SOME DAZZLING FRESHMAN QUARTERBACKS ARE FRONT AND CENTER THIS SEASON (HELLO, JT DANIELS). THE GAME'S YOUTH MOVEMENT IS JUST BEGINNING
TWICE A week for up to an hour, CJ Cypher attends sessions with a private quarterbacks coach in the student's hometown of Atlanta. In a video of a recent training session Cypher maneuvers around orange cones, keeping his feet at a wide base, squaring up to his target and gunning a 10-yard pass into a receiver's chest. "I love it!" shouts his coach, Tony Ballard. In a classroom, reading plays on the dry-erase board, Cypher is even more impressive. He can tell the assignments of every player, dissect defensive coverages and identify formations.
CJ Cypher is eight years old.
"It's so incredible," Ballard says, "it scares me."
More than 100 true freshmen at the 65 Power 5 conference programs have started a game in the past decade, and each year the numbers are increasing. Five true freshmen began their team's season as the starter: Southern Cal's JT Daniels, who threw for 282 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in a 43--21 win over UNLV last Saturday; Wake Forest's Sam Hartman, who had 378 passing yards in a 23--17 overtime victory over Tulane; Minnesota's Zack Annexstad, who tossed two TDs in a win over New Mexico State; Rutgers's Artur Sitkowski, who directed a 35--7 defeat of Texas State. (This weekend against Colorado, Nebraska's Adrian Martinez will become the first true freshman in school history to start the opener.) Two more who saw action, Trevor Lawrence at Clemson and Justin Fields at Georgia, are pushing incumbents who led their teams to the 2017 College Football Playoff.
Coaches are more willing to turn to young play-callers because they're better prepared than ever: (See: CJ.) Also, an increase in QB transfers has helped create more openings for freshmen to exploit. Then there's the growing overlap between high school and college offenses, with a trend toward simpler schemes in which calls are the responsibility of hand-waving coaches on the sideline, not the quarterbacks at the line.
The result is just another reason that college ball provides the capacity to thrill in unexpected moments, with talented teenagers, just a few months removed from their high school proms, taking center stage in some of the most raucous venues in all of sports. Look no further than last January's national championship game, when true freshmen Jake Fromm (Georgia) and Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) traded electrifying plays down the stretch. The trend of skewing younger is even evident in the NFL: A rookie passer has started on opening weekend for 10 straight years, six more than the second-longest streak in the Super Bowl era (1968 to '71).
IN 2007, Tommy Tuberville, leading an Auburn program known for its smashmouth style, changed his scheme and quarterback to match the high school programs from which he recruited. Running a spread, Kodi Burns—yes, a true freshman—led the Tigers to a 9--4 record. "Had no choice," Tuberville recalls. "I saw what was happening with all the high schools. They were all going to it. You couldn't bring them in and make them pro-style quarterbacks."
Plenty of longtime coaches have made similar adjustments, including TCU's Gary Patterson, Kansas State's Bill Snyder and even Nick Saban at Alabama. Not that it always works out as well as it did for Tuberville: Since 2008 seven of the 15 Power 5 teams that started true freshmen in their openers finished with losing records. To this day only one true freshman quarterback has led his team to a national championship game: Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
Ballard, 46, a former quarterback at Florida A&M, began training QBs 20 years ago in Tampa before establishing Football University in Atlanta. At any time he works with 15 middle school and high school athletes in one-on-one sessions, while also tutoring about a dozen college players. One of his most recent prospects, Davis Mills, the top-ranked quarterback in the 2017 class, signed with Stanford. Ron Veal, who quarterbacked Arizona in the late 1980s, has been training players at the position for 15 years in Atlanta and manages about 35 per year.
Two of those just happen to be ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in this past signing class. Veal began working with Fields when he was in sixth grade and Lawrence when he was in seventh. "Trevor sprouted a little quicker than Justin did—you knew what was coming with Trevor," says Veal. "I'd be a fool if I said I taught him how to throw a football. That's a gift from God."
The 6'6", 215-pound Lawrence won 52 games and two state championships and passed for 13,908 yards and 161 touchdowns in four years as a starter at Cartersville High in Georgia. He received a grade of 0.9999 from 247Sports, the highest for a quarterback in at least a decade. During his first spring practice as the Cartersville coach, in 2014, Joey King watched Lawrence, then an eighth-grader, hit a varsity receiver in the earhole on a slant. Lawrence read the coverage properly and fired a strike; the receiver wasn't ready. "We looked at him and said, 'Oh, we got something here,'" King says.
A few months later King was meeting with presumptive starter Miller Forristall, a 6'4" junior, to discuss moving positions. The coach didn't have to say much. "I get it," said Forristall, now a tight end at Bama. "I can't make the plays this kid is making."
Lawrence enrolled at Clemson in January, giving him the spring semester to adjust to college life and to digest an offense similar to the scheme at Cartersville. Six of the top 10 quarterbacks in the 2018 class began at their schools midyear. "Summer workouts are so more advanced and you spend so much more time with the players in the classroom," says Doug Ruse, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Tulane. "I think the whole process is just sped up tenfold what it was just six or seven years ago."
Early development, though, is the key: CJ Cypher is old compared to some other prospects. "You'd be amazed at the emails and direct messages I get of people sending me film of five-year-olds and six-year-olds," Ballard says.
Is that his next project? Ballard laughs. "A five-year-old? I ain't doing that."
BY THE NUMBERS
Power 5 schools starting the year with a true freshman at QB: Minnesota, Nebraska, USC, Rutgers and Wake Forest
Freshman QBs at Power 5 schools since 2008 who opened the season as starter
Number of those Power 5 teams that finished with a winning record