rocky Lombardi, Northern Illinois
NIU career stats: 250/418 passing (59.8%), 3,242 yards (7.8 Y/A, 7.7 AY/A), 20 TD, 9 INT, 136.4 QBR; 100 rush att., 474 rush yards (4.7 avg.), 10 rush TD
Rocky Lombardi feels like such a throwback quarterback. His first name is Rocky. In his first year as a college transfer, he linked up with a fullback to help his team win the MAC title. Dude takes a lot of hits. As EMU fans remember, he passed all over the Eagles’ defense last year on one leg.
That’s tough as hell.
As an athlete, Lombardi is certainly a stronger MAC QB, but I wouldn’t quite label him as dynamic. He plays with a ton of heart and a lot of muscle, and that’s usually a good recipe for success.
As a passer, Lombardi has shown a ton of improvement with each passing year. His QB rating jumped from 117.2 in his 2020 season at Michigan State (157 pass attempts) to 131.7 (343 att.) in his first year with NIU, then up to 158.2 (75 att.) last year. His TD-INT ratio in 2022 was 15-8. Through four games last year, he finished with 5-1.
Lombardi’s early exit to the season was a stinker for the team, but the talent around him wasn’t exactly great either. There were a lot of missing pieces from the 2021 MAC title run that led to NIU’s 3-9 record, a healthy Lombardi could’ve only saved the team so much. The skilled talent around Lombardi took a dip between graduations, transfers, and injuries. If this year’s roster can give Lombardi a chance to perform, then I’m sure he’ll be able to play up to his potential.
#4 Brett Gabbert, Miami
Career stats: 450/765 passing (58.8%), 6,259 yards (8.2 Y/A, 8.5 AY/A), 45 TD, 14 INT, 143.3 QBR; 188 rush att., 332 rush yards (1.8 avg.), 5 rush TD
How long ago was the 2021 season?
In 2021, Brett Gabbert finished the season with a MAC-best 26 passing TD (to just 6 INT) and a MAC-best QB rating of 158.6. That’s also the last time we’ve seen him throw an interception — he had two in the MAC East-deciding game at Kent State.
That’s largely due to injury. Last season, Gabbert suffered an upper-body injury against Kentucky in the 2022 opener and only played in three more games after that.
Gabbert leads all returning MAC QBs in career TD thrown (45), career passing yards (6,259), and is second in career yards per attempt (8.2), and QB rating (143.3).
This year, I expect that Gabbert will lead Miami's offense after a not-so-fun 2022 season. But let’s not forget an awkward detail that happened this offseason: Gabbert did dip his toes in the transfer portal waters from November 23 to December 9, 2022.
#5 D.J. Irons, Akron
Akron career stats: 331/499 passing (66.3%), 3,498 yards (7.0 Y/A, 6.7 AY/A), 18 TD, 11 INT, 132.7 QBR; 224 rush att., 610 rush yards (2.7 avg.), 6 rush TD
I don’t think D.J. Irons is any less talented than any of the other guys ahead of him, but they’ve all had better careers so far.
Irons joined the team as a junior college transfer in the final year of the Tom Arth era and stayed on to be the full-year starter with Joe Moorhead as the new coach in 2022. Irons didn’t become more efficient from Year 1 to Year 2 with the team, but the workload was certainly there. His QB rating dipped from 142.8 to 129.5, and his yards per attempt went from 7.4 to 6.9; Irons never threw even 30 passes in any game in 2021, but had five games with over 40 attempts in 2022.
With 2023 being Year 3 of Irons and his second learning from Joe Moorhead, improved efficiency is yet to be seen, but improved gains are certainly expected. Irons threw just 10 passing TDs in 10 games played last year. There’s so much potential in Irons to improve on his previous marks and maybe leap over some other guys on this list for me, but I’ve just got to see him play up to what he’s capable of more often first.
#6 Cole Snyder, Buffalo
2022 stats: 271/461 passing (58.8%), 3,030 yards (6.6 Y/A, 6.6 AY/A), 18 TD, 8 INT, 123.4 QBR; 110 rush att., 146 rush yards (1.3 avg.), 4 rush TD
Cole Snyder, who transferred in from Rutgers for Maurice Linguist’s second season as Buffalo’s head coach, got things rolling early on in 2022 thanks to some big-play receivers that were also found via transfers.
Snyder’s best game of the 2022 season arguably came against EMU when he was 20 of 29 passing (69%) for 297 yards with 4 total touchdowns (2 passing, 2 rushing). The 50-31 win for Buffalo broke a winless record at the time and really helped the team’s chances at making a push in the East standings.
After Buffalo beat Toledo to turn an 0-3 start into a 5-game winning streak, the Bulls fell way short to Ohio (45-24). Snyder completed 51% of his passes for 238 yards, 2 scores, 1 interception. On the other side, Kurtis Rourke completed 69% of his throws and finished with 5 touchdown passes. It didn’t help that Buffalo rushed for 22 years on 28 attempts as a team that game.
Snyder was an OK quarterback who finished with average numbers, and it was good enough to lead Buffalo into a second-place finish in the division. Maybe another year with UB’s offense will help him in this season, but losing the top three receivers from last year’s roster probably won’t help.
#7 Tucker Gleason, Toledo
2022 stats: 58/122 passing (47.4%), 884 yards (7.2 Y/A, 7.5 AY/A), 8 TD, 3 INT, 125.1 QBR; 42 rush att., 185 rush yards (4.4 avg.), 3 rush TD
Tucker Gleason only started in three games for Toledo when Finn was out with injury, and spent half of that time playing with a broken hand. In the one start he had with a healthy hand, Toledo beat EMU 27-24, and Gleason’s go-ahead TD pass in the final two minutes of the game was his third of the game (no turnovers). Meanwhile, EMU had both Taylor Powell and Austin Smith in action.
Toledo ended up losing in Gleason’s next couple of starts, and he finished with a sub-50% mark on his completion rate, but he made enough big plays in important moments, and helped win the game that decided the MAC West race.
#8 Austin Smith, Eastern Michigan
2022 stats: 68/119 passing (57.1%), 774 yards (6.5 Y/A, 6.0 AY/A), 6 TD, 4 INT, 121.7 QBR; 61 rush att., 255 rush yards (4.2 avg.), 2 rush TD
Finally, we get to the one quarterback readers of this newsletter actually care most for.
Smith, who was an early enrollee for the team in 2021 out of Cedar Grove HS (Ellenwood, Ga.), wasn’t phased when his number was called at Arizona State when Powell went down with an injury. The young QB and the team’s rushing attack helped win a historic game in Pac-12 land.
Smith’s rushing ability is what separated him from Powell on last year’s team, but he didn’t have the passing efficiency to help balance out his opportunities, nor did he stay healthy long enough to see what he could’ve done in the final three games of the year.
After the Toledo loss, Smith was the starting QB at Akron and at Kent State. At Kent State, Smith went down with an injury on the team’s opening drive, so Powell had to fill-in for Smith, just like the Arizona State situation.
Assuming Smith is EMU’s starting QB to enter the 2023 season, it’s clear to everybody watching him that he’s got the potential to be an All-MAC QB, but he’s not going to get there if his deep-ball passing game remains stagnant. According to PFF, Smith was 3 of 13 (1 TD, 2 INT, 110 yards) on passes that were 20+ yards downfield.
#9 Aveon Smith, Miami
2022 stats: 108/218 passing (49.5%), 1,299 yards (6.0 Y/A, 5.9 AY/A), 11 TD, 5 INT, 111.7 QBR; 123 rush att., 553 rush yards (4.5 avg.), 6 rush TD
Miami’s Smith probably wasn’t totally ready to see the field as early has he was called to.
Running the football, Smith was really great. He’d get the ball on designed runs and was smart enough to breakaway from defenders and create monster gains.
As a passer, Smith’s production was difficult to gameplan with. The team needed a strong passer, and Smith reached 60% passing in just two games. The only time the offense reached 30 points was when it played against FCS-level Robert Morris.
Smith’s going to enter the 2023 season as a backup again, and he’s got a ton of experience now that he wouldn't have if it weren’t for Gabbert’s unfortunate injuries last year. Maybe he’ll come out a better passer for it, but I currently view him a little too one-dimensional at the position.
#10 CJ Harris, Ohio
2022 stats: 52/97 passing (53.6%), 577 yards (5.9 Y/A, 6.1 AY/A), 3 TD, 1 INT, 111.7 QBR; 37 rush att., 168 rush yards (4.5 avg.), 3 rush TD
Harris’ playing time in 2022 came once Rourke suffered a late-season injury. Ohio’s big-armed Canadian quarterback wasn’t able to play in the MAC title game, it was Harris instead. Even though he was able to score four times in the regular season finale vs. Bowling Green (1 passing, 3 rushing), Harris didn’t have any scores in the championship game vs. Toledo.
The young QB redeemed himself in the Arizona Bowl, which ended on his 10-yard TD pass in overtime to beat Wyoming (30-27).