Woody Hayes posited once that a team is assured of losing one game for every sophomore it starts.
“Because of their lack of experience,” Hayes postulated.
Clemson’s leading sophomore disagrees. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has started all 14 games for the Tigers this season. They’re an unblemished 14-0, and with a win Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T he’ll become the third second-year quarterback in the last seven seasons to help guide a team to a national championship.
Recent history might even counter Hayes by suggesting Watson has too much experience having started five games last season.
Meanwhile, if Alabama wins, Jacob Coker will be the sixth first-time starting quarterback since 2009 to win a national title.
A young, inexperienced quarterback once hamstrung teams with national championship aspirations. A seasoned upperclassman served as the plinth for the championship pedestal.
From 1992 to 2008, six first-year starters either won a national title or played for a BCS championship. But Coker is the ninth first-year starter to play for a national title since 2009, and since then a first-year starter has appeared in every championship game.
In each of the last four seasons, a second-year player (true/redshirt freshman or sophomore) was the starting quarterback the majority of the season for one of the finalists. It happened twice in the 17 seasons prior. No starting quarterback has won a national title in his final season of eligibility in almost a decade (Matt Flynn, 2007).
“It’s not a strategy to hold them back anymore,” said renowned youth and professional quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson. “[A quarterback’s progression] is not as predictable. Kids are smarter and are able to get on the field almost seamlessly.”
Houston coach Tom Herman spent the 2014 season tutoring Ohio State quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones. Barrett was a redshirt freshman and first-year starter who went 11-1. When he suffered a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale, Herman turned to Jones, the preseason No. 3 quarterback who had never started a game for the Buckeyes. Jones went 3-0 in the postseason and won a national title.
It starts with Barrett and Jones both being talented players, Herman said, but he also credits evolving offensive schemes. No-huddle and uptempo principles have made it easier on signal-callers, especially as they grapple with playbooks and assimilate to the college level. Coaches can better control the on-field result when quarterbacks rush to the line before craning their neck toward their sideline for the coaches’ call. Instead of quarterbacks having to make a check or audible after assessing the defense, the sideline is there to assist.
That also opens up more time during midweek preparations to work on a quarterback’s mechanics or footwork.
“When we’re a huddle team and you tell your quarterback to check this and check that, and tell them we want to run this run play into this look and this play into that look, you spend a lot of teaching time on all of these checks and game-management things,” Herman said. “In the stone ages you’d spend half or most of your meeting time on checks.”
Clarkson, who tutored the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class, said coaches are already working with a more physically and mentally refined quarterback than ever before, too. Some youth quarterbacks have made football a year-round sport -- a handful of states allow spring practices -- and more quarterbacks are hiring private coaches, attending elite combines and competing in 7-on-7 tournaments.
“They’re so much more advanced,” Clarkson said.
Every year, several opt to graduate high school early to enroll in January, as Watson did two years ago and three of the top four prep quarterbacks will do this month. Many quarterbacks enter offensive schemes that are similar to what they ran in high school, much like Watson, who has been in the spread since seventh grade.
Quarterbacks’ foundational knowledge is greater than ever entering college, Clarkson said, and he even acknowledges the role of video games.
“Most have played Madden or NCAA Football, and believe it or not it’s realistic and realistic in reaction time,” Clarkson said. “It’s had an impact.”
Coker would be the fourth first-time starter in the last five seasons to win a national championship. McElroy started the trend in Tuscaloosa seven seasons ago, and as a former quarterback he doesn’t mind the position getting much of the credit. However, he said those young and inexperienced quarterbacks to play for national titles were all supported with strong offensive- and defensive-line play, helping to manage the quarterback’s responsibilities.
“As a first-year starter you don’t bite off more than you can chew,” McElroy said. “You don’t get greedy and try to play within the game.”
If Coker does that, he’ll be the latest in a trend of first-year starters winning titles. If he doesn’t, then Watson will support another trend.