On Aug. 31, the opening Saturday of college football, Hank Bachmeier threw for 407 yards in leading the Boise State Broncos back from an 18-point deficit to a win at Florida State. The very next Saturday, Ryan Hilinski went 24-for-30 passing and scored three touchdowns in South Carolina’s romping win over Charleston Southern. Then this past weekend, Jayden Daniels marched his Arizona State team 75 yards on 11 plays in 164 seconds to beat Michigan State.
All of these quarterbacks have something in common: They were in high school this time last year. But what you probably didn’t know is that they are closely connected, having grown up in Southern California within 80 miles of one another. In fact, Daniels called Bachmeier after the comeback over the Seminoles, and he sent a congratulatory text to Hilinski before his first start at South Carolina. This week, it was Daniels’s turn to receive adoration from his buddies Bachmeier, who he played against in high school, and Hilinski, who he played with in little league. And now here they all are, teenage captains of college football teams, two of them in the top-25 and all three with significant conference showdowns this weekend.
“It’s crazy,” says Daniels.
Crazy, maybe to him, just an innocent 18-year-old, but this is the evolution of college football: rookie starting quarterbacks leading their teams to significant victories. It is one of the most flourishing trends in the sport, an oft-discussed movement that has grown rapidly in the last half-decade. One-fourth of the way through the 2019 season and already nine true freshmen have started at least one game at quarterback. They’ve thrown 37 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, with North Carolina’s Sam Howell and UCF’s Dillon Gabriel responsible for 15 of those scores (neither has thrown an interception). Five of the nine quarterbacks have passed for more than 700 yards, with Bachmeier’s 927 leading the way, and three of them are completing at least 67% of their passes. Four of the quarterbacks are undefeated. In fact, the nine combine for a 73% winning clip (16–6). In addition to those nine, 20 more true freshmen have thrown at least one pass this year at 17 universities.
“The world of football has changed,” says Herm Edwards, the longtime NFL coach now leading Daniels and the 24th-ranked Sun Devils. “‘We’re going to start a freshman quarterback!’ ‘Oooh really?!’ That was taboo. It’s not a shock anymore. I’m thankful we got our kid.” And so are the other nine coaches. Four of them have engineered a combined five second-half comebacks. We’ve already mentioned Daniels at Michigan State and Bachmeier at FSU, but Howell directed the Tar Heels back in wins over South Carolina and Miami. Bo Nix roared Auburn back against Oregon at AT&T Stadium in the season’s marquee opener. These rookies have guided some beatdowns too. Oddly enough, USC’s Kedon Slovis and UCF’s Dillon Gabriel, in back-to-back weeks, whipped Stanford by passing for more than 700 yards and seven touchdowns. There is star power among the group as well. Miami (Ohio) quarterback Brett Gabbert, a three-game freshman starter, is Blaine’s younger brother.
This weekend could produce two more true freshman starters: Max Duggan at TCU and Garrett Shrader at Mississippi State. If you’d like a reminder, Shrader is the guy thrust into the air helicopter style during a scrambling lunge on a fourth down last Saturday in a loss to Kansas State. Duggan has come off the bench to throw for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the Horned Frogs’ first two wins. He’s completed 12 more passes and thrown for 100 more yards than starter Alex Delton, a fifth-year senior. It’s only a matter of time before TCU coach Gary Patterson crowns him as the starter, potentially giving college football its 11th first-year starting QB, seven of them from the Power 5—with 10 weeks left it the regular season.
According to research from STATS Perform, 24 true freshmen started at least one game at quarterback in the FBS last season, 11 from Power 5 schools. The increase in true freshman QB starters is most felt at the major college level. From 2009–13 in the Power 5, 43 freshman quarterbacks started a total of 229 games. From 2014–18, 61 rookies started 360 games. Though the sample size is small, this year’s rookies are setting highs for yards per game (250.6) and completion percentage (63.1), the highest of any freshman group since at least 2012, the last year of STATS Perform’s research. Freshman QBs are winning more, too. In 2012 and 2013, they won 30.4% and 36.7% of their games. Since then, they’ve won at least 42% of the time with a high of 45.6% in 2017.
Reasons for the surge are a plenty, and they’ve been written about exhaustively. Quarterback training is a year-around endeavor that has 18-year-olds more ready to play earlier—from private coaches to 7-on-7 tournaments, from college summer camps to internet-based lessons. “Believe it or not, YouTube,” says Brian Harsin, head coach of Bachmeier and No. 20 Boise State. “A lot of these guys use that.” The youth movement is also furthered by the rise of early enrollees (five of the nine true-freshman starters this year enrolled early). The flood of QB transfers gives these freshmen opportunities not there a decade ago, and there’s also the growing correlation between high school and college offenses—both predominantly operating the spread. “A lot of the systems are similar from high school to college,” says Edwards. “They’re already doing it.”
That was the case with Daniels, the 6’3”, 180-pounder from San Bernardino, California, about 60 miles west of Los Angeles. He’s adapted to Herman’s spread offense smoothly. By no means is he prolific, but he’s efficient (61% completion rate) and proficient (zero interceptions). Those are words you don’t often use with such a young player, but for Daniels, the output matches his composed demeanor. In fact, Edwards gets along with him so well because the two have like souls. “He’s very calm, very collective. That’s why I’ve kind of liked him from the beginning,” Edwards says. “His personality is my personality when it comes to playing in the game when the game starts.”
That temperament was put to the test last Saturday against Michigan State. The Sun Devils took over at their own 25 trailing 7–3 with 3:34 left. Daniels completed his first four passes and ran for 27 yards on the drive, none bigger than his 15-yard scramble on a game-extending fourth-and-13. ASU called a four verticals route, giving Daniels four receiver options beyond the first-down marker. He identified man coverage with two deep safeties. His first read was covered and by the time he looked to the second, Daniels felt pressure. He escaped from the pocket, got a crucial block from running back Eno Benjamin and reached the line to gain by three yards. Whew. “Some people didn’t realize that he has pretty good running talent,” Edwards says. “He was aware where the chains were. That’s one of those…. clock is winding down, running out of time, fourth down—that is pressure.”
But for a freshman? In this day of college football, it’s a piece of cake. For these rookies, sometimes the more difficult hurdles are off the field. Daniels basically became a campus celebrity overnight. His walks to class this week were dotted with selfie-seeking schoolmates. “For an 18-year-old,” he says, “it can get overwhelming. Can’t get too big-headed.” Social media makes things even more difficult. “On there, you’ve got people telling you you’re great and you start believing it,” he says. Good thing he’s got his hard-charging, ex-football player dad to keep him grounded. Jay Daniels, a former Iowa State defensive back, preaches to his son to “stay low and lay low.” Jayden stays off social media as much as possible and while he grants photo requests, he slips around campus as quietly as possible.
On the field, things must remain simple too. At Boise State (3–0) for instance, Bachmeier is not operating the Broncos’ offense at full capacity. That’s an impossibility, says Harsin. As the season progresses, that may change. “You might have five options in a play and an older quarterback will get all five,” Harsin says. “With a young quarterback, you might have two of those options. Same concepts. You’re just trying to simplify.” This is Harsin’s second go-around with a true freshman quarterback in four years. Brett Rypien led the Broncos to four straight wins as a rookie in 2015 to a gratifying fan base. Boise lost three of the next five, and the criticism reached a point to which the teenager completely removed himself from social media. “Once you start reading those things and getting into it, eventually your game declines because the work you put in is not the same,” Harsin says. “It’s a fine line of making sure you’re staying focused on the right things.”
This weekend is big for the new guys. South Carolina’s Hilinski and Auburn’s Nix play interdivision road games at Missouri and Texas A&M, respectively. Gabriel and UCF take their No. 15 ranking and undefeated record on the road at Pitt, while Slovis and the Trojans host No. 10 Utah. Bachmeier and Boise are at home against Air Force (2–0) in a Friday night meeting between arguably the Mountain West’s two best teams. Daniels and the Sun Devils (3–0) host division foe Colorado.
Are there more fiery comebacks, scintillating touchdown passes and game-winning drives in store from these teens? At this point, it’s almost guaranteed. Welcome to college football, the 2019 edition.