Last November, soon after North Carolina brought Mack Brown back to Chapel Hill to be its head football coach again after 21 years away, Brown’s first order of business was an in-state recruiting blitz. For the next month, that meant a last-minute pitch to one of the country’s top quarterback prospects, Sam Howell, who reopened his recruitment after committing to Florida State.
“We had a sit down with him to talk about our philosophy, who we were and where we were going,” Brown told reporters last December. “He felt like that fit him perfectly.” And so Brown already had a big win: Howell signed with North Carolina. Last month, Brown did what many quarterback-needy coaches are doing these days: He tied the fate of his season to a true freshman.
It has paid off so far. Howell delivered a terrific debut against South Carolina in Charlotte, completing 15 of 24 passes for 245 yards and leading two 90-plus yard touchdown drives to win the game in the second half. Last week against Miami, he followed that performance with an almost-identical stat line (16-for-24, 274 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions), and now North Carolina is 2-0 and buzzing.
Howell is not alone. Freshman starting quarterbacks were the story of college football’s opening week, as the top three dual-threat quarterback prospects in 247sports.com’s 2019 recruiting rankings — Auburn’s Bo Nix, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and Howell — all won starting jobs at Power Five schools and all won their first two games.
Nix — entrusted with the starting job by a coach on the hot seat, Gus Malzahn — made arguably the play of Week 1, a go-ahead, 26-yard touchdown pass that put Auburn ahead of Oregon with nine seconds left. Daniels produced three touchdowns in Arizona State’s season-opening rout of Kent State.1
Two more true freshmen entered the fold at Power Five schools last weekend, as Southern California’s Kedon Slovis took over for JT Daniels, who’s out for the season with an ACL injury, and South Carolina’s Ryan Hilinski replaced Jake Bentley, who’s out of the season with a foot injury. Slovis was outstanding, with 377 yards and three touchdowns on 28-for-33 passing. Hilinski and South Carolina beat Charleston Southern easily. 2
Why the push for so many newcomers? For starters, today’s freshmen don’t play like freshmen. “These guys, they don’t treat me like a freshman,” Daniels told reporters after his debut. “They treat me like a veteran.” Nix, Malzahn has said, is “not your normal freshman.” North Carolina offensive lineman Nick Polino, too, said Howell “is not hesitant like most freshmen.” Perhaps that’s a product of the personal quarterback coaches employed by so many young players. Or maybe it’s because Howell, Nix and Daniels enrolled early, entering the quarterback competition last winter rather than this summer.
With young players, and quarterbacks especially, coaches have tempered expectations for as long as they have worn whistles. After Edwards named Daniels the starter, he told reporters, “He’s not the savior, OK? I don’t want anyone to think that. He’s a freshman quarterback. He’s going to do a lot of good things and sometimes he’s going to make some errors.” And since coaches face criticism no matter whom they put under center, they often turn to new players when they need a spark. With a young talent, they can build around him and claim progress in the right direction.
Maybe some, after last season, are following the example Clemson set. Already in possession of a quarterback who led them to the previous season’s College Football Playoff, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers introduced Trevor Lawrence to game action in the first four weeks and then made him the starter in the fifth, unseating Kelly Bryant. Lawrence finished undefeated and became the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway did it in the 1985 season. Now he’s one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and Clemson is assured two more years with him on campus.
Historically speaking, today’s freshman quarterbacks are treading into fairly uncertain territory. Since at least 2009, no SEC freshman has started at quarterback in the season opener and gone on to qualify for year-end stats.3 In the ACC, there were four: Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Wake Forest’s John Wolford and Boston College’s Dave Shinskie.4 Others have gone on to have breakout freshman seasons, of course, but not even Alabama’s Jalen Hurts or Georgia’s Jake Fromm started the season opener.
Howell’s early consistency is rare: In the past 20 seasons, just three other quarterbacks in any class have put up the same, gaudy stat line (at least 60 percent completions, more than 240 yards, multiple touchdowns, no interceptions) against a Power Five team in each of the first two games.5 Surely there will be bumps ahead for him, Nix and Daniels. But their schools, who finished a combined 17-20 last season, can hope for better days ahead.