Freshman phenom: UCLA's Josh Rosen shines in debut vs. Virginia
It sunk in with 7:37 remaining in the second quarter of UCLA’s 34–16 victory at Virginia on Saturday: Josh Rosen has the tools to be a legitimate Pac-12 force. The 6’4”, 210-pound true freshman quarterback handled a snap in the shotgun, hopped a couple of times in the pocket and then lofted a beautiful, arching pass that floated past the outstretched arms of Virginia safety Quin Blanding and into the hands of receiver Thomas Duarte. It was the kind of throw that looked so perfect the instant it left Rosen’s hands, you knew it was going to be a touchdown.
Duarte stumbled into the end zone. Rosen improved to 12 of 14 passing for 117 yards with two scores. (He finished 28 of 35 for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.) Cue the hyperbole. This kid has it. Welcome to the Heisman Trophy race. We have a new frontrunner to be the top pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
This is what happens in Week 1. We anoint those who have accomplished very little (see: Hill, Kenny) and draw sweeping conclusions based off the smallest possible sample size. So, before everyone goes into full-blown, the-future-is-now mode, let’s pause to consider: What can we really take away from UCLA’s win?
1. Rosen could live up to all the hype, but let’s not (yet) get carried away.
Here is what we knew about Rosen ahead of Saturday’s game: He was the top-rated quarterback prospect in the recruiting class of 2015. He was prolific during his career at St. John Bosco (Calif.) High, throwing for 11,117 yards with 90 touchdowns. He carved up UCLA’s defense during the spring game in April, as evidenced in the video below.
Here is what we learned from his performance against Virginia: That success could translate to the FBS level, but we still don’t know how he’ll fare on a weekly basis.
For a peek at his upside, take his first touchdown pass, a four-yard strike to senior wideout Devin Fuller. Rosen looked to Duarte along the right sideline, drawing the coverage in that direction, before hitting a wide-open Fuller in the front-middle of the end zone. Or reference his second scoring toss, a throw that could rank among the most gorgeous you’ll see all year, or his third, a play in which he rolled out to the right before connecting with junior defensive tackle (and occasional tight end) Kenny Clark. Rosen was so locked in Saturday that many of his incompletions even looked pretty, the type in which blame falls primarily on the receiver and not the quarterback.
Of course, we still don’t know how he’ll handle a situation when UCLA is losing, or when he needs to make a critical throw after tossing an interception. But given his debut it’s far more difficult to find faults than it is to find praise. The sentiment that resonates is mostly along these lines: this was the start of something big.
2. UCLA has the makings of a bona fide College Football Playoff contender.
This was just one game, and it came against an opponent that went 5–7 in 2014. The Bruins racked up 10 wins last year despite looking awful in a season-opening matchup against the same team, showcasing the pitfalls of taking too much away from one September performance.
But, boy, it’s sure easy to see how this Bruins team could wreak havoc all fall long.
UCLA has 18 returning starters. It boasts a veteran offensive line, a proven tailback (Paul Perkins) and an All-America linebacker (Myles Jack) who has caused issues for foes since his freshman campaign. It has a coach (Jim Mora) who has won at least nine games in each of his three seasons in Westwood, a defense that looked stout against Virginia and a young talent named Soso Jamabo who showed flashes of developing into a star in his own right (nine carries for 79 yards).
The question mark for the Bruins entering Saturday was at quarterback. How would UCLA replace Brett Hundley, a three-year starter who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft? The early answer? With ease. But that brings us to my next point.
3. We’ll know more about Rosen after a stretch from Sept. 19 to Oct. 15.
Last fall Texas A&M’s Hill looked like a can’t-miss talent after his first start. He went 44 of 60 for 511 yards with three touchdowns in a 52–28 rout of South Carolina, but was out of a job by November. (He transferred to TCU in the off-season.) On the flip side, former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston went 25 of 27 for 356 yards with four touchdowns in his debut at Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, 2013. Winston went on to win the Heisman and become the No. 1 overall pick in the ’15 draft.
Whose trajectory will Rosen follow? That remains to be seen. But we should know a lot more following this season-defining stretch in which UCLA plays BYU, at Arizona, Arizona State and at Stanford. The Pac-12 is expected to be loaded in 2015—the conference's South division, in particular—and how Rosen performs will determine whether UCLA can contend for a College Football Playoff berth.
Rosen could be as good as advertised; his nickname, after all, is “Chosen Rosen.” He could be a freshman standout who experiences similar growing pains to many others. This much is certain, though: This UCLA team will be one to watch all year.