Don’t expect to see a bunch of young quarterbacks when most FBS teams take the field in the next few weeks. Unlike last year, which saw several true freshmen win starting jobs prior to Week 1, things currently look pretty barren with the class of 2020 even though Georgia Tech freshman Jeff Sims led the Jackets to an upset win over Florida State.
Last fall saw Jayden Daniels (Arizona State), Sam Howell (North Carolina), Bo Nix (Auburn) and Hank Bachmeier (Boise State) start their season openers. Max Duggan (TCU), Kedon Slovis (USC), Dillon Gabriel (UCF), John Rhys Plumlee (Ole Miss) and Ryan Hilinski (South Carolina) were all starting rather quickly.
How did the class of 2019 quarterback group – which was poo-pooed as weak throughout the recruiting cycle – end up with what appears to be so many more true freshmen starters to open the season? Naturally, there are some program-specific factors like favorable depth charts or injuries that played key roles last year. But that still doesn’t account for what appears to be a low number of starters from the 2020 cycle at this juncture.
I see a few big picture reasons playing a role in this lower number of true freshman starters.
LIMITED SPRING AND OFFSEASON
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Little to no spring practice for most programs erased much of the advantage a freshman quarterback has by enrolling early. In addition to the shortened or fully cancelled spring, teams were sent home and separated for much of the offseason, with quarterbacks missing out on the time that is typically used for voluntary throwing sessions – which are often cited as vital for improving chemistry between quarterbacks and wide receivers. Just ask Joe Burrow and LSU.
MISSED TIME DUE TO COVID-19 PROTOCOL
In addition to the lack of spring and offseason opportunities, some freshmen quarterbacks have missed time in camp, like Alabama’s Bryce Young and Tennessee’s Harrison Bailey. Without the spring, training camp is the only chance to make a move as coaches are placing even more stock than normal in practices and scrimmages. Missing even a little bit of time can place any player, let alone a freshman, behind the eight ball. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt flat out admitted the wonky offseason and time in quarantine due to contact tracing have given Bailey less opportunities than normal.
STARTING THE SEASON WITH CONFERENCE PLAY
Most head coaches are inherently conservative when it comes to playing young quarterbacks. They may not want to roll the dice and put up with the growing pains that come with a younger player who lacks experience, especially to start a season. Maybe it’s not wanting to put all the eggs in one basket to start. Some might want to ease a young quarterback into the action and not throw him to the wolves, diminishing his confidence.
In a typical season, the SEC and ACC have four non-conference games with the others playing three. Usually at least a few of these games serve as good opportunities to get a freshman some reps or even make a full scale change. This year, most Power Five schedules are going to be comprised of conference games. These schedules are much more daunting and don’t provide as many soft matchups to break in a new quarterback, especially early in the season.
With that said, I think these circumstances could potentially lead lead to a flurry of midseason quarterback changes.
In some cases, the limited offseason could just delay the inevitable. Increased practice reps in the fall could allow freshmen to catch up and eventually surpass upperclassmen who might not be performing well.
The expanded conference schedules could result in a bloodbath situation in some conferences when it comes to win/loss records and standings. With a few losses in hand, coaches would be more likely to give the young prospect a shot. And with the NCAA granting all athletes an extra year of eligibility, coaches won’t have to be concerned with preserving a freshman’s redshirt.
Taking stock of the true freshman quarterbacks, I think it’s possible we see some like Bryce Young (Alabama), Harrison Bailey (Tennessee), Luke Doty (South Carolina), Malik Hornsby or redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson (Arkansas) or Chubba Purdy/Tate Rodemaker (Florida State) emerge due to the above scenarios this season.
Odds are we see some starting quarterbacks have to miss time due to COVID protocol. This could press freshmen into action. What if Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields is out due to contact tracing? That means we’d likely see DJ Uiagaleleii or CJ Stroud – two five-stars – taking snaps. At Texas A&M, Haynes King is in a battle with Zach Calzada as Kellen Mond’s backup. The same goes for Hudson Card at Texas. LSU has two freshmen (Max Johnson, TJ Finley) backing up Myles Brennan. The top two Group of Five signees, Evan Prater (Cincinnati) and Mason Garcia (East Carolina) are at programs with entrenched starters, but could be next in line. By midseason, we could see any of this group or the ones noted above pressed into action.
Teams are operating with an “all hands on deck” mentality when it comes to roster flexibility, particularly at quarterback. The same factors that have contributed to a lack of young quarterbacks emerging could ultimately result in a rush of midseason changes – voluntary or not. It certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise given how the 2020 season has gone so far.