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May 22, 2007
Youngsters benefit from being thrown into fire
The Good Book says a child shall lead them, but the playbook usually requires more experience.
That's why Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985 is the only true freshman in Division I-A football history to start at quarterback for a national championship team.
The growing pains are much more severe at a position which demands the performance level, knowledge and acceptance that true freshman usually lack.
Last season six true freshmen – Matthew Stafford of Georgia, Josh Freeman of Kansas State, Thaddeus Lewis of Duke, Juice Williams of Illinois, Nate Davis of Ball State and Mitch Mustain, who transferred from Arkansas to Southern California - started the majority of their team's games and experienced various degrees of success.
They combined for a 22-30 record as starters, but only Stafford started in a bowl game victory and only Lewis and Mustain threw more touchdown passes than interceptions.
However, a year of experience can make a significant difference in aptitude and attitude, and last year's unsure freshmen are growing into confident sophomores.
"Last year during the season I went through the motions," admitted Davis, who was 3-4 as Ball State's starting quarterback but threw for 18 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. "I didn't really know the offense and I was just out there playing. Over the winter I watched film every day to learn the offense more, and now I have a better grasp of it."
So does Stafford. He went 6-2 as the Bulldogs' starter, but threw 13 interceptions and only seven touchdown passes. He did, however, show considerable improvement in helping Georgia post three consecutive victories over ranked teams to close the season.
Last spring Stafford arrived in Athens rated the nation's top quarterback prospect by Rivals.com. He largely struggled through the spring, although he did throw a long touchdown pass in his first attempt in the G-Day spring game.
With a football season and a full year under his belt, he felt like a crafty veteran this spring.
"It was like night and day for me," Stafford said. "I was just so much calmer and composed this year. You're more comfortable knowing what's going on around you and knowing what to look for. Last spring, being my first semester at school, it was tough. This year was a whole lot more fun.
"I feel like my game is a whole lot better. Hopefully, it will carry into the fall."
Stafford and his contemporaries can look at other former true freshmen starters and be encouraged that future seasons will be more fun, too.
For example, Tennessee's Erik Ainge had a decent freshman year in 2004 in which he passed for 1,452 yards with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Last season, Ainge broke out with 2,989 yards passing with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Brady Quinn passed for 1,831 yards and nine touchdowns with 15 interceptions in 2003 as a freshman at Notre Dame. The Irish finished 5-7 that season. As a sophomore, Quinn passed for 2,586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Each year he steadily improved.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed.
Michigan's Chad Henne has had three good seasons, but his freshman year - when he threw for 2,743 yards and 25 touchdowns - remains statistically his most productive season.
Ainge, Henne and the freshmen starters of '06 are among a rather exclusive group to start at quarterback as true freshmen. Given the opportunity, in the vast majority of cases coaches would prefer quarterbacks to redshirt their freshman year to learn the offense and be shielded from the immediate expectations of grandeur that often accompany a quarterback recruit to college.
No quarterback on Georgia's 2006 roster had significant playing experience, so the Bulldogs did not have the luxury of redshirting Stafford. Despite the ups-and-downs of his inaugural year, Stafford is glad he received on-the-job training.
"Personally, I was better served to go out and play," Stafford said. "I learned by trial and error. I wouldn't have had it any other way."
Stafford learned to adapt to the speed of the game, which is always one of the major obstacles freshmen face. He became more comfortable in coach Mark Richt's offense as the season progressed.
Stafford appeared in better condition this spring than he was a year ago, showed a much better command of the offense, didn't make as many mistakes and threw fewer interceptions.
"He is really good," Richt said of Stafford during spring drills. "Even last year he understood things, but he did not understand the speed of the game, the speed of the athletes, when to sling that sucker out of bounds and how to manage the bad plays.
"Those little fundamental things are what gets you beat, but I think he understands it pretty well now."
Yet, perhaps most important is that Stafford has the confidence of his teammates. He earned that confidence during a stretch in which the Bulldogs defeated Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. That enabled Stafford to assume the leadership role so important for a quarterback. He seemed to build on that in the spring.
"I think the hardest part is to come in as a freshman and lead the team off the bat," Stafford said. "It's tough to step in and play well enough to gain respect. Once you do, it's a great feeling when the team is behind you. After the Auburn game everybody realized we can play well together."
Like Stafford, Davis also gleaned and gained crucial confidence during a late-season surge. Ball State won three of its last four, and the loss was by eight points to Michigan.
"You have to have a lot of confidence," Davis said. "You can't get down because you'll let the whole team down. I'm trying to be a leader for the offense.
"You have to earn (teammates') respect. You always have to be positive. You never want to say anything negative. I started being a leader when I started knowing the offense. The worst thing in your first season is going into the huddle and being hesitant. I didn't know the offense and I was calling the plays wrong. They were saying, 'What are you talking about?' ''
Now, those teams are talking about winning more games next season with proven quarterbacks, especially Georgia.
"We have to try to improve on those numbers and the wins and losses," Stafford said. "We were 9-4 and happy with the way we finished, but that's not the way we do things around here. We're trying to win them all."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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