Freshman QBs Who Will Win Starting Jobs This Fall
If there is a stigma in college football about starting a freshman quarterback, well, there shouldn’t be.
Just look at how the last two seasons have played out and any worries about youth should be totally debunked.
Two years ago, a previously unknown redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel burst on the scene and won a Heisman Trophy for Texas A&M. Last fall, Jameis Winston emerged as college football’s most exciting player, winning a Heisman and leading Florida State to a BCS National Championship in his first season of college football.
Youth has been served in college football, and don’t be surprised if a number of freshmen emerge as stars this fall.
Here is a look at some freshman quarterbacks who would surprise no one by winning a starting role this fall. They were chosen because they have excellent opportunities to start, and we think they'll take advantage of them.
Kyle Allen, Texas A&M
Whoever steps under center first for Texas A&M’s 2014 season opener at South Carolina has some huge shoes to fill.
Johnny Manziel put the Aggies back on the college football map with two electrifying seasons in College Station. He won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman and followed that up with a dynamite season last fall, throwing for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns against 13 interceptions and adding 759 yards rushing with nine rushing touchdowns.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin isn't thinking about Manziel anymore, however. He has a quarterback competition to worry about.
A pair of quarterbacks emerged as potential replacements this spring. True freshman early enrollee Kyle Allen, rated as the nation’s top pro-style quarterback and its No. 10 overall prospect by 247Sports, stood alone at the end of spring practice.
Senior Matt Joeckel transferred to TCU, and sophomore Kenny Hill (who threw 22 passes last season in Manziel mop-up duty) was suspended following a public intoxication arrest.
Hill has since been reinstated, but Allen has an excellent chance to take the reins of offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s fast-paced, wide-open system. He can run or pass with aplomb and will be right in the middle of the Aggies’ quarterback competition when preseason practice begins.
At SEC Media Days, Sumlin gave no inclination of how the competition would shake out but said he’d find out how well his quarterbacks handled pressure, according to ASAP Sports:
You have to really have a feel for what a guy can handle and you really don't have that feel until you get in an environment. Fortunately that game at home, a fabulous environment with Game Day being there. But this will be different. We'll be at South Carolina, a night game, on the road. Probably whoever the quarterback is, I'll be his only friend at that point.
We'll get to know each other probably really well in that locker room before we go out there and a lot during the game.
You don't know. Some guys handle that, some guys thrive off of that, some guys don't. We'll put guys in some situations where we'll try to keep the pressure on them a little bit during fall camp.
If Allen shows he can handle the pressure and work with an offense that will surround him with plenty of talent—including senior wide receiver Malcome Kennedy, highly touted redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones and incoming recruit Speedy Noil—he’ll be the guy who Sumlin sends into the game first at South Carolina, in all likelihood.
Brandon Harris, LSU
When Brandon Harris enrolled at LSU for spring practice, he knew he’d have a chance to win the Tigers’ starting quarterback role as a freshman.
By the time spring ended, Harris had made it clear to Les Miles and the Tigers’ coaching staff that he was more than capable of doing just that. The nation’s No. 3 dual-threat quarterback recruit, per 247Sports, lived up to the hype.
In an impressive spring-game performance, Harris completed 11 of 28 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns and adding 77 rushing yards.
His competition, sophomore Anthony Jennings, completed nine out of 17 passes for 157 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns by LSU defensive backs.
Jennings stepped in after senior Zach Mettenberger tore his ACL in the 2013 regular season finale against Arkansas, leading a comeback win. He also engineered an Outback Bowl win over Iowa but was less than impressive, completing seven of 19 passes for 82 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
According to Jim Kleinpeter of NOLA.com, Harris felt very comfortable at spring’s end, saying in a radio interview that he’d gained 20 pounds and gotten “100 times better.” He also spent time working with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield.
"It's more than just throwing the football,” he said. “You have to have the mental game. Our league is really tough. You've got to have the mental part. You don't want to have just the physical attributes.”
Both Harris and Jennings are mobile quarterbacks with solid arms who could fit in well in LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s pro-style offense. Miles said at SEC Media Days, per ASAP Sports, that the QB battle “will be a very competitive event from the start to the finish.”
He had high praise for Harris as well:
Well, the key piece is he really throws the ball well. I mean, he is a guy that has real strength. He's innately accurate. He's got great footwork. He can extend a play, get out of the pocket, move around.
But probably the best thing about him is he anticipates that great play, too. He has the opportunity to see it and has the arm to get it there. There's some real advantages with him.
LSU returns four starters on the offensive line and welcomes a loaded offensive class led by highly touted tailback Leonard Fournette and wideouts Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn. It is the perfect opportunity for a freshman to step in and progress with the offense, and it’d be a surprise if Harris didn’t start at some point this fall in Baton Rouge.
Tanner Lee, Tulane
Tulane enjoyed a bounce-back season last fall, finishing 7-6 with a New Orleans Bowl berth.
It was the Green Wave’s first winning season and bowl berth since 2002, and even though quarterback Nick Montana (who started 11 games a year ago) returns for his senior season, he is unlikely to start this fall. Montana struggled with shoulder injuries and completed only 53 percent of his passes.
Montana finished spring third on Tulane’s depth chart behind sophomore Devin Powell and redshirt freshman Tanner Lee (listed as co-starters).
Lee enters preseason practice with an excellent chance at seizing the Green Wave’s starting role.
Tulane coach Curtis Johnson declined to single out any quarterback following spring practice but had high praise for Lee last fall, according to NOLA.com's Tammy Nunez:
Tanner is good at probably most of everything. I like the way he does the naked's the best, I like the way he throws the screens. His arm is a little bit stronger, once he understands the system. His learning curve right now – it's taking him a while to learn the system. I think he's going to be phenomenal.
Lee told Nunez that his redshirt season has him ready for what lies ahead.
I know what to expect. Last year I had no clue exactly what all went into a college fall camp. But it really is football 24/7. It's waking up early, meetings all day. Practicing usually twice a day and meeting after that and you are going to sleep at 8 o'clock because you can't move -- and then you do it again the next day.
Kevin Olsen, Miami
Miami began spring with a settled quarterback position, but it was thrown into chaos after senior Ryan Williams, the projected starter, tore his ACL in a scrimmage.
Williams’ injury opened up a competition with redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen at its forefront. Olsen stands 6’3”, 210 pounds and has solid bloodlines: His brother is NFL tight end Greg Olsen.
He told Susan Miller Degnan of the Miami Herald that he’s ready for the opportunity:
“Being the guy is why I came here to Miami. It’s a shame that this is how I got to be, maybe, ‘the guy,’ or whatever. I’m going to embrace the break I got.”
His chief competition will be senior Jake Heaps, who transferred from Kansas this summer.
Miami is Heaps’ third school. He began his career at BYU and then transferred to Kansas, where he threw eight touchdowns against 10 interceptions last fall. He transferred to Miami using the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule and told Miller Degnan that he plans on making the most of his final season.
I didn’t come here to be the backup. I made this decision for a reason. I came here to play, but you have to earn that. No one is going to give that to you, and that’s what I knew coming into this situation and that’s what I wanted.
... That’s the only way you’re going to earn your teammates’ respect and gain their confidence. So for me, I’m very excited about this opportunity. This is my last year. I’ve given everything I have at this thing, and it’s extremely important for me to perform well — not only to win the job but for my goals and aspirations down the line as well.
In his career, Heaps has thrown for over 5,000 yards with 32 touchdowns against 27 interceptions, but if he was a truly capable starter, he’d likely still be at BYU. Olsen doesn’t have experience, but he isn’t afraid of the spotlight. It wouldn’t be any sort of surprise if he was the starter in the season opener against Louisville.
Anu Solomon, Arizona
Arizona had a major task on its hands this spring in replacing B.J. Denker as its new starting quarterback, with four quarterbacks battling to replace him.
None of them truly distinguished themselves this spring. Senior Jesse Scroggins, a former Southern California transfer, had a 44-yard touchdown pass and a 25-yard run in Arizona’s spring game but didn’t show enough overall consistency.
Sophomore Connor Brewer, a Texas transfer, is eligible this fall. He had two touchdowns in the spring game.
Junior Jerrard Randall will be in the mix this fall, too, arriving from LSU via Northeast Mississippi Community College.
That leaves redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, who acclimated himself well during spring practice. In the Wildcats’ spring game, he threw for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
Like his competitors, Solomon can throw or pass the ball well. He told the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk that redshirting was “a learning experience,” but gaining 15 pounds of muscle and having a redshirt season to learn coach Rich Rodriguez’s system was helpful.
“It’s not the terminology of the system that’s tough, it’s the scheme of the play,” he said. “There are like six different things going on on one play, and you just have to know when to hit it and what’s going on.”
Rodriguez told reporters at Pac-12 Media Days, per ASAP Sports, that he doesn’t know who his starter will be and the race is open:
This is the truth, I really don't know who not just number one is, but I don't know who number one, two, or three is. But there is some talent there. There are four or five guys that will get a lot of rest early. Then after the first two, two and a half weeks of camp, we'll pair it down to the two or three main guys. It may not be settled until after the first game or two. But I think the talent is there, and that's a good thing.
He said that all four quarterbacks are “pretty similar”:
But they all have a little bit of strengths and weaknesses. The biggest thing for us is who can run the system and make plays when plays aren't there, but also take care of the ball. So it's kind of a big equation to go through all of them.
Now is the perfect time for Solomon, a former 3-star recruit, to seize the role. Arizona must replace All-America tailback Ka’Deem Carey but does return four starting offensive linemen as well as a talented receiving corps led by senior Austin Hill and Notre Dame transfer DaVonte’ Neal.
It is the perfect time for a freshman to grow with the Wildcats offense, and the right time for Solomon to win the job.