Five teams in the Pac-12 South (all but the Arizona State Sun Devils) took a quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class. With the new NCAA redshirt rule allowing players to appear in up to four games and still redshirt, we could see five teams in the Pac-12 South trot out true freshman quarterbacks at some point during the season. Three of those teams, the UCLA Bruins (Dorian Thompson-Robinson), USC Trojans (JT Daniels), and Utah Utes (Jack Tuttle), brought in four- or five-star recruits at the position. With the Arizona Wildcats (Khalil Tate), Colorado Buffaloes (Steven Montez), and Utah Utes (Tyler Huntley) bringing back their starting quarterbacks, it seems unlikely they will start a true freshman at quarterback barring injury. UCLA and USC both have quarterback battles raging in fall camp. Daniels, who reclassified to enroll early instead of play his senior year of high school, seems almost certain to start at USC Thompson-Robinson has a less clear path with Devin Modster, who has starter for UCLA, and graduate transfer Wilton Speight, who started at Michigan, also vying for the job. Tuttle is competing with Jason Shelley for the backup job at Utah. With the preseason favorite in the South poised to start an 18-year-old at the most important position, we thought it would be pertinent to take a look at what is reasonable to expect from a true freshman quarterback.
Do not expect a national championship
While yes one major storyline in the second half of the national championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs was that two true freshmen were starting, it is rare for a team to start a true freshman for the whole season and win a national championship. In fact, it has only happened once: Jamelle Holieway at Oklahoma in 1985. Holieway was not a drop back passer like Daniels, and he did not run a pro-style offense like USC. He was an option quarterback, and it is arguably easier for an option quarterback to transition to college than a pocket passer like Daniels. Jalen Hurts led Alabama to the 2017 national championship game before the Crimson Tide fell to the Clemson Tigers. The amount of talent that Alabama and Georgia had around their true freshmen certainly helped. Both teams featured fantastic offensive lines, running backs, wide receivers, and defenses. This takes a lot of the burden off a true freshman. USC has tons of talent around Daniels, but it seems unlikely that they have as much as Alabama or Georgia did last year (or Alabama the year before as well). The Washington Huskies seem like the only legitimate national championship contender in the Pac-12 (and they have a senior in Jake Browning, more on him later, returning at quarterback).
Enrolling early helps
Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Jake Fromm (Georgia), the two quarterbacks from last year’s national championship game, both enrolled early and participated in spring football prior to their freshman season. Hurts enrolled early as well. Of the four- or five-star quarterbacks, only Tuttle at Utah enrolled early. This ESPN article from Sam Khan Jr. and Mitch Sherman talks about the importance of enrolling early. It really does help a quarterback prepare. Daniels apparently did tons of work on his own in spring learning the playbook to prepare for this season, but he still has a huge task getting up to speed with all of his teammates in fall camp before the season starts.
What to expect? Let’s look at some past examples.
First, let’s start nationally. Here is a list of the 10 best true freshman quarterbacks ever (though it is a little old, written at the end of the 2015 season). From that list, let’s eliminate the option quarterback and players that started their career before the BCS era (1998) because the game has changed so much in the last 20 years. This leaves us with Terrelle Pryor (2008) and Chad Henne (2004). Pryor finished 13th nationally in QBR (75.3). Pryor was a dual-threat quarterback ranked No. 2 nationally coming out of high school. He was decent passing, throwing for 1,311 yards on just over 60% completion percentage (on only 165 attempts). He also topped 600 yards rushing, and scored 19 total touchdowns. Like Pryor, Henne was also a five-star recruit (ranked No. 18 nationally). Henne ranked 52nd nationally in total QBR (46.8). Henne threw 399 passes. He had 25 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and over 2,700 yards. Two quarterbacks who were not yet in college when that article was written were Fromm and Hurts. Fromm was sixth nationally (84.1) last year among qualified passers. He threw 291 passes for 2,615 yards with 24 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Hurts was No. 41 (68.4) the year before. He attempted 381 passes, topping 2,700 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Some other five-star recruits to start for most or all of the season as true freshmen include Matthew Stafford (2006) and Jacob Eason (2016) at Georgia, Casey Clausen (2000) at Tennessee, Christian Hackenberg at Penn State (2013), and Chris Leak (2003). Others, like Kyle Allen (2014) and Kyler Murray (2015) at Texas A&M split time as starters.
From that same ESPN article referenced earlier shows that the average total QBR for true freshman quarterbacks was about 54 last season, which would rank in the low 70s nationally. The trend is that total QBR for true freshmen has increased over time as well, but this still means that the average true freshman is an average quarterback nationally. One unheralded recruit that is worth mentioning was Phillip Rivers (2000), who threw for over 3,000 yards as a freshman at N.C. State.
Now, let’s look at some Pac-10/12 true freshman starters. Some good examples are former five-star recruits Matt Barkley (2009) at USC and Josh Rosen (2015) at UCLA. Browning, a former four-star recruit, started at Washington as a true freshman. Barkley attempted 352 passes, throwing for 2,735 yards with 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Rosen faired a bit better as a freshman, throwing 487 passes for 3,669 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Browning attempted 369 passes for 2,955 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
While there are exceptions (Hurts and Eason), it seems like when a team puts the ball in the hands of their true freshman quarterback, letting them throw in excess of 350 times, there are going to be mistakes made (i.e. 10+ interceptions), especially if they are pro-style passers. When a quarterback can lean heavily on the run game (and/or use their legs), they typically do not make as many mistakes. Hurts did throw over 350 passes as a freshman, but he was a dual-threat quarterback, who ran for more than 950 yards and had a 1,000-yard back in the backfield (Damien Harris). It will be interesting to see how much USC relies on Daniels. The last time a USC starting quarterback attempted fewer than 350 passes was in 2007 when John David Booty split time with Mark Sanchez; Booty threw 340 passes. The last time that USC as a team attempted fewer than 350 passes was 1997. It seems likely that if USC puts the ball in his hands, Daniels is likely to throw double-digit interceptions. It is unlikely Daniels will be able to duplicate his predecessor (Sam Darnold) and top 3,000 (Darnold in 2016) or 4,000 (Darnold in 2017) yards passing. Daniels likely will not throw 30+ touchdown passes like Darnold did in 2016. This is not an indictment against Daniels (or any true freshman quarterback), it is just a matter of fact that it is tough to top 3,000 yards passing (and unheard of to top 4,000) or 30 touchdown passes. Thompson-Robinson is the most likely of the highly-touted freshmen to top 500 yards rushing, as he is more of a dual-threat and plays for Chip Kelly, who has his quarterbacks run the ball a lot.
Daniels has been the focus of this piece because he is the most likely to start, and he will be starting at USC, the defending Pac-12 South champions and the frontrunner this year, the school that has produced more Heisman quarterbacks than any other in the West. Daniels also has the best chance at early success. Tuttle hopefully will only see the field in limited action in four games or less, which would mean that Huntley is effective and has stayed healthy. Thompson-Robinson has the chance to start, but UCLA has a new coaching staff and returns only five starters on offense. It would likely be a season where he would have some growing pains but could prepare him for a breakout sophomore campaign, like Browning or Justin Herbert at Oregon. Not being on campus for spring football will not help Daniels or Thompson-Robinson. Tuttle was around for spring, and all reports point to him making a lot of improvement from spring to fall camp. But again, with Huntley back, the hope is Tuttle can redshirt and develop for a year, seeing the field in limited action. This would be the best case scenario for Tuttle and Utah. For USC, their offense relies on good quarterback play. In the three seasons they have won the South (I am counting 2011 here), their starting quarterback threw for at least 3,500 yards with at least 26 touchdowns, with a quarterback rating of 148 or higher. If Daniels can put up numbers like that, he will be remembered as one of the greatest true freshman quarterbacks ever.