Editor's note: First in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six true freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — Since BYU officially started playing football in 1922, nearly 100 years ago — keeping in mind it wasn’t until 1972 that the NCAA allowed freshmen to be eligible to play — only six quarterbacks have ever started a game as a true freshman, including Joe Critchlow last season.
BYU has played a total of 1,011 games in its history and only 33 of those have featured a starting true freshman QB, with 27 of those starts coming since 2010.
All six of those true freshmen who have started at quarterback for the Cougars have done so under unusual circumstances. The last two, Critchlow and Tanner Mangum, did so after returning home from an LDS Church mission just a few months before the start of the season.
There are those who arrived in January as returned missionaries (John Beck and Taysom Hill). There's one that got a start just months removed from high school after arriving on campus during the summer (Drew Miller). And there's one that graduated early from high school in order to participate in spring practices (Jake Heaps).
There is a common denominator — each was pressed into duty after an injury to a quarterback higher up the depth chart. (BYU has never started a true freshman at the beginning of a season, although Zach Wilson, who enrolled in January, is vying to become the first this fall.)
If the first-year quarterbacks weren't necessarily young in age, they were certainly young in experience.
The first one, Miller, broke that barrier 20 years earlier as a 19-year-old.
While Critchlow was thrown into the fire at the end of the 2017 campaign, just months after finishing his mission, Wilson enrolled at BYU out of Corner Canyon High in January.
“He doesn’t look like a freshman out here physically or mentally,” BYU quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said of Wilson during the first week of spring practices. “He looks like he belongs here.”
Coming off a 4-9 season — the Cougars' worst in five decades — that saw BYU ranked near the bottom in the nation in almost every offensive statistical category, and with a new offensive coordinator in Jeff Grimes and a new offensive attack, coach Kalani Sitake has opened up the quarterback competition heading into the 2018 season-opener at Arizona.
“I will play the best one. I don’t care what year they are, freshman or senior,” Sitake said. “The best one will play.”
While no true freshman has ever started a season at quarterback at BYU, Mangum finished the 2015 season-opener with a storied Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Nebraska — then started the rest of the year.
For what it’s worth, the last three true freshman quarterbacks to start a game at BYU have won their respective debuts.
How is it that this true freshman phenomenon is taking place at a school once known as “The Quarterback Factory,” where quarterbacks used to wait years before seeing the field?
“I think times have really changed. There’s so much movement in coaching and there’s so many more of these camps for young kids," said former longtime BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who also oversaw offenses at North Carolina State, USC, UCLA, Utah and the NFL's Tennessee Titans, coaching the likes of Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Philip Rivers and Heisman Trophy winners Ty Detmer, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart along the way.
"They’re starting at 8, 9, 10 years old going to these camps and they have private tutors," Chow continued. "It really allows a young guy to be a lot more ready to play. But I don’t think any freshman is ready to play. Just like I don’t think a young guy should leave college early to go into the pros because he’s just not ready.”
Years ago, BYU star and NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young said, "I'd be really impressed if a freshman came in and started at quarterback. It takes at least two years to be really comfortable with the offense. You could play before that, but you'd be in a cloud."
A decade or so ago, it was rare for high school prospects around the country, like Zach Wilson, to finish their high school coursework early in order to enroll in college in January. Not anymore. And with the new early signing period in December — highly touted quarterback Jacob Conover has announced his intentions of signing with BYU this December before departing on an LDS mission — there could be even more true freshmen getting on the field early in their careers.
At BYU — where quarterbacks operate under a microscope — is playing a true freshman at that position the best thing for a program?
Of the six seasons that featured a true freshman quarterback playing at any point during a season, the Cougars have compiled a combined record of 38-37. Those true freshmen posted a combined record of 18-15 in games they started, including the eight-win season led by Mangum in 2015.
There’s a case to be made for starting a true freshman and developing him early in his career, but there's also the risk of shattering a young player’s confidence.
“It’s a dicey thing because you don’t want a kid to have a career ruined if it’s a negative thing if he doesn’t play well when there’s so much potential,” Miller said. “You don’t want that first experience to be negative. I know the trepidation you have as a coach to do that. But if a kid’s ready to, and you think he can handle it, you’ve got to let him take the reins and go. You might find yourself something really special.”
“If you put in a guy before he’s ready and he doesn’t have success, he’s done. He’s ruined," Chow said. "Because you can’t play a young guy and say, ‘Oh, he’s not ready,’ and then go back to the veteran guy and then go back to the young guy. It makes it harder. That school of thought, to play the younger, more talented guy, the coaches know if they don’t play him, he’s going to leave.”
Roderick was a Cougar receiver in 1997 when Miller became the first quarterback to start as a true freshman, just months after playing high school football in Lakewood, Washington.
Two decades later, true freshmen, in general, are better equipped to handle that situation, Roderick said.
“The things that have changed about that are, players arrive more ready now than they did back then. High school football and coaching has improved. Players are more physically ready. Guys are getting here early now. That’s another big part of it,” he explained. “Back then, most freshmen showed up Aug. 1 and checked into the dorms. Now, they’re coming in January and going through winter workouts and spring ball.
"By the time spring’s over, a kid that should still be in high school is already a regular member of the team that everybody respects. In this case, Zach is learning all this stuff with the other guys at the same time. It’s not like someone has a big leg up on anyone else in terms of knowledge of the offense. His only disadvantage is that he hasn’t played at this level.”
True freshmen playing at quarterback is more common all around college football, not just at BYU.
Last season, Florida State, Maryland, Texas A&M and Texas all replaced injured starters with true freshmen.
Georgia true freshman QB Jake Fromm led the Bulldogs to the national championship game against Alabama in January. He was looking to become only the second true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national title, with Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway accomplishing the feat in 1985.
As it turned out, another true freshman QB led his team to the title — Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench in the second half, replacing ineffective starter Jalen Hurts, to rally Alabama to a 26-23 victory over the Bulldogs. Tagovailoa, a Hawaii native, threw a 41-yard, game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to seal the win. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards with three touchdowns and an interception as the Tide claimed another national crown.
Later, Tagovailoa revealed he would have transferred from Alabama if he hadn't played in the national championship game.
Beck, one of the six true freshman QBs to have started at least one game at BYU, believes the level of high school football today has made the transition to college football easier.9 comments on this story
“The way high school football is nowadays, there are some kids that are far more prepared for the type of offense they’ll be running in college. They’ve been running a similar offense in high school,” Beck said. “In my case, I was running something completely different at BYU than I did in high school. If you can get a kid that’s been running a spread attack, managing third downs from the gun, doing it by throwing the ball, that’s going to prepare him so much better than a high school team that will run it most of the time.
"If there’s a kid that threw the ball a ton in high school and has been in those critical situations, been behind late in games and had to put together two-minute drives passing the ball and managing timeouts, if you’ve got a guy playing that type of game in high school, he’s going to be so much better prepared and he’ll be able to play more confidently in those situations when he gets to college.”