Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told the two freshmen quarterbacks he signed in February they would have every opportunity to win the starting job.
That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?
Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”
Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.
Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.
According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.
Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.
In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.
Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.
“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”
Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.
Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”
Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.
“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”
Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.
When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”
Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.
Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.
Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.