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It’s college football Saturday: Welcome to the quarterback scramble and how it has changed the game forever

Elite college football programs are increasingly led by quarterbacks fresh out of high school or the transfer portal. Is that good for the game, and is it likely to continue?

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm (11) gestures to fans as he leaves the field after the Bulldogs’ opening game of the season against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Jake Fromm arrived at the University of Georgia in early 2017 to a symphony of hype. He was rated the third-best pro-style quarterback in the class; he had the bulk to take SEC hits; he was even a home-grown player, from less than 100 miles away in Warner Robins. But a year earlier, the Bulldogs had already landed another equally hyped player.

To understand the changing face of the college football quarterback landscape, there’s perhaps no better place to start than here — the moment true freshman Fromm arrived to challenge Georgia’s incumbent starter. Two years later, this moment would set off a chain reaction that echoed through football programs across the country. All thanks to two things: better, earlier training and the NCAA’s newly relaxed stance on transfers. The echo would make clear the sport’s new reality: Young talent taking over, and transfers making an immediate impact.

The days of waiting three or four years at one school to eventually start at quarterback are waning, at least at elite programs. The combination of private quarterback coaching starting younger, college coaches facing increased pressure to win immediately and the NCAA’s unclear stance on immediate eligibility are altering the dynamics of leadership in one of America’s most popular sports. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view. It doesn’t fit the classic narrative of hard work eventually paying off; it does make it easier for the best to rise to the top, and for more of the country’s best quarterbacks to play every Saturday.

Jacob Eason, Georgia’s other quarterback, was very different from Fromm. He was bigger — nearly 6-foot-6 to Fromm’s 6-foot-1. He came all the way from Washington state. And while Fromm was a highly rated four-star prospect — ranked the 44th-best recruit in the country — Eason was a five-star prospect ranked fifth overall — the top quarterback in his class. Having both players unleashed a competition that ended with Eason starting in 2017.

Washington quarterback Jacob Eason looks on from the sideline against Eastern Washington in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

But in Georgia’s first game of the season, Eason suffered a knee sprain. Fromm took over for a 31-10 win over Appalachian State. The next week, he made his first start. It came in South Bend, Indiana, against Notre Dame. Fromm led Georgia to a one-point win. From there Georgia, led by Fromm, steamrolled its competition; it won every remaining regular-season game by double digits, except a blowout loss at Auburn in mid-November.

Fromm redeemed himself in the SEC Championship when, once again facing Auburn, he led Georgia to a 21-point blowout of its own, followed by an overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and an overtime loss to Alabama in the championship game.

Eason transferred and ended up at Washington, where his request for immediate eligibility was rejected. But Georgia’s success attracted his replacement: Justin Fields — the most hyped quarterback prospect of them all. He arrived in Athens as the second-highest rated player in the country. Would Georgia see another true freshman come in and unseat — through injury or otherwise — the incumbent starter?

Not this time. Fromm once again marched Georgia to the SEC title game and a New Year’s Six Bowl, though this time the ‘Dawgs lost both. Fields’ frustration was visible during the season, and when it ended, he, too, transferred.

But unlike Eason’s case, the NCAA granted Fields’ waiver requesting immediate eligibility. Players transferring to other FBS programs normally have to sit out a year; not Fields. And not many of the other transfers resulting from the chain reaction he unleashed.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs against Florida Atlantic during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields runs against Florida Atlantic during a college football game on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio.
Paul Vernon, Associated Press

With Fields at Ohio State, highly touted former four-star prospect Tate Martell decided to leave OSU for Miami; so did fellow four-star passer Matthew Baldwin, who bolted for TCU. Both were immediately eligible. And with Eason winning the starting job at Washington ahead of this season, former Huskies quarterbacks Colson Yankoff and Jake Haener transferred to UCLA and Fresno State, respectively.

Georgia may be the most pronounced example of a transfer chain, but it’s not alone. Another is Clemson, where Trevor Lawrence’s emergence last season forced Kelly Bryant to opt for Missouri and Hunter Johnson to bolt for Northwestern. And then there’s Alabama: After Jalen Hurts won the starting job in 2015, the Crimson’s Tide’s three backups eventually bolted: David Cornwell for Nevada (and later East Central University); Blake Barnett for Arizona State (and later South Florida); and Cooper Bateman for Utah.

And when Tua Tagovailoa beat Hurts for Alabama’s starting job in 2018, he transferred to Oklahoma after the season. He’s starting for the Sooners as a graduate transfer (conferring instant eligibility) this year.

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) runs for a first down ahead of Houston safety Grant Stuard (3) during the first half of their season-opening game in Norman, Okla., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019.
Alonzo Adams, Associated Press

Surveying this season’s preseason AP Top 25, six schools (Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, Michigan, Washington and UCF) feature starting quarterbacks who transferred. In the first week of the 2009 season, only one Top 25 team (Ole Miss) started a transfer quarterback (Jevan Snead). What’s changed?

First, high school quarterbacks are more advanced than ever. Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger documented this trend in 2018. “Coaches have grown more willing to roll the dice on advanced youngsters,” he wrote, “and the annual flood of QB transfers gives freshmen who stick around bountiful opportunities.”

And roll the dice they have so far this year. In Week 1, Hank Bachmeier led Boise State to an upset of Florida State in Tallahassee; Sam Howell helped North Carolina take down South Carolina; Jayden Daniels dazzled for Arizona State over Kent State; Kedon Slovis will start for USC moving forward; and Bo Nix led Auburn to a late victory over Oregon.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (10) celebrates with teammates after Auburn came from behind to defeat Oregon following an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. Auburn won 27-21.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix (10) celebrates with teammates after Auburn came from behind to defeat Oregon following their season-opening game, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Arlington, Texas. Auburn won 27-21.
Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

Ahead of the 2019 season, Dellenger again examined the youth movement among college quarterbacks. He largely focused on Trevor Lawrence, who he described as less of a “once-in-a-generation event” and more of a “logical conclusion” to an emerging movement.

“Experts in college football attribute the youth movement to a wide variety of factors, none greater than the early specialization of young athletes — especially quarterbacks,” he wrote. “Football parents are pumping money into developing their QB kids the way golf and tennis parents have for years, creating a year-round endeavor highlighted by the seven-on-seven circuit and one-on-one training.”

The numbers support this trend as the new normal: 61, 47 and 45 true freshman quarterbacks started for Power Five teams in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively. In the last three years, those numbers have swelled to 66, 58 and 88, per Dellenger’s story.

This trend seems unlikely to change in the near future; early specialization is becoming more common. And the reaction it’s produced is explosive.

That reaction would be the transfers, like Joe Burrow at LSU or Brandon Wimbush of UCF, or Hurts or Fields or Eason or Michigan’s Shea Patterson. Or SMU’s Shane Buechele. Or Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Chip Scoggins dubbed it the “Great Quarterback Shuffle.” And while the rise of talented true freshmen explains part of it, there’s more to understand.

In 2018, the NCAA changed its transfer rules. Athletes no longer needed to seek permission, and schools’ ability to block certain destinations was limited. Instead, players can enter their names into the much-memed “transfer portal” and other schools can reach out. The main criticism is the lack of clarity regarding why certain players — like Fields or Patterson or Martell — are granted immediate eligibility despite not meeting the NCAA’s criteria, while others who seem to meet the criteria, like Eason and Illinois tight end Luke Ford, are not. The NCAA has tried to clarify and adjust its policies, though the outcome of those changes remain unclear.

Some have welcomed the changes. CBS Sports columnist Barton Simmons wrote that the new rules allow the best players a chance at meaningful playing time, which is a win for teams and fans alike. “The best programs in college football,” he wrote, “have a chance — every year — to be the best versions of themselves.”

Some others, like USA Today’s Paul Myerberg, have highlighted concerns about the quarterback transfer frenzy leading to a lack of depth. He used Ohio State as an example. The Buckeyes once featured Martell, Burrow, Baldwin and Dwayne Haskins on the same roster. The first three transferred, and Haskins left for the NFL draft after this past season.

The arrivals of game-ready freshmen are unlikely to fade, but the question of whether the NCAA will refine its immediate eligibility waiver process remains. Until that happens, the transfer trend is likely to accelerate, too. And again, feelings about that vary. Some, like Penn State coach James Franklin, worry that it promotes entitlement instead of challenge.

“I worry,” he told The Morning Call. “Are we getting to a point where, instead of staying and working and challenging yourself to overcome adversity — again, I’m not saying all situations are like this — but it just seems like it’s very football driven.”

Others, like The Comeback’s Matt Yoder, have expressed admiration for a long-overdue policy change by the NCAA that gives players rightful power.

“It is the absolute bare minimum the NCAA should do for players who still aren’t being paid a fair amount or even allowed to profit from their likenesses,” he wrote. “Freedom of movement has only ever existed one way in college athletics — for coaches who can go on and seek better and higher paying jobs while players have often been left behind.”

So far, the biggest takeaway for fans has been excitement: Watching Hurts tally 508 yards of total offense against Houston was undoubtedly better for fans than watching him on the bench at Alabama. And it’s allowed big programs to rebuild quickly.

At Ohio State, for example, finding a new quarterback was as simple as plucking Fields (and his backup Gunnar Hoak) from the transfer portal. Georgia could find itself in a similar predicament next season. With Fromm likely to leave for the NFL draft, and the Bulldogs’ other blue chippers depleted, they may be in the market for a transfer. Or they could try and find another Fromm — a player ready to plunge onto the national stage.

He’s on the way: Carson Beck, the third-best pro-style quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class, is already committed to the Bulldogs.