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October 26, 2006

Freshman QBs making their mark

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Historically, college football coaches held freshmen in only slightly higher esteem than tackling dummies and sports writers.

A coach once warned to expect a loss for every freshman starter. Another said the best thing about freshmen was they become sophomores.

Yet, a quick look at quarterback depth charts around the nation indicates that way of thinking may be history.

There are more than 20 true or redshirt freshman quarterbacks in Division I either starting or getting significant playing time. Fourteen freshmen are listed among the NCAA's top 100 passers, which more than doubles the amount in any of the previous four seasons.

And while only two freshmen Oklahoma true freshman Jamelle Holieway in 1985 and Miami redshirt freshman Bernie Kosar in 1983 ever started at quarterback on national championship teams, there are three who either start or play significant roles for teams near the top of the current rankings Texas' Colt McCoy, Florida's Tim Tebow and Arkansas' Mitch Mustain.

Arkansas has not lost since Mustain was named the starter in the second week of the season. In fact, Mustain hasn't lost a game in which he started and finished since the eighth grade.

Coaches once seemed to require a year or two as an apprentice before trusting a quarterback with the offense. The obvious question: Why are so many freshmen playing now?

More advanced high school offenses, seven-on-seven offseason programs and NCAA rule changes passed three years ago that allow freshmen to join their collegiate teams in the summer have all helped expedite the learning and playing process for all players - especially quarterbacks.

"I'm not sure why, but I think they're coming in more prepared," said Texas coach Mack Brown, who has used two freshman quarterbacks (McCoy and Jevan Snead) this season. "No. 1, high school offenses emulate what colleges are doing. You're seeing more high school systems that use four and five receivers, so the coaches are preparing them better.

"It also makes a difference that they are coming in for summer school. They have a chance to throw to college receivers and learn our system for three months. Even though coaches can't be there, when you have (Texas receivers) Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman working with them it's a great advantage for freshmen. Major (Applewhite) and Chris (Simms), the guys six or seven years ago, and even Vince (Young) four years ago didn't have that."

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said the growing popularity of offseason seven-on-seven football, which has helped developed passing offenses, is also a contributing factor.

"You've got a lot of seven-on-sevens, you've got a lot of spring football, all that helps," he said. "I think that's really expedited their learning curve, and it's helping them fundamentally, so you're seeing some guys who are able to step up. There's always a learning curve there, and they're seeing a different speed of the game, but they're very talented."

Few are as talented as Mustain, who came to Arkansas from nearby Springdale High School. He has completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 782 yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions.

"He's a very heady guy, he's smart. He studies the game, practices hard, good listener," Nutt said. "He has all the good qualities you want in a quarterback."

Mustain, who said he has performed below his expectations, acknowledged that his progress has been aided by luxury of having explosive running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith in the backfield with him. Defenses have to worry about them more than Mustain.

Arkansas averages 6 yards per rush, which means the Razorbacks don't face many third-and-long situations. They are converting 41.6 percent on third down and have faced third down just 77 times, the sixth fewest in Division I.

"It's big for us to have Darren and Felix and Michael," Mustain said. "They do a great job. When you're able to give the ball to them and they get yards for you, it takes pressure off the quarterback."

Mustain also has an advantage no other freshman has. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was Mustain's high school coach.

"I think it's helped in the fact that I had a pretty good understanding of the offense when I came in," Mustain said. "I knew what to expect, but I still have a lot to learn."

All freshman quarterbacks do. But because of seven-on-seven drills, imaginative high school offenses and the opportunity to join the team in the summer, they're learning faster and playing sooner.

However, Mustain offered another theory why so many freshman quarterbacks are playing this season.

"Maybe there were a lot of old quarterbacks last year," he said.

Leave it to a freshman to keep things simple.

Colt McCoy has thrown for 20 touchdowns this season.

Here's a look at the top 10 freshman quarterbacks ranked by passing yards this season, and a list of other freshman quarterbacks who are either starting or playing significant roles on their teams this season.
* redshirt freshmen.
Dan LeFevour, Central Michigan*
Colt McCoy, Texas*
Matt Grothe, South Florida*
Justin Willis, SMU*
Kellen Lewis, Indiana*
Thaddeus Lewis, Duke
Nate Davis, Ball State
Juice Williams, Illinois
Riley Skinner, Wake Forest*
Matt Stafford, Georgia

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.

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