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Freshman Quarterback Review, Part Six: Conclusion

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A quick review after a couple days since the last edition:

Part One (ACC)
Part Two (Big 12)
Part Three (Big East)
Part Four (Big Ten)
Part Five (SEC and Pac Ten)

The working hypothesis, rather than the conventional wisdom of steady improvement, is that most quarterbacks are who they are from the beginning: initially good passers tend to decline or level off after a strong start, mediocre players tend to stay mediocre, and bad debuts are followed with some improvement, but generally level off. The exceptions are the really physically gifted, probably draft-bound players, like Philip Rivers, Vince Young and Chad Henne, who might (or, in Henne's case, might not) look bad or mediocre to begin but evolve quickly into much stronger players.

With this sample size, I don’t think that prediction held up under much scrutiny. It seems pretty clear most teams are starting a freshman quarterback out of necessity, not because he’s destined for stardom, and since even the most hyped freshmen sit a majority of the time, young ‘uns who do play immediately don’t have much greater eventual success than guys who don’t start until later in their careers. But as far as an identifiable trend goes, there’s this among the 41 guys with qualifying numbers as freshmen and sophomores:

The path of both lines is based on freshman passer rating, so follow the invisible vertical lines from year one (red) to the fluctuation in year two (blue). The two lines don’t show much relationship to each other, sequentially –– you could bet that a kid who started out with a rating below 100 would not explode as a sophomore, or that a guy who was over 150 as a freshman would not completely collapse, but for the great majority of quarterbacks in the middle, better numbers as a freshman did not correlate at all to better numbers as a sophomore.

In fact, the most obvious trend in year two is a movement toward the mean, in both directions. Bad and mediocre passers improved, sometimes greatly, but guys who were hot out of the gate almost universally regressed. And it just so happens that the point of departure for diminishing returns is right at last year’s national average for pass efficiency: 136.6. Of the 31 guys performing below that mark as freshmen, 26 improved as sophomores, most of them substantially, although the majority remained below average. Of the ten players who outperformed the average as freshmen, eight regressed in their second year, six of them falling below the average. To paraphrase Big Ten Wonk, the lesson here would be: whatever you think of him, for predictive purposes, regress your view of your young quarterback to the mean.

But as far as who’s progressing and who’s regressing, there are no great insights. Among the guys who improved their efficiency by 15 points or more from year one to year two:


All in all, the Lefty we met in 2000 is an enduring success.
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Jeff Smoker Michigan State: Up from 113.4 to 162.8 (+49.4); just obliterated his freshman numbers as a sophomore in 2001, when he also led MSU to wins over Notre Dame and Michigan in the same season. The Spartans were 0-2 against mediocre teams when he didn’t play or might have won eight games. Regressed as a junior along with the team –– even with Charles Rogers in his Destroy Everything season –– and missed the last three games. Led the Big Ten in passing yards as a senior, but with a very meh efficiency rating under 130. Pretty decent college quarterback, but never approached his sophomore numbers again.
Jeff Krohn Arizona State: Up from 118.6 to 153.4 (+34.8); mediocre freshman, led the conference in efficiency as a sophomore. Had some injury problems and transferred to UMass as a junior.
Juice Williams Illinois: Up from 91.8 to 119.2 (+27.4); everyone saw this coming. The most erratic freshman of his generation got a receiver (Arrelious Benn), a home run threat at running back (Rashard Mendenhall), matured a little and was the most improved quarterback in the country last year, on the most improved team. The sky is not the limit –– Juice is probably not destined for the pros –– but with the attention he commands with his running ability and Benn rounding into superstar form, he has no excuse for regression. Might flatline, but he should remain an abover average, generally feared player.
Pat White, West Virginia: Up from 132.4 to 159.7 (+27.3); a much savvier passer early in his career than other runners like Brad Smith and Vince Young. Like Young, White started about average as a passer, but unlike VY, he immediately improved his rating as a sophomore. He kept the number above 150 last year as a junior. No chance of becoming an NFL quarterback (wide receiver/kick returner, probably), but easily one of the best college players of the decade.
Alex Brink, Washington State: Up from 113. to 140.0 (+26.7); wound up setting all kinds of school passing records, but never took Wazzou to a bowl game and his rating hovered a little below his sophomore number his last two years. Good college starter and a seventh-round draft choice.
Mike Teel, Rutgers: Up from 94.0 to 120.6 (+26.6); truly awful in spot duty as a freshman (1 TD to 10 INTs) and still below average during the Knights’ dream season in 2006. Improved dramatically again last year (rating above 145), but largely with huge games against very bad defenses like Norfolk State, Navy, Buffalo and Syracuse –– he still threw more picks (9) than touchdowns (7) in Big East games, where his rating looked about like it did as a sophomore. Would be very surprised if he improved overall as a senior.
Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt: Up from 112.4 to 127.7 (+25.3); just another scrappy Vandy quarterback until his senior year, when he almost singlehandedly ended the team’s decades-long streak of losing seasons. His efficiency that year was actually almost identical to his sophomore number (126.1), but good enough to get him drafted in the first round. The only quarterback on this list currently starting in the NFL.
Josh Freeman, Kansas State: Up from 103.5 to 127.3 (+23.8); huge, highly-recruited player improved dramatically from interception-filled debut. Jury’s still out after two years, but he projects well to the pros because of his size and arm. Probably has not peaked and might be sitting on a huge season.
Bret Meyer, Iowa State: Up from 117.3 to 138.9 (+21.6); vast improvement from year one to year two, and led ISU to seven-win regular seasons and bowl games both years. One of the better quarterbacks in the Big 12 as a sophomore. His rating plummeted along with the team’s fortunes in 2006, and was nine points worse last year, as a senior, than it was when he was a freshman.
Jared Lorenzen, Kentucky: Up from 116.5 to 136.6 (+20.1); almost identical sophomore and junior seasons, but the rating dropped more than ten points his last year, along with Kentucky’s win total (1-7 in the SEC). Hanging on in the pros.
Matt Stafford, Georgia: Up from 109.0 to 128.9 (+19.9); jury’s still out, obviously, but Stafford "got it" toward the end of his freshman year, when he stopped throwing game-killing interceptions and led low-scoring wins over three straight ranked teams (Auburn, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech). Given his progression so far, his initial recruiting hype and the drooling of the scouts, should be sitting on a very strong season. Even if he doesn’t throw for a lot of yards in a run-oriented system, the efficiency could be through the roof. All projections are extremely positive.
Thaddeus Lewis, Duke: Up from 106.9 to 125.7 (+18.8); improved in every category across the board. Only just entering his junior year, so the jury’s still out, but the passing game was the only aspect of Duke’s team last year that was not rock-bottom horrible.
Mike Schneider, Duke: Up from 96.5 to 114.4 (+17.9); awful freshman season followed by very subpar sophomore season. Only played about half the year as a freshman and lost the starting job to Zac Asack as a junior in 2005. Off the team by 2006.
Kellen Lewis, Indiana: Up from 118.1 to 134.2 (+16.1); great athlete had one of the best receivers in the country (James Hardy) to throw to, and is likely to regress or flatline without him. Definitely matured, but still more of a runner with essentially no pro prospects. Should be fine his last two years, but just fine.

Pick a trend from that group, other than that they all tended to hold onto their jobs for all four years. Only Mike Teel continued to improve as a junior, and that under some asterisk-able circumstances; only Cutler has really stuck in the pros. The only all-American candidate of the group (so far) is White, which has more to do with his running ability. If Stafford, Freeman and Williams follow the same path, there’s nothing here to suggest that veteran juniors and seniors give an offense anything it didn’t have when the same player was a sophomore.

What that means for current sophomores going forward: I'd expect Sam Bradford's sky-high freshman numbers to come plummeting to earth, with an efficiency in the 135-145 range; ditto Case Keenum at Houston, who opened up with a rating last year over 145. Cody Hawkins, T.J. Yates and Adam Weber are all still at least nominally competing for their positions, which says something in and of itself. They might improve slightly, but by and large will probably look the same inconsistent/consistently mediocre quarterbacks they were as freshman. The big movers should be a couple highly-rated guys who got off to shaky starts: Pat Bostick at Pittsburgh and Jake Locker at Washington. Everybody was impressed with Locker's Tebow-like athleticism, despite his abysmal results as a passer, but Bostick is in great position to be the most improved quarterback in the country, if he's worth even a fraction of his recruiting ink.