- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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If someone had asked me before spring practices began who California's starting quarterback would be in 2013, I would have quickly said with my all-knowing look: "Zach Kline."
If that someone had gently protested with a "But what about..." I would have interrupted with another all-knowing look, "No. It will be Zach Kline."
Unfortunately, that would have been the same all-knowing look I gave while asserting USC's national championship prospects before the 2012 season. It might be wise for me to mothball that all-knowing look, and I just want to add that my wife and children owe Lane Kiffin and the 2012 Trojans an eternal debt of gratitude.
Kline might well end up the Bears' starting quarterback, but that's not what this is about. It's about Cal's quarterback battle looking like it's going to be a showdown between Kline, a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Jared Goff, who opted to graduate early from high school, skip all the riotous things high school seniors do during their final spring frolic and begin the serious business of Pac-12 football.
A redshirt freshman is the "veteran." A true freshman is the challenger.
There are two notable things about the Conference of Quarterbacks this spring: 1. There's an impressive crew of talented and already accomplished ones returning; 2. Youth now rules a position where that very quality was nearly a disqualifying negative not too long ago.
California is not the only school that might tap a true freshman. Arizona has Anu Solomon coming in this fall, and the look on both coach Rich Rodriguez's and co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith's faces when talking about him suggest his candidacy is legitimate.
"If the kid is good enough and he can handle it," Smith said." Some kids transition better than others. Anu is a kid who was a four-year starter in high school. That doesn't mean anything for college, but at least he's been in the mode when he's the new kid on the block competing with older kids and he performed well. He was 56-4 as a starter. The kid is a winner. He knows how to move the football and win."
That is not too far from the case Pete Carroll made in 2008 when he opted to go with true freshman Matt Barkley, only Carroll went all Pete Carroll-y and made Barkley into some metaphysical quarterbacking beast, citing Malcolm Gladwell and labeling Barkley an "outlier."
Still, that was a precursor to the new reality.
A redshirt freshman, Texas A&M's Johnny "Football" Manziel, won the Heisman Trophy, and a redshirt freshman, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, was first-team All-Pac-12, over seniors Barkley and Arizona's Matt Scott. Stanford's season transformed when it handed its offense to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan. Utah started a true freshman, Travis Wilson, a few games into the season. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley led a UCLA resurgence.
Further, USC again has a early arriving true freshman who is a legitimate candidate to win the starting job in Max Browe. More than a few folks believe the front-runner to win the job at Colorado is redshirt freshman Shane Dillon.
We might not be at the end of 2013's youth movement. While Washington and Washington State both welcome back veteran quarterbacks in Keith Price and Connor Halliday, there is a sense they both could be threatened by, yes, true and redshirt freshmen challengers.
This youth movement doesn't include a sacrifice of quality and high-prospects. It's not primarily about a failure of the older guys. Does any conference offer a better array of returning quarterbacks than Mariota, Kelly, Hundley and Hogan? The answer is no.
There are many explanations for this youth movement. First of all, quarterbacks are better prepared in high school. They get private coaching, go to summer camps, play 7-on-7 in the offseason, etc. In high school, they don't just show up in August for two-a-days and draw plays in the dirt anymore.
Further, a player's recognition of and respect for the natural pecking order has been reduced, as has patience. If a touted guy loses out in a quarterback competition, he seems more likely to transfer now in search of playing time. A couple of coaches also have told me it's more difficult to recruit the position when a team has an entrenched, underclass starter. That then means the junior and sophomore quarterbacks on the roster might not be as good as the younger players who sign only when the starter is a junior or senior.
Or the job will be vacant, as is the case with Browne at USC.
Yet just because a guy starts as a freshman doesn't mean the death of the upperclassman quarterback. In fact, it should in most cases increase its likelihood of occurring.
The logic is simple: If a guy is good enough to start as a freshman and plays well, then you can project forward two or three years of improvement and future success. The most important position on the field is locked down and secure and worry-free. A good thing.
It doesn't always work out like that -- see Price at Washington this past season. Or the Barkley of 2011 versus the lesser version in 2012.
That noted, it's not unreasonable to hold high hopes. Know that just about every Oregon fan has projected improvement for Mariota over the next two years, though he could enter the NFL draft as a third-year player after this season. Even moderate improvement sets him up as an All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate. Same could be said for Hogan, Hundley and Kelly, by the way.
The youth movement at quarterback is a substantial shift in thinking. An experienced, veteran quarterback used to be the first preseason measure of a team. Now all a team needs to be highly esteemed is a returning starter, even if that's just a sophomore.
It's getting to the point, in fact, that youth at quarterback will be weighted less as a potential problem by prognosticators.
At least, it's possible that the next time someone frets a lack of experience at quarterback being a problem, I'll resurrect my all-knowing look and say, "No, it's not!"