- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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West Virginia coach Bill Stewart ran into Jim McMahon this summer at a charity golf outing and got to talking about how he should handle his young starting quarterback, Geno Smith.
Stewart mentioned typical coaching tropes like not wanting to turn the ball over, managing the game instead of winning it, etc. That's when McMahon stopped him.
"How many negative things have you said to that kid already?" the former Super Bowl-winning signal-caller asked Stewart. "I'll tell you one thing: Don't harness that youngster. You've got to control him, but you've got to let him play a little bit."
Almost every Big East coach will have to figure out how far he can let his young quarterback roam this season. It's a season of promise for several league teams, but it's also a season of uncertainty given the extreme lack of experience at the game's most crucial position.
Of the seven quarterbacks who have been named starters thus far, only one -- Connecticut's Zach Frazer -- is a senior. Injuries and ineffectiveness have limited his snaps the past two seasons. Five teams will start sophomores, and Cincinnati's Zach Collaros has four career starts.
Louisville might double the number of seniors under center if Charlie Strong chooses Justin Burke or Adam Froman as his No. 1, but don't be surprised if true freshman Dominique Brown plays a lot. He'd fit right in with the league's theme; the most experienced Big East quarterback in terms of starts is Rutgers true sophomore Tom Savage, who made 11 last season.
"It's amazing," Stewart said. "This is my 11th year in the league and I've never seen it be so young. It's going to be interesting to see how teams personify their attack."
Green quarterbacks usually turn a coach prematurely grey. Yet despite the pervasive inexperience, most Big East coaches feel comfortable with their situations.
Pittsburgh was the near-unanimous preseason favorite to win the conference even though redshirt sophomore Tino Sunseri has never started a game or played any high-leverage snaps. But Dave Wannstedt is a believer in Sunseri's natural gifts and moxie.
"It's Tino's time," Wannstedt said. "Even though he doesn't have playing experience, we can bring him along, and he does have some experience. He's not a freshman."
Savage proved to be a prodigy as a true freshman, and coaches say he carries himself with a maturity well beyond his years. Collaros completed 75 percent of his passes and set the Big East single-game total yardage record while subbing for the injured Tony Pike last season. Smith is a heady leader who called his own plays in high school and showed no nerves last season in two pressurized relief appearances.
Syracuse's Ryan Nassib split time with Greg Paulus a year ago after being named the starter last spring. All South Florida sophomore B.J. Daniels did in his first start was guide the team to victory at Florida State.
"Having B.J. Daniels gives me a chance to sleep well at night," South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. "He's like a sponge. He sits there in the meeting room with his book open and a pen in his hand like, 'Teach me.' "
Daniels was one of only two quarterbacks who were brought to Big East media day, where spots are typically reserved for upperclassmen. Then again, he already ranks second in the league in career starts with 10.
"That's strange," he said. "I've only been a quarterback for a year and I never even expected to play [last year] and I'm being looked at as a veteran in the league."
With so many young quarterbacks around, there are bound to be some growing pains and some mistakes. That makes an already unpredictable conference race even tougher to call.
"It's just so hard in college football for guys to come in when they don't have a lot of experience and play as a veteran with the defenses you see and the speed of the game," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "I'm just glad we have some experience at that position."
Most teams don't. But watching these young quarterbacks grow and develop should be a lot of fun. Youth will quickly fade.
"It also means that for the next two or three years, we're going to be one of the best quarterback leagues," Holtz said.