A Brief History of True Freshman Quarterbacks

Submitted by The Mathlete on June 21st, 2013 at 12:21 PM

Matt Barkley, Giant Jimmy Clausen and Shane Morris

Up until late last season, most Michigan fans were preparing for the possibility of starting this season in the hands of a true freshman quarterback. Prior to last season’s Nebraska game, this season was shaping up to feature a quality quarterback competition. Devin Gardner was the former five star dual threat quarterback. He had looked shaky in his brief appearances and during the Spring Game. At the time, some were wondering if his current stop over at wide receiver could be a more permanent move. Russell Bellomy was the last minute addition to Michigan’s first recruiting class under Brady Hoke. His physical tools were limited but he had put up a solid showing in the previous spring. Bellomy and Gardner were still largely unknowns as college quarterbacks at the time, but what was known didn’t lead many to think there was a strong option on campus. For many, the hope for the 2013 quarterback position rested in five star commitment Shane Morris.

Everything changed at the Nebraska game. Denard Robinson was injured and with Devin Gardner largely at wide receiver, Russell Bellomy got his shot. Bellomy struggled mightily, Gardner was permanently moved back to quarterback and produced a fantastic closing stretch. Meanwhile, high school senior Shane Morris came down with a case of mono and saw his stock slide back with a limited senior year.

Now the picture is much clearer. Devin Gardner has locked down the starting spot, Russell Bellomy tore his ACL, and Shane Morris likely will miss out on a redshirt season, but will be able to spend some time learning from the sideline before being thrown into live action. MCalibur did a great job looking at what Devin’s season could look like. But what would the world look like if Shane Morris was in a position to take over just months after his Senior Prom.*

*This fulfills my professional obligation to reference Senior Prom in any article about true freshmen.


The Short History of Success

The answers aren’t pretty so there isn’t any point in sugar coating. I looked at true freshmen quarterbacks since the 2003 season that played at least 10 games and averaged at least 20 plays (passes+rushes). During that time only eight qualifying quarterbacks have had a positive PAN (Points Above Normal, Opponent Adjusted). Only three have been greater than +1. For reference, last year there were 58 quarterbacks who had positive PAN with at 20 plays per game. There obviously aren’t a ton of true freshman playing most of the snaps in a given year, but eight players in eleven seasons to be above average is a tiny number.

Four of the eight were from BCS programs and of those Robert Griffin, Tyrod Taylor and Terrelle Pryor all had a rushing portion of their game that really helped them. That leaves one pro style true freshman BCS quarterback in the last 11 seasons who had a positive PAN. That player was Matt Barkley in 2009. It should also be noted that the 2009 USC offense was the most highly ranked offensive unit in terms of recruiting profile in the internet era of recruiting. And it’s not that close. Surrounded by all of that talent a true freshman Matt Barkley had a PAN of +1.1. For a 2012 comparison, +1.1 is right between David Ash of Texas and Tevin Washington of Georgia Tech. Over 11 years, that is the best case scenario for a player in Shane Morris’ situation. And although the pipeline is beginning to fill up, the 2012 Michigan offense probably isn’t quite as loaded as Barkley had in 2009.

If you include the dual threat quarterbacks, the best BCS season was Terrelle Pryor’s first professional season at +2.7. At nearly 3 points above average per game, Pryor’s value moved him into Top 30 range, along the lines of Matt McGloin at Penn State last season. Here is the full list of eight who managed positive territory.

Player Team Season PAN
Jeffrey Godfrey UCF 2010 +3.5
Terrelle Pryor Ohio St 2008 +2.7
Matt Barkley USC 2009 +1.1
Kevin Kolb Houston 2003 +0.8
Robert Griffin Baylor 2008 +0.7
Tyrod Taylor Virginia Tech 2007 +0.4
Nate Davis Ball St 2006 +0.3
Spencer Keith Kent St 2009 +0.2

The Long History of Failure

With only eight players passing the average mark, that leaves the rest to fall below. The average season for all other true freshmen quarterbacks was nearly –3. The worst was Jimmy Clausen’s 2007 season at –8. The average performance is on par with Zach Mettenberger’s performance at LSU and if you watched a good LSU team at all last year, you knew none of their success was due to him. Clausen’s awful 2007 would have barely edged out Sean Schroeder of Hawaii to escape being the worst quarterback performance of the season.

The lack of success of true freshman isn’t necessarily indicative of future failure. Even Jimmy Clausen made an All-American list and got drafted in the second round. Teddy Bridgewater, Braxton Miller, Chad Henne, Matthew Stafford, Brady Quinn and Josh Freeman all turned below average true freshmen seasons into great college careers and/or high draft selections.

What it Means for Michigan

Thank goodness for Devin Gardner’s breakout performances. No matter how good a true freshmen quarterback is and how good their supporting cast is, the first season they are going to be a limiting reagent for the offense. In the coming weeks I am hoping to get a look at quarterback career progression to see if there is any sort of an optimal career path where some experience can avoid some of the struggles noted above but still provide the opportunity to get elite talent like Shane Morris on the field as much as possible. Chances are Michigan’s current quarterback timeline should fit nicely into a high value historical path. A year or two to develop behind Devin Gardner combined with Morris’ strong recruiting profile mean that he should be in an excellent position to succeed when his time has come. Luckily for us, that doesn’t have to be this year.



June 21st, 2013 at 12:27 PM ^

Goodness. An article about the performances of true freshman quarterbacks and no mention of this blog's favorite limo driver?

We really were fooled by that guy, as were the Gator Bowl reporters asking him about academic success.


June 21st, 2013 at 12:47 PM ^

I think you are discounting Henne's freshman season too much based on your advanced statistics. Looking at the stats, he completed 60% of his passes for over 2700 yards with 25TD and 12INT while leading us to the Rose Bowl. The 2700 yards and 25TD are his best marks from his 4 years of starting. If Shane Morris gave us that I would be pretty happy.


June 22nd, 2013 at 1:17 AM ^

"2700 yards and 25TD are his best marks from his 4 years of starting." Keep in mind that was the only season he had Braylon, and a lot of that WAS Braylon catching jump balls over midgets. I found it interesting that he didn't have a better than average impact according to this statistic, so it's nice to have another data point for evaluating that season. It was was his best season in some senses statistically. I haven't looked at the breakdowns much (or in a while), but it's possible that, mainly because of Braylon, his supporting cast was better as a freshman than as a junior. That team was so much better than his freshman season because of the defense and he was a mature quarterback who wasn't asked to put up points like he was as a freshman. Always fun looking back on the Henne years. 

ID Wolverine

June 21st, 2013 at 12:48 PM ^

My last game at the Big House was Mallett v. Clausen

We all remember how that ended up.  I couldn't have been happier to make the trip for that game.  I need to get back!




June 21st, 2013 at 1:11 PM ^

Looking at Henne's numbers here:

Year School Conf Class Pos Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A AY/A TD Int Rate
2004* Michigan Big Ten FR QB 240 399 60.2 2743 6.9 6.8 25 12 132.6
2005* Michigan Big Ten SO QB 223 382 58.4 2526 6.6 6.9 23 8 129.6
2006* Michigan Big Ten JR QB 203 328 61.9 2508 7.6 7.9 22 8 143.4
2007* Michigan Big Ten SR QB 162 278 58.3 1938 7.0 6.7 17 9 130.5
Career Michigan       828 1387 59.7 9715 7.0 7.1 87 37 133.9

I'm generally a fan of the PAN, but a rating of 132.6; 2743 yards, 6.8 AY/A all seem pretty damn good. Are we putting too much emphasis on PAN and ignoring the obvious? Maybe take a reality-check and say this may be a case where the PAN has limited usefulness?


June 21st, 2013 at 1:16 PM ^

My take is that PAN tries to take out the role of the supporting cast in determining how good a player is.  Henne had some pretty awesome recievers and a very good RB to make his job much easier.  I do wonder though how much things like OL are taken into account.  While Clausen was pretty bad as a freshman, he had a truely aweful OL and had defenders in his face all game.  Even if he had amazing WRs, he never had more than a couple seconds to throw the ball.


June 21st, 2013 at 1:49 PM ^

But, particularly with a QB, having talent around you won't automatically inflate the non-PAN (absolute) numbers. Plenty of QBs have had solid talent around them and had horrible completion percentages, etc. Maybe the better way to put it is, even with a more experienced QB that season, how much better would you expect Henne's numbers to be? I remember being very concerned having a FR QB that year, and being impressed by how well he played. Henne didn't play like a Frosh to my eyes, and I think the numbers back that up.


June 21st, 2013 at 1:22 PM ^

I don't remember the PAN methodology, but due to it being an opponents-adjusted* metric, maybe Henne's PAN is hurt by weak competition. His good numbers might be right in line with what one would expect given the defenses he faced.

But without digging up the PAN calculation methodology and the defenses from the 2004 season, I can't actually verify that.

*Got to typing before thinking and forgot what words mean.


June 21st, 2013 at 1:19 PM ^

"I looked at true freshmen quarterbacks since the 2003 season that played at least 10 games and averaged at least 20 plays (passes+rushes)."


How many freshman qualified under these criteria?  

I have little doubt that if we are forced to play Shane Morris we are in trouble.  I remember Ryan Mallett.  Freshman Henne had lots of talent to work with.  I honestly don't think we have as much talent on the offensive side of the ball this year as that year.  


June 21st, 2013 at 1:47 PM ^

As painful as last years Nebraska game was too watch (literally the most frustrating Michigan game I've ever seen) and the fact it cost us a B1G title shot...the Denard injury and subsequent Bellomy implosion might have paved the way for the next two years of greater success with DG at QB. I think in 2015 we will be a National Title contender and that wouldn't be possible if the Nebraska game doesn't happen and Gardner never takes over as QB.


June 21st, 2013 at 1:52 PM ^

In the beginning of the season, they are still learning the offense, overwhelmed with the playbook, inexperienced against college level competition (speed of the game), and pretty nervous with the big stage.  Not a good place to be in for QB and team sucess.  I remember Henne's freshman game against ND with the conservative play calling and limited playbook.  He was also pretty keyed up in the first half, too, playing in South Bend.  As the season goes on, as long as their support is good, their game elevates.  Henne had some good support and he discovered he could just heave the ball into Braylon's general area and he would snag it.

Lots of question marks around the O-line, running backs, and receivers for this season, so please Devin, stay healthy so Shane has time to acclimate.



June 24th, 2013 at 11:57 AM ^

The series that stands out to me was right before the half.  UM had a first down in the red zone, if not inside the 10.  Instead of maybe trying to get the ball to Braylon once, UM calls 3 straight running plays and settled for a FG.  It put UM up 9-0, but it felt like ND had dodged a huge bullet. 

The Mathlete

June 21st, 2013 at 2:48 PM ^

A quick note on Henne. First, he was right below the cut off at -0.4 for his freshman season. I had him ranked at 42nd for the season and he finished tied for 19th in passer rating. There is a gap there but not a huge one. I think to understand the gap some, his opponent adjusted numbers are on par with similar quarterbacks, the gap isn't due to opponent adjustments. I think the big item that makes Henne seem worse than a quick gut check is that he wasn't great on third downs. His first and second down rating match up with his passer rating but he ranked 60th in third down PAN for the season.


June 21st, 2013 at 3:50 PM ^

Query: Is that a common theme with Frosh QBs? I wouldn't be surprised if a lack of experience creates more difficulties in situations where defenses are attempting to create more pressure, where the stakes are higher, and the QB may be asked to do more. Would be an interesting study to look at effectiveness of QBs in different down/distance situations based on experience.

South Bend Wolverine

June 21st, 2013 at 10:12 PM ^

That is interesting to me that Henne's major weakness was on 3rd downs, because I vividly remember thinking that at the time, although I didn't have the statistical info to back up my opinion.  It seemed that on third downs, he would very frequently go to a check down or short route, completing the pass but several yards short of the sticks, resulting in a kick.  Always nice to find out that my intuitions actually have some legitimate support.


June 22nd, 2013 at 1:28 AM ^

To me that screams out Lloyd coaching him to err strongly on the conservative side as a freshman. As another commenter noted, that first Notre Dame game on the road, they didn't even give him many chances to go downfield with the ball, or at least that was my memory. I had the distinct impression, most of all in that game, early in the season that Carr had him totally reined in and didn't loosen up until he had gotten more experience and had adjusted somewhat  to the speed and what defenses were throwing at him.


June 21st, 2013 at 3:00 PM ^

That while it's not realistic to expect a true freshman QB to carry a team by themselves, there is also no reason to think that having to start one will necessarily be a disaster, either, if he has a reasonably good supporting cast. Hopefully we won't be put in that position, but I don't think we'd go 3-9 if we were.


June 21st, 2013 at 8:34 PM ^

At every opportunity Borges has said that it takes at least a full year in the system for ANY QB to learn the offense.

One could argue that should Gardner (God forbid) go down in the first or second game with a season ending injury it might make sense to burn Morris's red shirt. Assuming that if Morris is able to take every offensive snap for the rest of the season he could progress enough to run the offense at its end. Otherwise Morrise is simply NOT an option. Period.

The team is in an unfortunate situation. If Gardner gets knocked out of a game there is not enough depth to avoid an ugly choice. But it makes no sense to burn Morris's red shirt. He won't be ready to step in to run the offense for a year.

Morris is a huge talent, but he needs at least a year to learn the offense. You don't burn an entire future season to save a couple of games. It's not good for the program or for Morris. 

If you are looking for a shot at the national championship in 2015-2017 the last thing you want is to burn Morris's red shirt. 

We have to hope that Gardner stays healthy (and has a heck of a season) and ideally returns in 2014 for a banner year and then Morris picks up the mantle and gives us three more years. 



June 22nd, 2013 at 1:48 AM ^

To your first point, that reeks of coach speak: there is a kernel of truth in there that is pretty solid but can't be extrapolated to all situations and in those is a nice way for a coach to hedge their bet and keep expectations realistic. I think Henne as a freshman is an example. What does Borges mean by "learn the offense?" It seems he means knowing and operating it at a certain, profficient level. I don't think anyone would argue that Henne knew the whole offense by the end of his freshman year, but he didn't have to be to have success, or lead the team to success, which is what I think a lot of the comments on this post are about. The coaches pared the offense down and tailored it to Henne's strengths, rate of learning, and the strengths of the offense in general (BRAYLON being the closest thing to Tacopants anyone has actually seen with eyeballs and not their imagination). They gave him more and more by the end of the year and he lit up Texas in the Rose Bowl. 


As to not getting the burning of a redshirt, I don't know how you don't get that if you watched the Nebraska game. Bellomy, even in year 2, is so very likely not an option in most situations.     If Morris is a better option to come in and win a close game or start for a few against the Indianas and Minnesotas of the world, the coaches will and should take that. Coaches don't just give up on games now for future success and based on what we know of Bellomy, that is exactly what they would be doing. Who knows though? Maybe with the whole team running the more pro-style Borges offense, Bellomy will approach something like a capable backup, especially if it's a late-game situation and not a season-long one. If Gardner goes down for the season, you absolutely play Morris and get his learning curve started. Bellomy just seems like a huge long shot to be a starter at any point. A lot of that will depend on how quickly Morris takes to things and recovers from missing a lot of his senior year, and how much Bellomy has progressed. 

Lastly, a national title seems quite unlikely if Morris is in his first year as a starter in 2015, even with two years of waiting in the wings. It would actually be much more likely if his redshirt was burned and he had some experience to build on that a title could even be a possibility. You'd likely feel good about a run in 2016 either way, with 2017 being the dream situation if we can manage to get him a redshirt this fall. 


June 22nd, 2013 at 1:32 PM ^

Do your stats suggest an answer to the following question: If burning Morris's redshirt is "optional", should they? By "optional," I mean something like garbage time in a 34-3 blowout, where he hasn't yet played in a game.

Burning Devin Gardner's redshirt in his true freshman season was obviously optional: nothing happened where he had to play. Fortunately, the team got that year back. I doubt there is anyone here who is NOT happy to have the possibility of Gardner's fifth year in 2014, which was very nearly lost.

But Gardner is only one data point. When you look at more data, is there any evidence that burning the redshirt for limited back-up duty is ever worthwhile, when you have the option not to?

My own sense is that when you've got a potential multi-year starter at QB (which Morris clearly is), burning the redshirt is almost never a wise idea, if you have the option. Your data seem to show that the true freshman season is seldom very good: you're sacrificing a fifth year that could be magical, in return for limited action that accomplishes very little.

But I'm curious if there's data that backs that up.

Of course, I'm talking only about cases where it's optional. It doesn't count cases where there's no one else available, or where the true freshman is the best guy.


June 22nd, 2013 at 3:17 PM ^

Keep in mind that the decision to burn a redshirt isn't just freshman season vs. fifth year. By getting a guy substantial playing time as a freshman, you've also accelerated the learning curve so as to make him a more experienced, effective player over the course of his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

I think it's obvious that coaches would prefer to always have the option of a fifth year, but there are certain circumstances in which getting a young player meaningful experience will have more value over the ensuing three years than a hypothetical fifth year would.


June 22nd, 2013 at 4:36 PM ^

When you "optionally" burn the redshirt, do you really accelerate the learning curve? I know that's the argument that people make, but is it true?

As I recall, Devin Gardner as a freshman played something like 1 play vs. UConn, 2 plays vs. Notre Dame, and about 2 series vs. Bowling Green. Is he really THAT much better today, because of that action? I'll bet he isn't. (It wound up not mattering, because Gardner got that year back, but at the time they put him in, there was no assurance that would happen.)

So that's why I asked if the Mathlete has data. Is there enough evidence to suggest that limited action in the true freshman season really accelerates the learning curve to any great extent — enough that it's worth losing the potential fifth year?

Bear in mind that in the scenario we're talking about — where Michigan is not forced to burn Morris's redshirt — he probably would not see "substantial playing time." We're probably talking about garbage time in blowouts, in which most of his plays would probably be handoffs.


July 24th, 2013 at 7:01 PM ^

I like your work, Mathlete, but I wish (and it seems from several of these comments that I'm not alone) you would re-explain PAN in the first paragraph of each of these posts or at least link to a previous explanation of the methodology. It's hard for me to critically engage the topic if I'm fumbling halfway in the dark.