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Under Center, Ahead of Schedule: What's With All the True Freshman QBs?

A rash of injuries and a wave of transfers have left some of the best-stocked programs in the country starting true freshman quarterbacks. And it's not crazy to assume more are on the way.

Jake Fromm was duck hunting with his father, Emerson, one morning in January 2016 when he got a text saying that Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was popping by his high school in Warner Robins, Ga. Then a junior, Fromm had verbally committed to Alabama, but he’d grown up dreaming of playing quarterback for the Bulldogs and had recently received a scholarship offer from their new coach, Kirby Smart. Now Chaney wanted to introduce himself.

Fromm couldn’t risk being late to meet the coordinator, so he raced to Houston County High, arriving dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, face covered in dark paint. Chaney spotted him anyway. “Chaney says, ‘Man, you’ve got a lot of balls to show up in full duck-hunting gear the first time you meet me,’” Emerson recalls. “Jake says, ‘Well, Coach, I am what I am.’ Jake is pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kid.”

Chaney liked what he saw, and Fromm saw a chance to live his dream—maybe. Jacob Eason, the second-ranked QB in the class of ’16, according to the composite ranking, had enrolled at Georgia that same month. Other blue-chip prospects might have seen that as a deterrent. Fromm didn’t. He flipped from Alabama to Georgia two months later and didn’t waver when Eason seized the starting job last year. Fromm figured he’d either beat out Eason or wait his turn behind him.

But that plan has changed. While Fromm didn’t take the spot from Eason in spring practice or in preseason camp, he wound up starting in the Bulldogs’ 20–19 win at Notre Dame last Saturday. As Eason stood on the sideline, recovering from a sprained left knee in the opener, there was Fromm, sitting on a stadium wall in South Bend, soaking in the adulation of thousands of red-and-black-clad fans who had trekked north.

While Fromm’s story is the only one that involves meeting a coordinator in full camo, it isn’t unique this season: True freshman quarterbacks have had to replace injured starters at Florida State, Maryland, Texas and Texas A&M. Now those teams must adjust to youngsters taking over the game’s most important position a year or more ahead of schedule.

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James Blackman's first college action came late in a lost cause against Alabama's vaunted pass rush.

James Blackman's first college action came late in a lost cause against Alabama's vaunted pass rush.

Even though Gabe Gross (Auburn, 1998) is the only true freshman quarterback Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher has ever started as a coordinator or as a head coach, he insists he has nothing against newcomers under center. “I don’t give them a year," Fisher says. “There’s usually a guy ahead of them that makes them get a year.” Since Fisher arrived in Tallahassee in 2010, future first-rounder Christian Ponder made future first-rounder EJ Manuel wait. Manuel then made Jameis Winston—the No. 1 pick in 2015—wait. “If they were forced into action,” Fisher says, “they could have done a nice job as true freshmen.” It was unclear whether Fisher believed this or was trying to convince himself of it as he prepared to hand the reins to a teenager who arrived on campus in June.

The Seminoles had hoped redshirt sophomore Deondre Francois would lead the offense for another season or two before fulfilling his own first-round destiny. Those hopes dimmed on Sept. 2 when Francois tore the patella tendon in his left knee against Alabama. In came James Blackman, a 6'5", 185-pound four-star recruit from Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Fla., who handed off three times at the tail end of a 24–7 defeat against the nation’s No. 1 team.

Twenty-five years ago a player like Blackman wouldn’t have cracked the Seminoles’ lineup until he’d been in the program for three years. (Really. Even the 1993 Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, didn’t start until he was a fourth-year junior.) Hurricane Irma forced the cancellation of last Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe and the postponement of this week’s showdown with Miami until Oct. 7, so Blackman won’t make his first start until Sept. 23, against NC State. But the next collegiate pass he throws will be his first.

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At Maryland, coaches weren’t sure what to expect when freshman Kasim Hill had to replace injured sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome in the fourth quarter of the season opener at Texas, but they had an idea. “He’s a kid that when you talk to him, it feels like you’re talking to somebody much older,” offensive coordinator Walt Bell said of Hill in a Facebook Live session on national signing day last February. Hill, a four-star recruit from Baltimore, proved Bell correct on his second series.

After squandering a 16-point lead, the Terrapins were up 37–34. Facing third-and-14 from the Longhorns’ 42-yard line with 8:24 remaining, Hill saw six defenders on the line of scrimmage and a safety running down to make it seven. He tried to make adjustments and got flagged for delay of game. Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, a maestro of exotic pressure packages, was toying with the kid. On third-and-19, Hill called for the snap with three Longhorns on the line; by the time he caught it, five were rushing. Hill calmly fired down the left sideline to junior receiver D.J. Moore, who went for 40 yards. “That tells you a little bit about him,” Terps coach DJ Durkin said. Two plays later Hill scored on a read-option run, leading to a 51–41 victory.

After the game Hill received a text from Chris Baucia, his quarterback coach since fifth grade.

Baucia: Third-and-19? No problem.

Hill: Yeah. No sweat at all. LOL.

“When things got the tightest with him,” Baucia says, “he had the most fun.” With Pigrome out for the year with a right ACL tear, Hill will get his chance. In his first start last Saturday he completed 13 of 16 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in a 63–17 win over Towson.

Week 2 saw the Longhorns turn to a true freshman of their own. With sophomore Shane Buechele sidelined by a bruised right shoulder, Sam Ehlinger directed a 56–0 win over San Jose State. If Buechele remains banged up, Ehlinger will get a true college football baptism on Saturday at No. 4 USC. “We know we’ve got a capable one in Sam,” coach Tom Herman says. “We’ve got to make sure that Shane can do everything he’s capable of doing and doing it at an elite level before we throw him back in there.”

The true freshman quarterbacks aren’t all success stories, though. When Nick Starkel broke his left ankle against UCLA in Week 1, Texas A&M led by 31 points in the third quarter. Enter Kellen Mond, who could conjure up just 3.2 yards per play and three points in a stunning 45–44 defeat. Mond made his first start last Saturday against FCS foe Nicholls State, but after going 12 of 21 for 105 yards and one TD, he was replaced in the third quarter by senior Jake Hubenak, who helped the Aggies squeak out a 24–14 win. Whether Mond will hold the starting spot remains a question.

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Jake Fromm didn't flinch at Jacob Eason's presence on the roster when he committed to Georgia—then stepped in seamlessly when Jacob Eason went down.

Jake Fromm didn't flinch at Jacob Eason's presence on the roster when he committed to Georgia—then stepped in seamlessly when Jacob Eason went down.

There isn’t a single trend forcing Power 5 teams to turn to true freshmen at quarterback. De’Andre Johnson would have been a junior at Florida State, but he was kicked off the team in 2015 after he punched a woman in a bar. (After a plea deal, he was sentenced to six months probation.) Malik Henry, who signed with the Seminoles in ’16, transferred after one suspension-riddled season. Transfers cause the need for many other schools. At Texas A&M, Kyle Allen would have been a senior and Kyler Murray a junior if each hadn’t decided to transfer. (Allen is the starter at Houston, Murray a backup at Oklahoma.) Earlier this year Fox Sports tracked the careers of the top 50 high school quarterbacks from 2011 to ’14. Of the 200, 46.9% had transferred.

One trait connecting the true freshmen who have cracked the lineup: an inner confidence that allowed them to claim the second-team job over the veterans who’ve chosen to stick it out. Says Ken Mastrole, a Florida-based private quarterback coach who worked with Blackman as a high schooler, “There are a lot of guys out there who act like they can play on social media. But when you really pull back all the layers, these guys have to be mature. [Blackman] is quiet. The best quarterbacks I’ve seen are quiet about how they handle their business.” That is one of the qualities Baucia saw in Hill. “Everybody wants to be 18 stars and ranked the best in the world,” Baucia says. “All he wants to do is be a good football player and a good teammate.”

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Fromm arrived in Athens quietly determined to win the starting spot over the seemingly entrenched Eason. When he was asked about the competition, Fromm said only that he wanted to make Georgia better. This attitude impressed Smart, as did Fromm’s refusal to ask about the depth chart during his recruitment. “It didn’t matter who was here,” Smart says. “He is pretty confident in himself, and the best ones are.”

The 6'2", 225-pound Fromm can’t be sure how long he’ll be in charge, but he does know that he’s 1–0 as a starter after completing 16 of 29 passes for 141 yards with one touchdown and one pick at Notre Dame. Ehlinger and Mond are also 1–0, though they too don’t know if they’ll start this week. Blackman remains a question mark; he’ll have to throw at least a few passes before Fisher can decide if he’s the long-term solution. Hill, meanwhile, looks poised to lead the Terps for the season.

Chances are those programs won’t be the only ones forced to turn to quarterbacks who played before a homecoming dance last season. In today’s college football, teams need a quarterback who is ready to take live snaps the moment he steps on campus.