- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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Only 12 true freshman quarterbacks in a Power 5 conference started a game in 2014, and five of them were in the ACC. That bodes well for the future of the league, but as spring practices come to a close around the league, we’re checking in on where each of these five freshmen stand heading into their follow-up campaigns.
Last up: Syracuse’s A.J. Long
2014 highs: Long spent the first five weeks of the season on the bench with a redshirt looking like a possibility. But when Terrel Hunt went down with an injury in early October, things changed. Long’s first start came against undefeated Florida State, and he handled himself relatively well, completing nearly 60 percent of his throws and tossing two touchdowns. A week later, he led Syracuse to its only ACC win of the season over Wake Forest, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and running for a touchdown. Despite playing in just six games, he accounted for 80 percent of the Orange’s passing touchdowns by quarterbacks. The downside, however, is that he still threw just four touchdowns. That’s how bad things were for Syracuse.
2014 lows: No quarterback has had much sustained success at Syracuse during the past two seasons, and when Long was thrown into the fire, the expectations had to be modest. For the first few weeks, he met them. His struggles against Clemson’s ferocious defense were expected, and in his three other starts, he was solid -- completing 60 percent of his throws with five total touchdowns and four INTs. But an injury held him out of the Duke game, and after he returned, he struggled. His final two games of the year resulted in just 17 completions and no passing touchdowns, while Syracuse mustered just 14 points total. For the year, only teammate Austin Wilson finished with a lower QBR among ACC players with at least 50 pass attempts.
Spring progress report: As has been the case with all of the freshmen quarterbacks who saw time last year, this spring has been about going back to basics and building a better foundation under them. Last season was chaos with the injuries and a change at offensive coordinator, but this spring has been about paring down the playbook to focus on the strengths of the quarterbacks, and that’s helped Long. While 2014 was so hit-or-miss, coordinator Tim Lester said he’s seen real maturation for both Long and Wilson now that they have serious reps under their belts. On the other hand, Hunt is healthy again and Lester has been adamant that the veteran will be starting at quarterback when the season begins.
2015 projection: It’s tough to predict a breakout season for a quarterback who doesn’t have a starting job -- and could potentially redshirt -- but it’s also probably shortsighted to assume Long won’t surpass Hunt at some point this year. Though he was hardly exceptional during his brief debut campaign as a true freshman, he was a heck of a lot better than Hunt over the same span. In his first six games vs. Power 5 competition, Hunt had no TD passes, seven INTs and averaged 4.31 yards per attempt. Long had four TD throws, eight INTs and averaged 5.67 YPA — while two years younger and enduring a far higher sack rate. Neither stat line is going to win many games, but we’ve also seen frustratingly little growth from Hunt, who is now a senior. Long needs to improve at reading defenses and make more use of his legs. While Hunt racked up nearly 300 yards and six rushing TDs in six games, Long had a particularly high sack rate of 9.3 percent and just four runs of 10 yards or more. It makes sense for Syracuse to give Hunt the opportunity to open the season as the starter, but if things go south early — Wake Forest in Week 2 is a must win, and LSU awaits at the end of September -- it makes a lot more sense for the Orange to look to the future and find out what they’ve got in Long.
106dDavid M. Hale