From the Sidelines: Freshman Starting Quarterback? Be Careful What You Wish For

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It will come after the first loss; maybe after the first incomplete pass. The pleas from the “faithful,” the fans who believe they have UK’s best football interests at heart. They will scream, shout, cajole, implore – whatever they deem it necessary for head coach Rich Brooks to make a change.

Put in another quarterback. Somebody. Anybody. Preferably, a freshman.

Ever since Kentucky recruiters landed not one but two multi-starred high school quarterbacks (Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski), Wildcat fans have been giddy with the prospect of someone other than veteran Mike Hartline under center. Now seems to be the time, they reason with such talented choices at hand.

This is when the mind fails even the most intelligent fans. They see it, but they don’t believe it. Or better, they forget that they’ve seen it – firsthand. And what they’ve seen is this:

A true freshman starter at quarterback will cost your team. Even the best QBs with the best teams. We’ve seen it in Commonwealth Stadium.

Struggling Gator

In 2003, the Florida Gators arrived with talented freshman Chris Leak running their offense under Ron Zook. As usual, the Gators were loaded with talent, so Leak was surrounded by some of the best players in college football. And he struggled.

UK’s defensive coordinator was Mike Archer, now the DC at North Carolina State. But he remembers game-planning for a youngster who had led his high school team in North Carolina to three consecutive state championships.

Leak didn’t start the season opener but after Florida split its first four games, Zook handed him the keys to the car. Archer went to work.

“I think the biggest thing that we tried to do, as I remember, we wanted to show him one thing and go to something else and be able to blitz him,” Archer said, appearing as a guest recently on “Sports Nightly” on WLAP-AM.

“We knew Florida had more talent than us, and we felt like the only chance we had was to confuse him and keep him out of his rhythm, because he was a very talented quarterback, which he proved later on.”

Fair enough. Two games later, Leak led the Gators to an upset win over LSU, the only loss Nick Saban and the Tigers would suffer that season on the way to the national championship. And as a senior, Leak, himself, would lead the Gators to a national title of their own.
But Archer’s defense made Leak look like the first-year player that he was as Florida fell behind 21-3 after three quarters. Sadly for the Wildcats, penalties and turnovers allowed the Gators to claw back to within 21-16. That’s when Channing Crowder burst through the UK offensive line at the UF 29-yard-line and grabbed quarterback Jared Lorenzen, looking to ring up a sack.

Lorenzen used his overwhelming size to stay on his feet and made an off-balanced attempt to throw the ball away. The Gators intercepted and returned it to the one. On the next play, they scored the game-winner. Leak, wobbly in his first start, was a winner.

“He was a true freshman and he played like a true freshman during that game,” Archer said.

Struggling Bulldog

Three years later, the Georgia Bulldogs arrived in Commonwealth with a precocious freshman quarterback out of Dallas named Matthew Stafford. He would go on to become the first player chosen in the 2009 NFL Draft. But on this day in Lexington, he was the second-best quarterback on the field, to Andre’ Woodson.
“If I’m not mistaken, that was Georgia’s ninth or 10th game,” Archer said. “It’s not like he hadn’t played football. (But) he made some mistakes.”

As he had with Leak, Archer wanted to keep Stafford as confused as possible by disguising coverages.

“What we tried to do was show him one thing and go to a different look. Probably the biggest play of that game was after we scored to go ahead, when Trevard Lindley makes the interception to win the game for us. I remember distinctly we played cover two but we showed him a cover three look and we rolled to it and, obviously, he thought we were in cover three and he threw it to Trevard, right in front of our bench.”

The celebration began and, eventually, the goal posts came down in what would prove to be one of the most pivotal games in recent UK history.

In two more games, Stafford never lost to the Wildcats. But he did as a freshman, learning that the game is a lot different in the SEC than it is at Highland Park High School.

“Those are things young quarterbacks don’t see in high school, the speed of the game,” Archer said. “The windows that they try to throw into close very quickly, as opposed to high school, where they’re open for a longer period of time.”

Archer had returned to UK after a seven-year stint in the NFL as linebackers coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He watched a rookie quarterback named Kordell Stewart struggle in his first season. But he said making the jump from high school to college is even more difficult than college to the pro game.

“I think it’s probably demonstrated even more,” Archer said, “because the jump for a high school quarterback, 17 or 18-years-old, now he’s playing in college against guys that are 22, that have been in college three of four years. I think it’s even more noticeable than going from college to pro football.”

In fact, Archer’s current team, NC State, started a redshirt freshman last season, Russell Wilson. He eventually was named All-Atlantic Coast Conference, but not before struggling early – even though he’d had his redshirt season to learn the offense and hone his skills. “He struggled mightily,” Archer said, “and really didn’t come around until the last four or five games. It’s a tough thing to do.”

Even Peyton Struggled

Even the great Peyton Manning had his troubles as a young quarterback versus the Wildcats. Manning himself didn’t start as a freshman until injuries claimed both Todd Helton and Jerry Colquitt. As a sophomore, he and the Volunteers came to Commonwealth Stadium, where Billy Jack Haskins and the Cats nearly ended their losing streak against the Vols.

“We had an opportunity to win that game,” Archer said. “What we did was rush three the whole day and drop eight. We gave him a bunch of different looks.
“I remember at halftime, we were in the locker room and it was the worst first half he’d ever had. They came back to beat us but the whole thing was, we changed what we had done going into the game. We said we’re not going to be able to blitz the guy, because he’ll see it and he’ll (change the play). So we…gave him different looks. Even a guy who was a veteran like Peyton, you gotta make him get out of rhythm. The most important thing when you’re dealing with quarterbacks is make them do things when they don’t want to.”

And if Kentucky ends up starting a true freshman at quarterback, every defensive coordinator on the UK schedule will lock himself in a video room and try to figure out how to do just that.

Why? Because it’s the toughest position in college football – even for a QB surrounded by five-star recruits. UK’s quarterback, whoever it is, won’t have that luxury.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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