Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was asked on this week’s SEC teleconference how coaches know when a freshman quarterback is ready to play.
“I don’t know if they’re ever ready to play,” Mullen said. “Sometimes you’re forced to play freshmen quarterbacks or they give you the best opportunity to win the football game.”
That could be the situation South Carolina finds itself in Saturday against UMass (1-6) in a noon game at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks (2-4) are last in the SEC in scoring and next-to-last in yards per game, and are considering starting true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who appeared headed for a redshirt this season.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has declined to identify his starting quarterback, saying only that the team “has a good plan.” Two sources with knowledge of the situation told The State this week that the plan was to play Bentley, although there’s a chance a poor week of practice or other factors could convince the coaching staff to stick with senior Perry Orth or freshman Brandon McIlwain.
South Carolina already has tried one true freshman quarterback this year.
McIlwain, like Bentley a four-star prospect, has started three games this year, beating East Carolina and losing to Kentucky and Texas A&M. McIlwain is 56-of-106 passing for 567 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also gained 166 yards on the ground, although 68 yards lost in sacks leaves him with 98 official rushing yards on the season.
“There is nothing like being able to grow without having the responsibility (of playing) early, but not all situations are that way,” South Carolina offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper said Thursday night on the school’s “Carolina Calls” radio program. “Game reps are a much better teacher than any reps we can give them, but sometimes it’s a tough lesson to learn.”
Mullen couldn’t remember ever starting a true freshman quarterback. His most recent experience playing one came at Florida, where he was the Gators offensive coordinator when Tim Tebow backed up Chris Leak during Tebow’s true freshman season.
“Tim would play seven to 10 plays a game that year, and those seven to 10 plays were things that Tim did really well and it helped build up his confidence,” Mullen said. “One of the things you want to do is try to build up their confidence. If you’re trying to get a young guy ready, you want to try to give them confidence and to do that, you do things that they do well. If you are able to rotate them in a little bit, get them some reps early on.”
Bentley is a 6-foot-3, 223-pounder who showed impressive passing ability during the portions of practice open to the media in the preseason. He threw for 2,834 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions at Opelika High last year.
The position is about much more than passing, especially for a young player, Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
“I think the biggest piece is when the group around them, and I don’t mean just your offense, even your defense, but you can see the guy commands respect and (the other players) elevate their play when the guy is in there. That’s really the biggest piece,” McElwain said. “Obviously, they have to have the skill set to do it, but there’s something about when a guy walks in a room, and there’s a little bit of that is not necessarily just writing it down on paper and reading it. A lot of it has to do with their command of the organization. There are some good ones who really go about doing that and there are some good ones in this league doing it.”
Two other SEC teams are starting true freshmen quarterbacks with mixed results. At Georgia, Jacob Eason is completing 54 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and five interceptions, while the Bulldogs are 4-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC. Eason is progressing like a first-year player should, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said.
“It’s not his arm talent. It always comes down to decision making and what he sees,” Smart said. “He is more proficient at telling you what the coverage was after the play. These teams don’t just line up and make it easy for you. They make it as complicated as they can, and most of them do a good job of confusing young quarterbacks.”
At Alabama, true freshman Jalen Hurts is completing 64 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, and three interceptions and the Crimson Tide are ranked No. 1 in the nation. Like Bentley, Hurts is the son of a high school football coach (Jake’s father Bobby is now South Carolina’s running backs coach after a long and successful stint at Byrnes High).
“Jalen has the right stuff when it comes to his disposition as a quarterback,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Maybe it’s from his father being his coach. I think he understands the importance of doing things correctly. He doesn’t seem to get bothered or affected during the game when things don’t go the way he wants them to, which has helped him progress.”
Life of a freshman QB
Four examples of SEC freshman quarterbacks:
During three wins against ranked opponents, he has combined for 852 yards and seven touchdowns for undefated Tide.
Has been up and down all season. Rallied team to win against Missouri but only passed for only 29 yards against USC.
In three starts, he has thrown for 567 yards, including two touchdowns and one interception.
After not leaving the sideline in Gamecocks’ first six games, he is expected to play – maybe start – against UMass.