February 19, 2009
Most of the time, when a team winds up starting a true freshman quarterback, the process is just that: Winding, either through injuries or some other minor disaster. Even in the case of an obviously special athlete like Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State didn't want to throw him into the fire -- it was just obvious with Todd Boeckman's collapse at Southern Cal that the Buckeyes had no choice. Ditto pending No. 1 draft choice Matt Stafford, who only ascended to the top of Georgia's depth chart midway through the 2006 season by virtue of senior Joe Tereshinski's all-too-obvious limitations.
Michigan's situation is unique, then, in that the Wolverines are the rare outfit that is virtually certain to start a newbie, and has all offseason to brace for the impact: With four-star recruit Tate Forcier already on campus and only beleaguered walk-on Nick Sheridan on the returning depth chart, Steven Threet's decision to transfer all but guarantees Forcier -- or classmate Denard Robinson, a wannabe Pat White who show up in the summer -- will be the top signal-caller from the first whistle in August.
Usually, this means disaster. Rivals looked at the top freshman quarterbacks of the last five years earlier this week, and even if you disagree with their list (uh, Bo Levi Mitchell over role player Tim Tebow, huh?), it's hard to argue with this much: The pickings are slim. Only two true freshman quarterbacks on that list -- three at most, if you count Erik Ainge -- were unquestioned successes out of the gate, and Chad Henne and Robert Griffin are certainly the exceptions:
It's a mixed bag, except for this: All of the quarterbacks with good records -- say, at least eight wins, even in cases (like Leak and Stafford) when that was considered a disappointment -- were role players with a lot of talent around them, and even quality efforts by surprises like Griffin and Tuitama didn't do much to lift their teams out of mediocrity. The question, then, is whether Michigan is still stocked enough to surround Forcier with the kind of supporting cast that benefitted Ainge, Leak, Henne, Mustain and Stafford (Pryor is not exactly a realistic comparison). If you think so, based on available evidence at the Wolverines' skill positions, who, exactly, might you be referring to? Maybe Brandon Minor in the running game, but that's assuming a vastly improved offensive line.
Of course, success is all relative. In the wake of last year's Chernobyl-like meltdown, .500 and a middling bowl game with a true freshman starter who eventually solidifies himself as a long-term answer might suit Michigan just fine. If you compare the Wolverines to the handiest available precedent, Notre Dame's rebound campaign last year, that's as far as the Irish bounced off their 3-9 disaster, and that was with a sophomore with a full season under his belt and the world at his feet as a recruit. Forcier is very, very reminiscent of a less-hyped, more athletic Jimmy Clausen, another relatively polished California kid preceded by in the big-time college ranks by his older brother. Unlike Charlie Weis, though, who was coming off a pair of BCS bowl bids in his first two seasons in South Bend, Rich Rodriguez can't really afford another mulligan.