First-year Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson naming true freshman John Wolford the Demon Deacons’ starting quarterback for Week 1 may not move the needle too much.
After all, Wake Forest is coming off a 4-8 season that ended in longtime head coach Jim Grobe’s firing. The Deacs are expected to struggle as much, if not more, in Clawson’s first season. But as a power conference program that has not started a true freshman quarterback in 40 years, Wake Forest is a potential barometer for the direction of college football in general.
High school recruits arrive on campuses each summer (or winter, as is the case with Wolford) better prepared for the college game than ever before. Quarterbacks in particular specialize at a younger age with a single-minded focus.
Through years of camps, 7-on-7 tournaments and one-on-one coaching, future quarterback prospects pick up playbooks quicker and transition to the college game more seamlessly.
We’ve seen college football’s youth movement play out in the last few years. Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel, the last two Heisman Trophy winners, were both redshirt freshmen.
The frontrunners for this year’s version of the award are primarily upperclassmen. However, veterans like UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota took over their respective offenses in the first week of their redshirt freshman campaigns.
Game experience for first-time starting quarterbacks isn’t as important as it was once was. Soon, even the practice experience afforded redshirts will be at less of a premium. Experience comes on Saturdays.
Starting Wolford is perhaps more indicative of investment in Clawson’s long-term vision than an effort to compete right away, despite the coach’s statement to the contrary.
“It’s not fair to the juniors and the seniors in the program to make a decision based on what’s best five years from now,” Clawson said in a statement.
That may be the case, but it doesn’t hurt to start building a program with on a stable cornerstone.
A year ago, Cal head coach Sonny Dykes made a similar decision in his first season with the Golden Bears. Before facing Northwestern in Week 1, Dykes named Jared Goff Cal’s starter over redshirt freshman Zach Kline and junior Austin Hinder.
Goff started all 12 games and threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns. Cal took its lumps–a lot of them–en route to a 1-11 finish.
“A lot of times last year we threw him to the wolves a little bit,” Dykes said at Pac-12 media days. The Cal coach was referring to the Golden Bears’ porous defense, but it could pretty accurately describe Goff’s freshman season in general.
But thanks to this trial by fire, Goff heads into his sophomore tested and with an established chemistry among his receiving corps.
Investing in a true freshman starting quarterback doesn’t have to be a punt for the future, either. Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin just might be banking on it.
Sumlin is tasked with replacing Manziel, and the Heisman winner’s successor will debut on the road against a stout South Carolina defense.
Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle writes Sumlin wants to name his starter by Aug. 16–Saturday–but the competition between Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen is “dead even.”
Allen is the nation’s top-rated quarterback prospect in the 2014 signing class and the perfect example of the new-wave of quarterback recruit. He’s talented, polished and able to play immediately.
And he just could be good enough to keep Texas A&M competitive this season, while also preparing for more in the years to come. It can be done.
Consider Louisville. UL was off to a rough start in 2011 before turning the reins over to true freshman Teddy Bridgewater. Coupled with Charlie Strong’s midseason replacement of offensive coordinator Mike Sanford with Shawn Watson, the Cardinals came to life with wins in five of their final six regular season games to win a share of the Big East championship.
Louisville was simply better with Bridgewater behind center than it was with Will Stein in 2011. And building off his game experience, Bridgewater produced two more monster seasons as the Cardinals’ field general before heading to the NFL.
There’s also risk inherent with tabbing a newcomer as starter. Aside from the most obvious, going with a true freshman starting quarterback is a tacit agreement to a three-year commitment.
Barring injury and with everything else going according to plan, that freshman has a minimum three seasons locked into the position. And, since only one quarterback can play at a time, that leaves others on the roster with few options.
When a young quarterback wins the starting job, transfers typically ensue. Aaron Corp left USC for Richmond after Matt Barkley’s freshman season as the Trojans’ starter. Clint Trickett exited Florida State when Jameis Winston became the Seminoles’ No. 1.
Jameill Showers, Manziel’s primary competitor, transferred to UTEP. And should Sumlin name Allen his starter, A&M could very well lose Hill, as well.
But a coach can’t let the possibility of transfers dictate choosing the best option. Making a good first impression is more important for quarterbacks now more than ever, one take away from Clawson’s statement on naming true freshman starting quarterback John Wolford the Wake Forest’s guy.
“He gives us the best chance to win so we will now prepare him as our starting quarterback.”