When Jordan Wynn went down early in 2012, the Utes didn’t have much choice over who to put in at QB: Jon Hays, Dalton Livingston, or one of a handful of true freshmen prospects. Travis Wilson was, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above the competition in terms of both ceiling and ability to contribute immediately. By October of that year he had taken over the starting spot, and the rest is history.
It's hard to say specifically what impact this had on Wilson’s development, but had he been able to maintain his redshirt it is conceivable he would have spent those weeks working on critical elements of his game: pocket poise, throwing mechanics, and multiple reads. Thrown into the deep end without a life preserver, it always felt like Wilson was just barely keeping his head above water.
This season, the Utes are better situated, with respectable options at starter and backup who aren’t true freshmen. There was little doubt going into the season that true freshman QB Tyler Huntley would take a redshirt year behind Troy Williams and Brandon Cox. Huntley has done everything in his power to disabuse us of that notion. He’s consistently played as well or better than the other QBs on the team, and he’s demonstrated poise, leadership, and maturity that belies his young age. That’s why he shouldn’t get playing time.
I collected year to year QBR data for every quarterback in the 2010, 2011, and 2012 classes who saw playing time as a true freshman or redshirt freshman. QBR is an ESPN stat that purports to rate a quarterback, adjusted for opponents, in every facet: avoiding sacks, avoiding penalties, throwing, and rushing. It’s rated from 0-100, with 100 being a perfect QB; 50 is set as the score for an average quarterback. QBR is not a perfect stat, but it is excellent for this job- measuring quarterbacks in different years, on different teams, and playing different schedules against one another.
There is a gap between a true freshman QB and one who takes a redshirt, and that gap only grows larger over the course of their careers. By their senior year, quarterbacks who take a redshirt year are projected (using polynomial regression) to have a ten point advantage in QBR.
That’s an enormous difference for this stat. Travis Wilson put up a respectable but uninspiring QBR of 61 last year. Cody Kessler (USC) and Mason Rudolph (Ok. State) were about ten points higher. The gap in the population average in year four is nineteen. Nineteen more points would have put Travis Wilson among elite names like Trevone Boykin (82.1) and Jared Goff (82.2).
There’s no direct evidence that it’s the taking of a redshirt year which caused the improved trajectory. However, it stands to reason that the players which are otherwise the most talented or impressive in practice would be those that would win the starting job right out of the gate. It’s reasonable to expect the opposite result: that since more talented players start earlier, true freshmen would have better prospects than those which are forced to redshirt.
The true freshmen trajectory problem occurs even with major names that we think of as star QBs. Teddy Bridgewater headlines this group, but his QBR never got above 84, despite his prodigious talent. Other highly touted players like Tyler Bray, Braxton Miller, and, yes, Travis Wilson either changed positions or simply never achieved their potential. Meanwhile, the ranks of redshirt freshmen are filled with names who continued to rise, including Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Johnny Manziel: the last three QBs to win a Heisman trophy.
Tyler Huntley is a four star Florida Gatorade player of the year who has demonstrated the mental makeup to back up his enormous talent. He challenges Wilson for the title of Utah’s best quarterback recruit ever. His ceiling is actually that high. It would be doing him and the Utes a disservice to throw him to the wolves this year when they have excellent candidates to start and back up in 2016.
Quarterbacks who aren’t able to win playing time as either true or redshirt freshmen don’t tend to make many contributions; from the classes of 2010-2012 only 7 quarterbacks fit those criteria. Those that do win the job tend to perform reasonably well, however. Cody Kessler, Jake Rudock, and Mike Bercovici are names you will recognize in this group. Because the group is so small, there’s not a lot of reliability in the data, but redshirt juniors seem to have a gentle upward trajectory, slightly superior to mediocrity.
A QBR of between 60 and 70 is a reasonable projection for whoever of Brandon Cox or Troy Williams wins the starting job. The average true freshman put up a QBR of 39.9. I think Huntley would do better than that; he’s far from an average true freshman. However, it’s unreasonable to project him to perform as well as Bridgewater, Braxton Miller, or Tyler Bray. Even if he is that good, it would only put him marginally ahead of Williams or Cox, and the evidence shows that starting him now may prevent him from being a Heisman caliber player in years to come.
Sacrificing that potential in exchange for an outside shot at marginally better play than Troy Williams or Brandon Cox can provide is not sensible. Tyler Huntley is the future of Utah football, and that’s exactly where he belongs: in the future.