Early enrollment can lead to big payoff for quarterbacks

ATHENS, Ga. -- Fifteen minutes after making one of the most important decisions of his life, Eric Zeier was facing another tough dilemma.

It was December 1990, and Zeier had just verbally committed to play college football at the University of Georgia, choosing the Bulldogs over nearly every other major Division I-A program in the country.

Now Bob Pittard, the assistant coach who recruited Zeier for Georgia, was on the telephone offering the country's No. 1 high school football player what, at the time, was a novel opportunity.

"Fifteen minutes after I committed to Georgia, the coaches were on the phone saying I had an opportunity to get into school right away," Zeier recalled. "I'd never put much thought into it and really hadn't considered it."

It didn't take Zeier long to decide that he would enroll at Georgia in January 1991 -- eight months before most of the Bulldogs' other incoming freshmen -- and sacrifice the second semester of his senior year of high school.

A few weeks later, Zeier was enrolled in classes at Georgia and participating in the team's offseason conditioning program. He went through spring practice a couple of months later and was starting by the midpoint of the 1991 season.

"If I hadn't gone to school early, there would have been no way I could have played during my first year," said Zeier, who broke 67 Georgia and 18 SEC passing records during his four seasons with the Bulldogs. "It would have just been too difficult getting acclimated to school, getting used to being away from home and making the adjustments on the field. Enrolling early made a big difference in my career, especially during that first year."

Zeier was one of the first quarterbacks to enroll in college early, but he certainly wasn't the last. Nowadays, if a high school quarterback has his sights set on playing early in his college career, chances are he'll enroll within a few weeks of playing his last prep game. More and more, quarterbacks are sacrificing their senior prom and spring sports for a jump-start on college football.

According to USA Today, a record 69 players enrolled at schools from BCS conferences in January, up from 53 last year and 35 in 2004.

Players who enroll in college early must have already met the NCAA's minimum academic requirements of 14 core courses and a qualifying GPA and standardized test score.

"I think a lot more guys are doing it, and it's good for the guys that are doing it," Zeier said. "You've got to be academically qualified to do it, so it's typically guys with good heads on their shoulders. They already know what they want to achieve athletically and academically."

College coaches say early enrollment has a more positive influence on a player's off-field development. The NCAA limits teams to only 15 spring practices, so players will have nearly twice as many practices during preseason camp. But players are able to acclimate to living on campus, going to larger classes and being away from home for the first time.

Last year, Tim Tebow enrolled at Florida early and participated in spring practice with the Gators. Although Florida already had Chris Leak, a senior quarterback, Tebow's on-the-job training proved invaluable during the Gators' national championship season. Tebow played in all 14 games, rushing for 469 yards and eight touchdowns and throwing for 358 yards and five scores.

"Enrolling early gives you time to grow into the position, rather than being thrown right in there," Tebow said. "You can watch other quarterbacks play and learn the position."

Just as important, Tebow is more prepared to replace Leak as the starter this coming season because he has gone through two spring practices.

"Tim's ready to play quarterback at Florida," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "A big part of that was because he's already had two spring practices under his belt. He helped us last year because he had a spring practice under his belt."

But Meyer said he doesn't pressure recruits to enroll early. The Gators had eight players enroll in January, including juco quarterback Bryan Waggener and Cameron Newton, a highly regarded quarterback from Westlake High School in suburban Atlanta.

"We try not to push it," Meyer said. "My daughter is 16 years old. It's going to be hard for me to let her go. That's six more months I get her at home. It's hard. … [Early enrollment] is significant. But as a coach and as a recruiter, you can't push that. You have to make it available and say, 'Here is what you need to do.' But it's got to be a family decision."

Quarterback Matthew Stafford enrolled at Georgia in January 2006 and was prepared to play when senior Joe Tereshinski III was hurt in the second game last season. Stafford, from Highland Park High in Dallas, threw for 1,749 yards with 13 interceptions and seven touchdowns last season.

"For me personally, the best way to learn was to go out and do it," Stafford said. "For me to go out there and play as a freshman was invaluable experience."

But there were also plenty of tough lessons. Georgia lost to Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the same season for the first time since 1973. After the 24-20 loss at Kentucky, the Bulldogs were 6-4 with games left against nationally ranked Auburn and Georgia Tech. Georgia won each of its last two regular-season games, then rallied from a 21-0 deficit to stun Virginia Tech 31-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

"I definitely had some bumps in the road," Stafford said. "Losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky was tough, definitely for the whole team. It was tough to swallow. I'm just proud of the guys that we were able to bounce back."

Georgia coach Mark Richt said Stafford might not have been able to weather the storm of the 2006 season if he hadn't gone through spring practice last year.

"If he hadn't come in at midyear, we probably would have redshirted him," Richt said. "With him being able to show his potential and beginning to learn enough of the system where you felt like he had a pretty good working knowledge of what was going on, you figured he was just going to get better. I think being there had a big impact on him playing early."

Richt hopes Stafford's second season will be much smoother now that he's been working in the offense for nearly two years.

"He's been down the road," Richt said. "The guys now understand he has talent and know he's been through some bumps and bruises, but he came out of it pretty good. I think the guys believe in him, so I think there's a lot of positives."

But Richt, who coached Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke as an assistant at Florida State, said he would play a freshman quarterback only in unusual circumstances.

"If you've got a seasoned veteran that has established himself, it's going to be hard to knock a guy out," Richt said. "But if you've got a situation where there's no clear leader, and there might be a discrepancy in the talent level, then a guy could probably do it as a true freshman."

Critics of early enrollment argue the practice puts unfair expectations and increased pressure on players who enroll early. For every success story -- North Carolina State's Philip Rivers was a four-year starter for the Wolfpack and an NFL first-round pick after enrolling early -- there are nearly twice as many failures.

"In the past, we never played quarterbacks until their redshirt junior or senior seasons," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "Now, we're playing freshmen and they're not ready to win."

Early enrollment doesn't guarantee success for quarterbacks. Brock Berlin was the country's No. 1 high school prospect and one of the most hyped quarterbacks in history after leading Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., to three state championships. Berlin chose Florida after a long recruiting battle and joined the Gators in January 2000. But Berlin was never able to unseat Rex Grossman as the starter, so he transferred to Miami after two seasons. Berlin had mild success with the Hurricanes, but was never drafted and has yet to play in an NFL game.

Enrolling early didn't work out for Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman, either. He spent less than four months at UCLA after enrolling early in 1999, and finished his college career at Tulane. Blake Barnes, a junior quarterback at Georgia, also enrolled early but has played only sparingly as a backup. Jevon Snead enrolled early at Texas last year, but lost the starting job to Colt McCoy, then transferred to Ole Miss this spring.

Even Tebow, who had as much success as anyone after enrolling early last year, said getting a head start in college football isn't for everyone.

"You don't have to enroll early," Tebow said. "I definitely think it depends on the school you go to and the offense they run. It's not for everybody."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.