Editor's note: Last in a nine-part series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — During that amazing, decade-long stretch from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when BYU regularly churned out record-breaking, All-American quarterbacks, most of them patiently waited their turn before taking the field.
They knew the drill — redshirt, then spend a couple of seasons as an understudy, absorbing the playbook, developing and learning from the starter.
Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young “had two years in the program before they started,” said former BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow.
McMahon actually redshirted between his sophomore and junior seasons as Wilson started as a senior in 1979. Robbie Bosco didn’t become a starter until his junior season, when he led the Cougars to a national championship in 1984.
Later, Ty Detmer, who won the 1990 Heisman Trophy, redshirted in 1987 and didn’t start his first game until his second season, as a redshirt freshman. At the time, Detmer’s ascension to starter, just a couple of years removed from high school, was a remarkable feat.
“Ty broke the string a little bit because the guys ahead of him weren’t as good,” Chow said.
These days, for a variety of reasons, true freshman quarterbacks are becoming starters — not only at BYU, but all over the country.
Chow was at BYU from 1973-99, and later coached at North Carolina State, USC, UCLA, Utah and Hawaii. He has had a front-row view of how the situation with true freshman quarterbacks has evolved.
“Guys are a lot more impatient. They want to transfer,” Chow said. “The older guy doesn’t get a chance to play and he wants to transfer. Times have really changed from the old days.”
Transfers and injuries can lead to big voids at that position, pressing true freshmen into a starting role — ready or not.
The last two true freshmen to start games at quarterback for BYU didn’t even have the benefit of spring practices before the season began. Both Tanner Mangum and Joe Critchlow arrived home from missionary service in June, just months before the start of the season.
Having to start a true freshman quarterback right off a mission is a dilemma that Chow never had to face during his coaching career.
The way Chow sees it, true freshman quarterbacks shouldn’t start in college any more than rookie QBs should start in the NFL. But he acknowledges that sometimes true freshmen need to play due to injuries to other, more experienced QBs.
“The dramatic difference in talent from high school to college and from college to the NFL is huge. I don’t think any of these kids are ready,” he said. “A lot of times, (they start) out of necessity. Steve Young sat on the bench for a long time. He made himself a quarterback (in the NFL) by sitting on the bench watching Joe Montana.
"When he was at BYU, it was looking at (tight end) Gordon Hudson. Gordon could get open against anybody. We always told him look at the hot receiver, look at Gordon, run. Those were the three looks. Don’t go checking down. He wasn’t ready for that. Guys that spend four years in college when they get to the NFL aren’t ready for that. It’s hard.”
But now a new NCAA rule will allow players to compete in up to four games without burning a year of eligibility. True freshmen could gain valuable experience under this new rule.
These days, many quarterbacks who star in high school want to play right away. Because of social media and websites devoted to recruiting, young players are rated by a star system, sometimes creating a sense of entitlement and overinflated egos. Their sights are set on the NFL and the quickest path that can get them there.
At times, other factors play a role in a quarterback’s career decisions. Chow recalls a quarterback asked him if he should transfer because his coach left for another job.
“I told him, ‘You’re crazy. Just stay there. You’re there to get an education, not to follow your coach around,” Chow said. “But those are the times we’re living in.”
It’s notable that the first three true freshmen to start at quarterback for BYU are now involved with helping develop young quarterbacks.
Drew Miller (1997), a former assistant at Idaho State, tutors QB hopefuls in his home state of Washington. John Beck (2003) works for 3DQB, which trains high-level high school quarterbacks. And Jake Heaps (2010) is the director of operations for the Russell Wilson Passing Academy.
Who better to discuss the trend of more and more true freshman quarterbacks starting games than these three?
“In recruiting, the mindset of quarterbacks these days is, ‘How fast can I play?’ instead of ‘I’m going to take some time to develop,’” Heaps said. “That was definitely my mindset (before arriving at BYU). I was accustomed to playing. I didn’t want to sit out. I wanted to compete and play and get right into it. You’ve got a lot of kids today with that same mindset.”
Generally speaking, true freshmen are more prepared to start than they used to be.
“Kids are further along and way more hyped up because of the internet,” Miller said. “You see all these 7-on-7 camps and tournaments and there’s more opportunity for kids in the offseason to get exposure and get really, really good reps against really good competition.
"That’s a huge thing right there. Then there weren’t all these specialists, these trainers, like high school agents. It’s unbelievable. That’s just changed over time.”
“The quarterback position has really advanced from the time back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You didn’t see true freshmen playing much back then,” Heaps said. “Now, the development of quarterbacking is completely different, from what’s available to athletes in terms of personal training, 7-on-7. There’s a lot of development that’s going on at an earlier age so that these kids are much more advanced coming into the college game than what we’d seen in the past.
"The game is also a lot easier to transition into, meaning that there’s a lot more correlation between high school offenses and collegiate offenses. It makes for a smoother transition into the game. A lot of times, you were coming from a high school offense to a much more complicated pro-style offense where you really had to learn a lot. In those things alone, it’s a lot easier transition for high school quarterbacks to come in and play right away.”
But, of course, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.
“Kids are able to do it better than ever before,” Heaps said. “What you see too often is guys that end up playing as true freshmen and they get burned early on in their freshman or sophomore year and their coaches don’t really stick with them. They get some early adversity and they’re not able to play through that.”
Is all the emphasis on getting a college scholarship the best thing for young players? That approach might be to the long-term detriment of an athlete, Miller said.
Before enrolling at BYU in 1997, he didn’t focus exclusively on football, or on one sport, like many young athletes do now.
“We were all playing multiple sports,” Miller said. “Some of it makes me sick to my stomach because kids need to be kids. They need to play multiple sports. As a recruiter, I coached receivers. I wanted to find receivers that played multiple sports and were well-rounded.”
Heaps added that while some true freshman quarterbacks are ready physically to compete as true freshmen, some aren’t.
“When I started at BYU, I believe I was around 195 pounds or 200 pounds. I was barely physically ready to go in terms of being able to take the hits. Mechanically and my ability to throw the football was definitely there,” he said. “You get into the college weight room and that’s something you have to transition into.
"It’s about making sure you’re physically able and ready to go. You’re seeing a lot of guys being able to transition a lot quicker nowadays for those reasons. It’s been fascinating to watch. You see guys either have success or they don’t.”
Heaps added that one key to success for a true freshman quarterback is understanding and having experience with situational football.
“When you go into a higher level, the Xs and Os are more complicated but it’s really what’s put on the quarterback that makes it a difficult transition,” he said. “From high school to college, the quarterback is asked to do more and know more in terms of two-minute offense, making sure you’re making smart decisions. That level of demand on the quarterback raises 10 times more when you go to the NFL.”
Meanwhile, coaches are more apt to start a true freshman because of the intense sense of urgency they feel.
“The quarterback is really critical,” Chow said. “You have to spend time recruiting because you can only take one every year. If you miss, then your line of succession gets all screwed up.”
“There’s pressure on coaches to win and win now, or you’re done. It puts a lot of pressure to find that talent and get them on the field as fast as they can,” Miller said. “Sometimes that means the true freshman quarterback that hasn’t played all year and it’s Week 10 and we might need him, so here you go. Unfortunately, it’s not great for the kid.”
“You’ve got to look at it as a business,” said former BYU and UCLA quarterback Ben Olson. “Coaches are being paid millions of dollars and their livelihood is on the line. There’s a lot of pressure to perform and perform at a high level. Because of the nature of the business, individual impact that can be made on college kids’ lives that gets thrown by the wayside.”
For coaches, decisions regarding the quarterback position can be difficult to manage.
“Say you have a guy and you know he’s going to be the future and you have a junior or senior that are equal. If I’m a coach, I’d start the true freshman and take my lumps that first season and prepare for the future because if I’m going to have a player for three or four years, that’s how I would handle the situation,” Olson said. “It’s a balancing act because you don’t want people to transfer and leave the program. The coaches have to dangle that carrot.
"A lot of times, you see these quarterback competitions and coaches will say, ‘We don’t know who our starter is going to be and we’ll announce it the week before the first game.’ They are making it so that the guy they know is not going to start can’t transfer. That’s where there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes that people don’t know about. These coaches have a tough job. They have to keep the 85 scholarship players on the hope of playing. Deep down, they know some won’t play but they’ve got to make them believe they are.”
Quarterbacks skipping the last part of their senior year in high school and enrolling early, in January, in order to participate in spring practices is commonplace nowadays. That can expedite a player’s ability to acclimate to college football. Heaps enrolled in January after cutting short his senior year while Beck enrolled in the winter after serving an LDS Church mission out of high school.
“I think that’s huge. Doing spring ball helped me get back in the swing of things,” Beck said. “To take a kid who finishes high school early, gets to get a spring ball in, gets to get acclimated to the environment and the coaches and the offense and then gets the summer to know what he’s doing when he throws. He knows where the ball needs to be thrown and he knows when the receivers are going to break, that’s important to prepare himself.”
It’s important to take advantage of the summer workouts to develop chemistry with receivers and other teammates, Beck added.
“I’m a firm believer that at the quarterback position, a lot of strides can be made in the offseason on your own time. But it takes knowing what’s going to be happening when fall camps rolls around. Any young kid can throw passes. But do all of those passes have a purpose? Do they know the situations, coverage-wise, that’s going to take them through their progressions? Then you can work your practice time like that in the offseason. But if you don’t, you’re really not going to get that much better running the offense.”
Beck remained at BYU for four consecutive years and endured plenty of adversity before finishing with a sensational senior season. He is regarded as one of the great ones in Cougar history.
Both Miller and Heaps had fleeting careers at BYU. Miller started one game as a true freshman before transferring to Montana while Heaps started for parts of two seasons before leaving for Kansas.
Heaps would like to see more continuity at the quarterback position.24 comments on this story
“It’s fascinating to see what is going on in college football from that standpoint,” he said. “Everyone wants to look at the player. It’s a balance between player, coach and program to see how these true freshmen develop and become what everyone hopes them to be: a big-time, four-year starter.”
But that rarely happens anymore. Oftentimes, true freshmen are thrown to the proverbial wolves — ready or not.
“An important thing you have to look at is, are the coaches making the best decisions for the players?” Heaps said. “Is this the best decision for their long-term development in their program?”