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How Jalen Hurts adds to college football's freshman quarterback dilemma

 
Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) warms up before the SEC championship against the Florida Gators at the Georgia Dome on Saturday December 3, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kickoff is at 4pm.
Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) warms up before the SEC championship against the Florida Gators at the Georgia Dome on Saturday December 3, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kickoff is at 4pm.
Published Dec. 21, 2016

The most surprising part of No. 1 Alabama's return to the College Football Playoff isn't the way Nick Saban has embraced the uptempo offense he once despised.

It's the player leading that offense — Jalen Hurts, the first freshman quarterback Saban has ever started.

"You can't coach experience, and you can't coach maturity," Saban said. "But this guy has maturity beyond his years."

Which makes him just like the rest of the sport's growing fraternity of young passers.

Before they guided their teams to this year's semifinals, Washington sophomore Jake Browning and Clemson junior Deshaun Watson combined for 17 starts as true freshmen. J.T. Barrett led Ohio State to an 11-1 record as a redshirt freshman during its 2014 national championship season.

Three other top-10 teams — Wisconsin, USC and Florida State — are quarterbacked by redshirt freshmen. None are led by seniors.

That's a drastic change from 2006, when none of the top 10 teams started freshman quarterbacks. Only one (West Virginia) started one who wasn't a junior or senior; Pat White was a redshirt sophomore.

The quarterback youth movement stems from two main causes: talent developing sooner; and the use-them-or-lose-them reality that coaches face.

With Hurts, the easiest explanation is his ability.

"He's the best player," former 'Bama coach Gene Stallings said, "or he wouldn't be starting."

Hurts, the SEC's offensive player of the year, has accounted for 34 touchdowns heading into the Dec. 31 Peach Bowl against No. 4 Washington. Gators coach Jim McElwain raved about Hurts' poise even before the Tide put up 54 points on Florida in an SEC championship rout.

Saban said his quarterback's development might have been helped by the fact that his dad is a high school coach in Channelview, Texas. Other young passers have had to grow other ways.

Both of the Gators' freshman quarterbacks, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, enrolled early to learn the system sooner. Private quarterback coaches have become common, and 7-on-7 passing leagues have exploded.

"It's not real football, but it still gives a guy a chance to develop his skills…" said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes play Florida in Tampa's Outback Bowl on Jan. 2. "I think there's more quarterbacks that are further down the road than they were before."

Extra polish brings higher expectations when they arrive on campus. Only one quarterback plays at a time. The rest are less willing to wait for opportunity.

Consider the six times the nation's top recruits came to Tropicana Field for the Under Armour All-America Game since 2010.

Of the games' 41 quarterbacks, 22 transferred at least once.

"We've got kind of free agency right now…" said Rick Neuheisel, a CBS analyst and former quarterback with UCLA and the Bucs. "If they're not starting, they're departing."

Saban and Jimbo Fisher know the phenomenon well.

'Bama started the season with Hurts and three other quarterbacks on the roster. One (Blake Barnett) has already left. The other two (David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman) have said they plan to transfer.

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Since 2013, Fisher has groomed two productive Florida State redshirt freshman quarterbacks (Jameis Winston and Deondre Francois). A side effect of that success is that three other notables transferred, and a fourth (Malik Henry) announced his intention to do so this month.

Though FSU considers those possibilities as it recruits, Fisher said it's becoming harder to let quarterbacks develop and build depth at the game's most important position.

"It's like a hole you can never fill," Fisher said before the season. "You're always trying to catch up, because they're wanting to leave. I don't think it's good, because patience would be better for them."

With youngsters like Hurts starring, patience isn't always necessary for a payoff.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.