Brandon Doman, BYU's young quarterback coach of six years, knows the value of parking a young quarterback on the sideline for a couple of years before handing him the starting job.
He didn't become a starting quarterback himself until the end of his junior season. He spent most of his career standing on the sideline learning the offense
and waiting his turn. He had a superb senior season and wound up playing in the NFL.
That was the BYU way when the Cougars were dominating the pass game. Their quarterbacks served an apprenticeship for two seasons or more — Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco. When their turn came, they were ready. They all became superstars and NFL draft picks.
"It takes time to learn the position," says Doman.
Doman believes quarterbacks shouldn't be rushed into play, and yet that is the trend at BYU and elsewhere these days. Doman's last two quarterbacks, John Beck and then Max Hall, become starters as sophomores and struggled before producing brilliant senior seasons. Now the Cougars' starting quarterback is Jake Heaps, who was playing for Skyline (Wash.) High School at this time last year.
BYU's not alone in the teenage-quarterback trend. On Saturday, BYU will face Utah's Jordan Wynn, who also was the starter as a true freshman last season. Like Heaps, he left high school early to participate in spring practice.
Dick Harmon, a Deseret News columnist, reported that 10 true freshmen were starting at quarterback for major college football teams at one point earlier this season.
But is it prudent to play quarterbacks so early in their development? The real advantage that BYU's most prolific quarterbacks enjoyed was not their physical skills as much as their preparation and understanding of the team's offense and their opponent's defense. That is true for any quarterback who plays in a sophisticated pass offense. It takes time on the sideline to learn the position.
"You're on the right track," says Doman. "That is certainly what we would prefer. It takes at least two years before you can grasp all you need to grasp and play at the level we'd like our guys, particularly at BYU."
According to Doman, the most difficult thing for a young quarterback to learn is the offense. More specifically, they have to learn five aspects of the offense: the play, the formation, the footwork, the play fake and the progression. The quarterback must learn all of the above so well that when a play is called he is able to process it instantly — where each of his teammates lines up, all five of the receivers' routes, the pass protection, his footwork (one-, three- or five-step drop, with or without a hitch step, etc.), and the progression or order in which he will look for his five receivers. Until he can master all of the above automatically, he really isn't even ready for the next step — reading defenses, both pre-snap and on the fly.
"Over the last five years, when we've been really good, we found that we delivered the ball in an average of 2.7 seconds," says Doman. "That's from the time the ball is snapped until the pass leaves the quarterback's hand. And from the time the quarterback breaks the huddle, he has about six seconds to look at the defense. It's a lot to process in a short time."
Bottom line: The quarterback has to know the offense and defense so well that he can respond appropriately in seconds.
"John Beck and Max Hall will tell you it took till their senior years before it became second nature," says Doman. "To me, that means when the play is called, the quarterback instantly has a snapshot of the play in his mind, and all he is focusing on is what the defense is doing. Now he can play intuitively. We don't want them to be robots out there."
Few dispute that quarterbacks benefit from waiting years to get on the field, whether it's in college or the NFL (think: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Kurt Warner, Steve Young), even though there are exceptions. Starting a quarterback prematurely can be detrimental to their development (there are numerous examples at the college and pro level).
So why the trend of starting quarterbacks as freshmen and sophomores?
First, high school quarterbacks are showing up on college campuses more prepared, thanks to better coaching, private tutors, camps, etc. Second, prep players are being recruited early — as juniors and sophomores, if not earlier. The best prospects have the luxury of shopping schools.
"What happens is these kids who are so heavily recruited are now looking for places they can play right away," says Doman. "And then there are recruiters who are promising them starting positions to get them to sign with their schools."
That causes other problems for any school trying to maintain an orderly ascension to the starting quarterback job. A school's existing quarterbacks tend to flee to other schools when the starting job is given to younger players. The situation is even trickier for BYU, with more quarterbacks leaving school to serve two-year missions and then returning two years later (Young, McMahon, Nielsen, Wilson and Bosco did not serve missions).
With Heaps sharing the starting job and then taking sole ownership of it with the injury to Riley Nelson, BYU's quarterback depth has been jeopardized again. Doman is holding his breath that his other three scholarship quarterbacks — sophomore James Lark, redshirt freshman Jason Munns and the junior, Nelson — remain at BYU.
"We had it mapped out well; it ended up Jake came in and made a run at the starting position," says Doman. "You have to recruit a quarterback every year that you believe can be your starter and compete against your current quarterback. You try to spread them out by age so that you don't drive them away.
"I've had four quarterbacks transfer since I've been here. If I don't lose any this off-season, it will be the first year I haven't had a quarterback transfer. It's the test of all tests for veterans to see if they stay true to coming to BYU and believe they'll eventually get an opportunity."
Like his Utah counterpart, Heaps' on-the-job training has been bumpy. He threw just one touchdown pass in the first seven games, only two of which were wins. He has thrown nine touchdown passes in the last four games — all wins – albeit against weaker conference opponents.
"We're finally starting to see a productive quarterback in Jake," says Doman. "It's taken time."