When Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown tore his ACL in fall camp, the spotlight – and the offense – suddenly shifted to true freshman Perry Hills. Hills isn’t the first rookie to unexpectedly take over his team’s most visible position; just in the last ten years, there have been a number of true freshman starting quarterbacks, with varying degrees of success.
Hills is in a better position than many freshman in similar situations because he wasn’t shoved onto the field midway through a game. With Brown’s injury occurring in the middle of preseason camp, his rookie replacement has had some time to adjust to being the team’s leader and become more comfortable with the playbook before he’s taken a snap.
It won’t be easy to lead the Terps out of the hole of last year’s 2-10 season, but it’s been done before – at Maryland, with a freshman quarterback. After Maryland’s 2-10 finish in 2009, Danny O’Brien led the team just shy of the ACC title as he picked up ACC Rookie of the Year honors. O’Brien, now at Wisconsin, was a redshirt freshman when he got the team back in contention; Hills will try to do the same, just a few months removed from high school.
Here’s a look at some other true freshman quarterbacks from recent years. Some dominated immediately, while others just had to sit back and let the rest of the star-studded team do most of the work – a luxury that Hills won’t have. And others played, well, like freshman but ultimately developed into successful quarterbacks and NFL prospects.
The Really Good
- Robert Griffin III, Baylor – RG3 burst onto the national stage in his Heisman-winning season in 2011, but he’d been playing at a ridiculously high level since his true freshman year, when he was the nation’s youngest starting quarterback at just 18 years old. He got on the field in the second quarter of the 2008 season opening against Wake Forest and got off to a record-breaking start, setting a new FBS record for most possessions without an interception to start a career (209 – his first INT was in the ninth game of the year). Baylor went just 4-8 that year, but Griffin III was a Freshman All-American and the Big 12 Rookie of the Year – and we all know the rest of the story.
- Chad Henne, Michigan – Henne was the starter from day one because redshirt sophomore Matt Gutierrez, who was struggling with a shoulder injury. The team started the year on a pretty good note, with 43-10 win over Miami (OH) to ease the rookie QB into the college game, and finished with a 9-3 record. Henne tied a Michigan record for passing touchdowns with 25, the most he’d throw in a single season for the Wolverines, but he also had quite a bit of help from three future NFL receivers (Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Steve Breaston).
The Pretty Good
- Matt Barkley, USC – Like Maryland’s Hills, Barkley knew he was the starter well before the season began. And like Hills, Barkley got his chance when the projected starter, Aaron Corp, went down with an injury in the fall. He quickly established himself as a dominant, winning quarterback in week two’s win over Ohio State in the final minutes. Barkley led USC to a 9-4 season and earned Freshman All-America Honorable Mention – the first of many accolades for another star quarterback from USC.
- Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State – Pryor was one of the most highly recruited high school players of the last decade. He led the Buckeyes to a 10-3 season in 2008 and completed 62.5% of his passes. It’s one of the better completion percentages among freshman quarterbacks, but early in his career, Pryor was more likely to take off and run than try to throw the ball. Only once during his freshman season did he have more than 20 pass attempts in a game.
- Matthew Stafford, Georgia – Now the quarterback for the Detroit Lions, Stafford got on the field partway through Georgia’s season opener against Western Kentucky. He didn’t immediately claim the starting job as the Bulldogs juggled quarterbacks throughout the up and down season, but Stafford came into his own late in the year. He was the SEC Freshman of the Week for his performance in the upset win over Auburn and the Offensive MVP of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. His season stats weren’t fantastic (7 TDs, 12 INTS) but the team went 9-4 and Stafford went on to a successful career at Georgia.
- Josh Freeman, Kansas State – Freeman didn’t get the starting job until the fifth game of his freshman year, nearly halfway through the season. Freeman threw 6 TDs and 15 INTS, but when he was good, he was very, very good, including wins over Oklahoma State and Texas that earned him Player of the Week nods and a Freshman All-America Honorable Mention.
- Brady Quinn, Notre Dame – Quinn was named the starter in the fourth game of the season. Notre Dame went just 5-7 in his first year, but Quinn set Notre Dame freshman passing records in completion, attempts, and passing yards, and his 132 completions were third on Notre Dame’s all-time list. Quinn threw for 9 TDs and 15 INTs, and his career only improved from there.
- Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame – The much-hyped Clausen won just one of his first six starts as a freshman. Some of his struggles can be attributed to the offensive line: Clausen was sacked a team-record 34 times. He threw seven touchdowns and 6 interceptions as the team finished with a 3-9 record and an unacceptable loss to Navy.
- Tanner Price, Wake Forest – Price started nine times as a freshman and while he rewrote the record books for Wake freshmen quarterbacks, he was among the bottom half of ACC quarterbacks. The team was finished 3-9, with only one conference win. Following in the footsteps of Riley Skinner was never going to be easy, but Price bounced back in his sophomore year and had one of the best stat lines in the conference. A junior, Price has two more years to continue to build his legacy.
- Jeff Godfrey, UCF – He started, he starred, he struggled, he left, he returned to play WR. Godfrey’s overall college career might be more of a cautionary tale (although it’s not over yet) but his freshman year was really good. He enrolled early and was ready to take over the team when he came in during the 2010 season opener. He was officially named the starter before the third game, and he let the Knights to an 8-2 season, a Conference USA Championship, and a bowl win over Georgia. Godfrey’s numbers were modest – 13 TDs, 6 INTS – but he was invaluable to the team and was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year. There was a drop-off the next season and after planning to transfer, Godfrey is back with the Knights as a receiver, hoping to regain the success he had back in 2010.
- Mitch Mustain, Arkansas – Another cautionary tale, Mustain had a stellar freshman season in 2006 but didn’t even make it through the entire year as a starter. He got onto the field late in the season opener and then, as the starter, led the Razorbacks on an eight-game win streak, with the help of a ridiculously talented backfield that included Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Mustain would leave Arkansas with an 8-0 starting record; Coach Houston Nutt pulled him after one series against South Carolina and he barely saw the field again. He transferred to USC and backed up Matt Barkley, and is now pursuing a baseball career.