Why true freshmen quarterbacks are taking over college football

The two true freshmen quarterbacks in last January’s championship game replaced sophomore quarterbacks who one year earlier had started as true freshmen. The changes were made at varying points during the season: Georgia’s Jake Fromm stepped in for an injured Jacob Eason in September, while Alabama’s swap of Tua Tagovailoa in place of Jalen Hurts didn’t occur until halftime of the Crimson Tide’s overtime win against the Bulldogs.

For more than 30 years, one of college football’s most popular barroom quizzes asked: How many true freshmen quarterback have won a national championship? The answer was just one: Jamelle Holieway led Oklahoma to the title in 1985. The number was guaranteed to double by the third quarter in January.

It was a striking example of a growing trend within college football. The idea of relying on a true freshman was once a non-starter, especially for those teams angling for the national championship. From 2000-12, for example, just one team took home the national title without either a junior or senior as the primary starter at the position – Alabama claimed the title in 2011 behind then-sophomore AJ McCarron. The only true freshman to contribute on one of those title-winning teams was Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who had a key secondary role for the Gators in 2006.

“More often than not, if you were starting a true freshman (quarterback) in college football, something has gone wrong,” said Penn State coach James Franklin.

Now, however, programs across the Football Bowl Subdivision have become more willing than ever to turn the offense over to a true freshman — and with the Crimson Tide, Clemson and others as the most recent examples, are still able to compete for and win conference and national titles.

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At various points in the past three seasons, each of the top three teams in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll have leaned on a true freshman: Tagovailoa and Hurts at No. 1 Alabama, current true freshman Trevor Lawrence at No. 2 Clemson, and Fromm and Eason — who has since transferred to Washington — at No. 3 Georgia.

“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that the narrative has changed relative to young players playing,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “Now, especially at skill positions, guys make an impact.”

In total, nine teams in the current poll rely on a quarterback who once started as a true freshman. Even some of college football’s strongest brands are getting into the act: Within the past three seasons, programs such as Texas, Southern California, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Oregon have been willing to roll the dice behind a newcomer.

In most cases, Franklin said, “There should be someone as a redshirt freshman, redshirt sophomore, redshirt junior, redshirt senior, someone there that is more ready to go. But then there’s the kid that’s the total freakazoid.”

That quarterbacks are arriving on campuses more prepared than ever for the physical task of running a college offense is due to factors such as private quarterback coaches, the increasingly complex schemes on the high school level, the ability to get time at the position nearly year-round and the option many quarterback recruits have to enroll in the spring of their freshman year.

“If you get a quarterback who has been through all that stuff, you’re definitely getting a more polished product than we got 15 or 20 years ago,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson.

“I think playing quarterback now is harder than it’s ever been. But more quarterbacks are being exposed to that in high school than they were.”

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