College Football Handicapping: True Freshman Quarterbacks
by Trevor Whenham - 9/2/2009
When USC opens their season on Saturday against San Jose State they will be doing it as the No. 4-ranked team in the country. They'll also be doing it with Matt Barkley, a true freshman, at quarterback. They were destined for a change at quarterback no matter what with Mark Sanchez now starting for the Jets, but the significance of a team this highly ranked starting a true freshman cannot be overstated. Very few teams each year start a true freshman at the start of the season, and it's been longer than I can remember since one this highly ranked has done so. USC has never started a true freshman.
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If you ask people to name freshman starters they can usually come up with several, including several that are high-profile. Few of them, however, were in the situation that Barkley is in. Terrelle Pryor didn't take over until Week 4 last year. Tim Tebow was a key reserve behind Chris Leak as a freshman - a key contributor, but not a starter. Sam Bradford only started as a redshirt freshman. Same for Colt McCoy. Matt Stafford waited until halfway through his freshman season to get a chance. Jimmy Clausen played a bunch as a true freshman, but was only named starter for the second game of the year. Barkley is in very limited company.
To help us understand what we might be able to expect from Barkley out of the gate, here's a look at some of the true freshmen to take the helm right away in recent years. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is close - there just aren't that many true freshmen who have done what Barkley has been asked to do, and none that have done it on the level that Barkley is.
Chad Henne, Michigan - Henne wasn't supposed to start in 2004, but an injury forced him to. He was particularly good. He went 9-2 in the regular season, won a share of the Big Ten title, completed more than 60 percent of his passes, set a single season Michigan record with 25 touchdowns, and threw four touchdowns in a Rose Bowl game that he would have won if Vince Young hadn't singularly decimated the Wolverines. He's the recent model of true freshman excellence, and any number of teams would be well served to have a quarterback like him at the helm regardless of age.
Robert Griffin, Baylor - Griffin didn't technically begin the season as starter last year, but he took over for good in the second quarter of the first game so it almost counts. There is a tremendous amount of hype for this ridiculous speedster this year, and with good reason - he became the first Baylor player ever to both run and throw for 10 TDs last year. He threw for 2,000 yards and ran for better than 800, and his accuracy was impressive - 15 TDs and just three picks.
Shaun Carney, Air Force - Carney became the first freshman starter at Air Force, and he set a team record by completing 61.1 percent of his passes. He only threw for 1,315 yards, but he played at Air Force so that is really quite a total.
Bo Levi Mitchell, SMU - SMU not only had a new quarterback last year, but also an entirely new offense thanks to the arrival of June Jones from Hawaii. Mitchell didn't lead his team to overwhelming success - they were just 1-11 - but he did fare reasonably well in his role. He threw for 2,865 yards and 24 touchdowns. His accuracy wasn't ideal, though - he completed 57 percent of his passes and threw 23 picks. Numbers like that would be disastrous for USC this year, but considering what Mitchell had to work with he did more than okay.
Reggie Ball, Georgia Tech - Ball wasn't great in his first year - 10 TDs against 11 interceptions, and a completion rate of just 51.7 percent. He was good enough to be the ACC Rookie of the Year, though, and good enough to start more games than all but one player in Tech history.
The performance isn't always consistent from true freshmen, and at times it can be really scary, but as you can see from above we don't have to just assume that a team is in trouble because they are starting someone so young and raw. A true freshman can be more than competent enough to stay the course with a good team.
When you start to look around you really realize how rare USC's decision is. They are the only major team out there that is sure to be starting a true freshman. Only a couple of other big teams are potentially going to do the same. Michigan has three quarterbacks mired in a battle for the top spot on the depth chart, and two are true freshmen. Tate Forcier is one of them, and he seems likely to win the race, but there is a good possibility that all three players will see action in the first game against Western Mustang. Utah also could be starting a true freshman, but he has lately been falling behind a junior college transfer and could miss out.
When you are looking at how to handicap these quarterbacks, and the other true freshmen who will inevitably see action this year, here are four things you'll want to consider:
The team around them - A quarterback can be made to look much better than he should if he has a good team around him. Henne was helped by a potent receiving corps and a very solid running game. When a QB is young an inexperienced the coach will look to protect him and make things as easy as they can.
Role of quarterback in the offense - Some offenses require the quarterback to take command and do all of the heavy lifting. In other cases, the quarterback is just a custodian who makes sure that the running backs get the ball. The demands of the offense will often dictate the success of a young player.
Performance of player in fall (and spring if applicable) - A lot of schools are increasingly open about their spring practices, and blogs and message boards have made it much easier to get accurate pictures of what is happening in early practices and scrimmages. More so than in the NFL we can extrapolate this performance to what we could see early in the season.
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Schedule - When a top Division 1 team is playing a lesser team - from a non-BCS conference of Division 1-AA - I could probably quarterback them to a win, and I have never played a down of real football. Against tough teams, though, a quarterback is far more important. Matt Barkley will have a lot of room to make mistakes against San Jose State, but will be in tough the next week against Ohio State.