The rise of the true freshman QB
The two best teams in college football last season placed their championship hopes in the hands of teenagers less than a year removed from their senior prom.
When Tua Tagovailoa and Alabama triumphed 26-23 over Jake Fromm-led Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship, it was the embodiment of a trend that’s growing yearly. Power 5 programs are entrusting their offenses to true freshman quarterbacks. The era of freshman-QB stardom is upon us.
Not 50 years ago, freshmen were ineligible to play major college football; now even blue-blood programs — whether by choice or necessity — hand the keys to these newbies. Alabama and Georgia are perfect examples: Tagovailoa’s and Fromm’s predecessors, Jalen Hurts and Jacob Eason, were also true freshmen when they took over the position.
Since 2012, Total QBR for true freshman quarterbacks has risen steadily across the nation, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“It’s amazing to see how it’s evolved,” said Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, himself a true freshman QB nearly two decades ago.
Explanations for the trend are plentiful. The advancements of young quarterbacks have led to a culture of early scholarship offers, meticulous planning, intense recruiting competition and the constant juggling of depth charts as teams hope to find a perfect match at the game’s most important position.
ESPN.com interviewed more than 20 people in and around college football to understand what’s behind the shift, how prospects plan for it and how coaches manage these situations.
Everyone has heard the stories and seen the headlines: “Alabama offers a scholarship to an eighth-grader,” “13-year-old QB commits to USC.” It kick-starts a predictable debate of when is too early to offer a prospect, whether borderline teenagers truly know what a “commitment” is and a cycle of jokes about coaches scouting players just out of their mother’s womb.
Bluster aside, while such cases are outliers, they do underscore the accelerated process in which quarterbacks — and all recruits, for that matter — are currently evaluated.
“I’m a believer that you have to recruit three classes at once,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.
That means high school seniors, juniors and sophomores. When it comes to quarterbacks, that process can begin even earlier, Fisher admits, “sometimes as freshmen.” Grant Gunnell, one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2019 class, said he received five scholarship offers after his freshman season at Houston’s St. Pius X High School.
“It’s nerve-racking,” said Gunnell, who was 15 years old when his first offer came. “I wasn’t even worried about [colleges]; I was worried about Spanish class.”
Fisher said offers that early are usually on a case-by-case basis. Several coaches and quarterbacks pointed to the high school sophomore season as a key time when a prospect’s recruitment activity intensifies.
“It just depends on each scenario,” Fisher said. “Where you’ve been exposed to him, or what you think he has, or where you think his potential is.”
The sooner the relationship is established, the more comfortable coaches are with the prospect. Time is essential, particularly in the inexact science that is quarterback evaluation, where mental makeup is as important as arm strength.
West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital recalls vividly his first exposure in person to Tagovailoa.
During Spavital’s lone year at Cal after coordinating the Texas A&M offense, he recruited nationally for coach Sonny Dykes. In the spring of 2016, Spavital visited Honolulu to watch a kid who checked many of the same boxes as numerous quarterbacks the coach had scouted elsewhere.
“They’re all right, they’re all right, and then you see the one,” Spavital said. “And he’s a freak. That’s what I saw with Tua. It’s insane when there’s an elite-level guy. There’s a huge difference.”
For Spavital, it was “the way the ball jumped out of his hand,” a talent on display 20 months later in the title game as Tagovailoa entered at halftime and threw three touchdowns.
“This was a unique situation that you’re not going to see every year,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, a renowned QB whisperer, “and may never see again, two freshmen squaring off for the national championship.”
Unique, yes, but look closely and perhaps you would’ve seen it coming.
Preparing for early enrollment
Early scouting leads to a speedier recruitment, including the timing of a prospect’s arrival on campus.
Several coaches who spoke to ESPN.com agreed that the early enrollment trend among prospects — which is practiced across positions but was once quarterback-centric — is one of the biggest driving forces in the rush to start young signal-callers.
The basics of early enrollment are well-known by now: Prospects skip the final semester of their senior year of high school to enroll at their chosen college in January, just in time for spring practice. It allows them to acclimate to the college academic environment, participate in the football team’s strength and conditioning program, and begin learning the playbook.
Thirty years ago it was a rare occurrence. In 1991, Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier became one of the first to do it and it paid off: He wound up starting midway through his freshman season and was a four-year starter. A decade later, a handful of the top national recruits each year were doing it. Nowadays, early enrollment is standard practice if a quarterback hopes to start right away. It is now prevalent across positions — not just with quarterbacks — and some programs bring in upward of 10 mid-term signees in a given recruiting class.
While not required for everyone (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is an example of a quarterback who didn’t enroll early and still started as a true freshman), it’s strongly recommended both by prospects who’ve done it and college coaches.
“You never want to use the word ‘must,'” Texas coach Tom Herman said, “but the advantages are so big that it would be hard to imagine a kid coming in in June and being your starting quarterback in August.”
In 2014, then-Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen lost a tight preseason battle with Kenny Hill for the Aggies’ starting job, then eventually took over in the season’s final five games. Coming in for the spring semester helped his chances, in his opinion.
“It’s not [just] about learning the offense,” Allen said. “It’s more about being around people in the locker room and creating those relationships and winning people over. I think it’s really tough to come in in June or July and do it.”
When it comes to the difficulty of doing it in the summer months, current Aggies quarterback Nick Starkel — who did not enroll early and redshirted as a freshman — agrees.
“I came over the summer. I was not ready to play,” Starkel said. “I’ll be the first to tell you, I wasn’t ready to play. Then halfway through the season, I felt like I might have been ready. But that redshirt year helped me develop mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
Herman said the extra five to six months on campus makes quarterbacks “leaps and bounds more prepared” as freshmen.
Quarterback recruits and their families begin planning for this far in advance. Herman said in recruiting, the prospect’s sophomore year is typically when early graduation plans “start heating up.” Mike Allen, Kyle’s father, said that was the case for his son.
“[We started planning] as soon as we knew he was playing college ball,” he said. “If you want to start, you have to. … We started looking at his classes and figuring out what we needed to do to make it happen.”
Once Gunnell — who’s No. 182 overall in the 2019 ESPN 300 — started getting a lot of recruiting interest, he began planning for early graduation. He took summer-school classes between his sophomore and junior years to get ahead academically. He wants to be on campus early for multiple reasons, including the opportunity to play as a freshman.
“I mean, it’s not a huge factor, but definitely, it’s something I would like to do,” Gunnell said. “Just an extra semester to learn the offense and if I’m ready, I’m ready.”
Some take it a step further. USC quarterback J.T. Daniels is the most recent example of a prospect who reclassified and graduated a year early, skipping his senior year of high school entirely. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley did the same thing in 2016. Bentley wound up starting the second half of the 2017 season. Daniels enters what is presumably a wide-open competition to succeed Sam Darnold.
In addition to the early enrollment trend, freshman quarterbacks arrive on campus more prepared than ever.
“The reality of it is,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said, “young guys aren’t young anymore. The assumption that you can fool them or that you can play a certain way defensively against a freshman, that mindset will get you in trouble fast.”
The reason why?
“Development,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “You’ve got these quarterback camps. Everybody’s got a trainer nowadays. Guys start early. There’s more 7-on-7 tournaments than ever.”
Playing almost year-round is possible, particularly for skill-position players, thanks to the explosion of 7-on-7. In Texas, high school football season starts in August and ends in mid-December. By season’s end, some 7-on-7 travel teams have already hosted tryouts, and by February, their season begins. In the spring, high schools play in 7-on-7 leagues and qualifying tournaments that lead to a state 7-on-7 championship tournament in late June. Those high schools also have their own summer strength and conditioning programs, just like their college counterparts.
“Any time you get the ball in your hand and get more reps, it helps you get ready faster,” Houston coach Major Applewhite said. “I know 7-on-7 isn’t real football, but it’s still throwing guys open and stuff like that.”
Private coaching also has accelerated player development. The industry — again, originally a quarterback-centric notion — has exploded in the past decade, and most of the top recruits have a personal trainer.
“It’s not [just] about learning the offense. It’s more about being around people in the locker room and creating those relationships and winning people over. I think it’s really tough to come in in June or July and do it.”
Orgeron’s assertion that “guys start early” is an understatement. Quarterback trainer Kevin Murray, founder of Air14 Football and father of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, said some parents start training their would-be wunderkinds as early as 10 years old. Murray trains roughly 40 quarterbacks, and the majority of his clients are in high school or college.
“[We work on] just raw mechanics,” Murray said. “Footwork. Body control. Being compact. Force. Staying on top of the ball. Using your body.”
Gunnell, who works with Missouri-based trainer Skip Stitzell and former NFL quarterback Sean Salisbury, said these sessions allow him to home in on the technical side of the position without having to worry about learning plays or scouting a defense for a Friday night game. Such investment puts today’s quarterbacks ahead of those who didn’t have such resources available or didn’t specialize.
Whether specialization is necessary is debatable. Hurts ran track and powerlifted in addition to football and didn’t have a trainer or play travel 7-on-7, and it didn’t prevent him from being SEC Offensive Player of the Year in his debut season. Gunnell said he plays basketball, though a knee injury kept him out this season. Most agree, however, the more players work at their craft, the better they’ll be.
“I think to be at the top tier you have to train [extra],” Gunnell said.
The downside to all this advancement in quarterback development? Well, to start, 7-on-7 competition, which undeniably accelerates the learning curve of young players, “isn’t real football,” said Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski.
He’s not disputing its prominence — or the importance of playing in the offseason. At many Power 5 campuses, in fact, it’s common for 7-on-7 teams to visit as a group in the offseason. But this altered version of the sport, combined with the grooming of quarterbacks from a young age, heightens the risk of creating robots at the position.
“It gets a little bit scary at times when we run into a young man who comes to visit us, and it seems like he’s been created in a basement,” Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said. “You wonder, ‘Is the kid enjoying this?’ You don’t want a young kid to see throwing the football as a job.”
Arriving and adapting
So your freshman quarterback has planned, trained, enrolled early and is ready to compete. Even though arriving early helps him get a head start, it doesn’t guarantee anything more than a chance. In order to start, one necessary ingredient is maturity.
“You have to be disciplined enough, you have to be smart enough and mature enough to go in with older guys and be able to perform,” said Averion Hurts Sr., father of Jalen Hurts. “And your work ethic has to be very high.”
Jalen proved that in his initial months in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He arrived in time to participate in the Crimson Tide’s week of practice leading up to their first title bout with Clemson and played the role of Deshaun Watson on the scout team. Just weeks after graduating high school, Hurts was already going toe-to-toe with an elite defense.
Allen, who started the final five games at Texas A&M as a true freshman, said he wishes he had done a few things differently in his first year.
“I think the one thing that I always thought that I wish I did differently was my process, my preparation and my routine,” said Allen, who later transferred to Houston and is now going pro. “I just didn’t know any better at that time. I was doing what I was doing in high school, in Arizona, which was a little different.”
Everyone who cited early enrollment as a key factor to starting early cited one benefit: having extra time to learn the offense.
If you’re going from a one-back spread offense, like the Air Raid, to a pro-style offense with drastically different terminology and formations, the extra time is vital. The prominence of offenses like the Air Raid — both in college and high school — has curtailed the learning curve, somewhat, for incoming quarterbacks.
“Offenses are becoming less wordy and more simple in the spread,” Applewhite said. “More signal-oriented than talking so freshmen can go in there and play and not have to tell everybody [everything].”
Teams that run hurry-up, no-huddle offenses (which are now typical) often operate on plays that are only one or a few words. The less a quarterback has to bark at the line of scrimmage, the faster the offense can go.
Coaches are cognizant not to throw the kitchen sink at their young quarterbacks. Herman said trying to strip away some responsibilities — such as calling protections or sending receivers in motion — helps minimize the mental load.
“You try to eliminate as much of that in-game processing that’s not from snap to whistle,” Herman said. “You try to take as much of that off their plate as you can.”
Not all spreads are created equal, though, and it leads to a common misnomer, according to Syracuse coach Dino Babers: The spread didn’t directly give rise to the emergence of freshman quarterbacks. “The spread where you want to run, that’s just a wider version of the option,” said Babers, whose spread system helped transform Jimmy Garoppolo at Eastern Illinois. “In the old days of Oklahoma and the Houston veer, you could take a freshman and he could run your offense, because the reads were so simplified. Some of the spread teams are just option teams lined up wide.”
While the spread formations reduce deception across the line of scrimmage and allow young quarterbacks to more easily read a defense, no offensive scheme deserves credit for the likes of Fromm and Tagovailoa.
So maybe it’s about access — to more video, to better coaching at the youth and high school levels, to more reps in general.
Forget the connection to old offensive schemes, Leach said. Two decades ago, film was limited.
“It was expensive to process and nobody had it except for football coaches within a team setting,” Leach said. “It’s all on the internet now. You can look up stuff whether you’re any good at football or not — and study in detail, I think, 24 hours a day. Some of it will be full of horrible ideas, and some of it will be brilliant.
“But the thing is, there’s a lot of material.”
Ask most coaches and they’ll be honest: It’s not preferable to start a freshman quarterback. Often, it’s done out of necessity. Most would prefer a veteran who has been in the offense for years, but that’s not always feasible. Throwing a freshman into the fire can create its own set of issues.
“What if [immediate success] doesn’t happen?” Limegrover said. “What then?”
Patience wanes. And the transfer market expands.
Depth charts hollow out. Often in a quarterback competition, this refrain rings true: Winner starts, loser transfers.
“In the world we live in today,” Gdowski said, “you’ve got a lot of people telling you how good you are. It’s hard not to listen to that.” At Oklahoma, even before Baker Mayfield first won the QB job in 2015, competitor Justice Hansen transferred. Trevor Knight followed, and Cody Thomas left to play baseball. Depth concerns resulted.
When Hurts arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2016, he was one of five scholarship quarterbacks there. By the time Alabama’s season ended and Tagovailoa arrived, the other four had transferred. This offseason has been and will continue to be fueled by speculation as to who will transfer and when once Saban declares his 2018 starter. At Georgia, Fromm took over for Eason, who has since transferred. And the Bulldogs’ prize 2018 recruit — ESPN 300 No. 1 overall prospect Justin Fields — hopes to unseat Fromm.
“They want to play right now,” Herman said. “So if you’ve got a guy who won the job as a sophomore, it’s really hard to keep the ones that are behind him. And so, when they transfer and then that guy either gets hurt or graduates, you’re not left with much, it’s like you’ve got to start over again every few years.”
It’s a common tale.
“It’s changed how you evaluate guys,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “I don’t know if we’re teaching the best lessons. … Some guys want to get away right when it’s not working out. In life, we can’t run away from our problems.
“I’m a believer that you have to recruit three classes at once.”
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher
In many cases, it’s hard to blame the prospects. Only one quarterback can play at a time, unlike most other positions. Some find the situations they’re in don’t fit or trust has ebbed, as was the case with Kyle Allen, who told ESPN.com last year that “there wasn’t very good communication within the [Texas A&M] program,” when he was there, prompting him to leave for Houston. Kevin Murray expressed similar sentiments, saying his son Kyler left A&M “for the right reasons.”
If there’s a coaching change and suddenly the new offensive system doesn’t fit the quarterback’s skill set, it’s easy to understand why some opt for the change in scenery. A transfer even turned out to be the best option for Mayfield, who went from Texas Tech walk-on to the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
“Look at the Heisman Trophy winner,” Murray said. “He left Tech. It worked for him. It was a great move for the kid … but very rarely does a situation work out like that.”
One byproduct of quarterbacks enrolling early is that they get ahead academically, unlocking the ability to graduate in three years. That has created an expanded graduate transfer market, which has become an offseason ritual. If a quarterback redshirted one year, he can transfer with two years of eligibility left without having to sit out a season, like Jake Coker did before leading the Tide to the 2015 national title.
Kingsbury said he believes the rise of young quarterbacks is here to stay.
“They’re developing faster for a myriad of reasons,” the Texas Tech coach said. “I don’t see that trend stopping.”
But trends in college football historically travel full circle.
For every action, there’s a reaction. For every young quarterback set to reach new heights, there’s a defensive coordinator working to shut him down.
Babers, the third-year Syracuse coach, said change is coming soon.
“There’s balance and counterbalance,” he said.
Today, the field of play tilts in favor of youth and offensive innovation. Tomorrow? Someone will bring order back to the game.
“Whoever that is,” Babers said, pausing to consider his words, “well, maybe he is the next Nick Saban.”
For now, even Saban’s answer is elementary. If you can’t beat the youth movement, join it.