Welcome to the Rosen Bowl: Playoff Hopeful UCLA Looks to Shatter the True Freshman Quarterback Ceiling

Juan Lainez/MarinMedia.org/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

As nicknames go, “Chosen Rosen” doesn’t exactly push the limits creatively. But what the handle lacks in ingenuity, it more than makes up for in accuracy: At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen arrived at UCLA in January looking every bit the part of the polished, prototypical pocket passer who emerges annually from the SoCal pipeline, a reputation he earned during his gonzo prep career at St. John Bosco High, an hour’s drive from UCLA’s Westwood campus. If any member of the 2015 quarterback class was going to have the inside track on being anointed the Chosen One before taking his first collegiate snap, Rosen, according to most sets of recruiting rankings, topped the list.

Whether Rosen will actually top UCLA’s depth chart this fall is, for most Bruins fans, a mere formality: With outgoing starter Brett Hundley off to the NFL, the ascension of his heir apparent is not a question of if, but when. For now, the Bruins coaches seem content to bide their time, fending off any sense of inevitability by divvying up first-team reps in preseason camp between Rosen and a pair of far less-touted redshirt juniors, Jerry Neuheisel and Mike Fafaul. The plan, according to coach Jim Mora, is to give each candidate an extended run with the starting offense for the first five or six practices — or however long it takes for one of them to pull ahead. In Monday’s opening practice, that was Neuheisel, the only one of the three who has seen significant time in a college game, and who told reporters this week, “I still think it’s an even race.” On Tuesday, it was Fafaul, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship this summer. How much longer the Bruins will be willing to draw out the suspense is anyone’s guess.

In this case, locals can be forgiven a certain sense of urgency over the quarterback question, because there are no others: Regardless of who takes the season’s first snap against Virginia, the rest of the 2015 Bruins are built to win big, and they’re built to win now. Offensively, they return the Pac-12’s leading rusher from 2014, Paul Perkins, along with three veteran receivers (Jordan Payton, Devin Fuller, and Thomas Duarte) who have combined for 3,066 yards and 20 touchdowns the past two years; behind them, there are also promising sophomores Eldridge Massington and Mossi Johnson, who brought in 48 passes between them last year as freshmen. Up front, the Bruins could return six starters on the offensive line, all juniors and seniors,1 who have collectively logged more career starts than any other FBS O-liners entering the season.

Defensively, the Bruins have the conference’s most coveted draft prospect, linebacker (and occasional running back) Myles Jack, lining up behind another potential first-rounder (DT Kenny Clark) and a former five-star recruit (DE Eddie Vanderdoes) who also made names for themselves as underclassmen and are now hitting the prime of their college careers as true juniors. In the secondary, they have a pair of fourth-year cornerbacks (Ishmael Adams and Fabian Moreau) who were singled out last year for All-Pac-12 honors by opposing coaches,2 and three familiar faces at safety (Randall Goforth, Jaleel Wadood, and Tahaan Goodman) who’ve made at least eight career starts apiece. The Bruins also have an incoming recruiting class that was widely regarded as one of the best in the nation, spearheaded by Rosen and fellow blue-chip headliners at running back (Soso Jamabo), outside linebacker (Keisean Lucier-South), and cornerback (DeChaun Holiday) who would normally be expected to contribute right away if the depth chart wasn’t crowded with returning starters at each of those positions, and who might anyway thanks to their prodigious talent.

Altogether, UCLA boasts more cumulative experience across the entire roster (391 career starts) than any other FBS team, experience built on a talent base that has increasingly rivaled crosstown L.A. nemesis USC’s as the deepest on the West Coast; after a decade-plus of futility in the series, the Bruins have taken three straight against the Trojans by double-digit margins. They’ve demonstrated a clear upward trajectory across the board, improving from six wins in 2011 to nine wins in Mora’s 2012 debut to consecutive 10-win campaigns in 2013-14; last year marked UCLA’s first top-10 finish in the AP poll, at no. 10, since 1998. This year’s Bruins have a relatively favorable schedule, which opens with two contests against respectable but not-too-threatening nonconference foes (Virginia and BYU) in the first three games and conveniently omits Oregon and Washington from the Pac-12 slate; with formidable foe Arizona State coming to Pasadena, the Bruins could conceivably be favored in every game ahead of their regular-season finale at USC. And that one looks like a toss-up, at worst.

The one thing they don’t have is a proven quarterback, a void that has kept them firmly behind North and South front-runners Oregon and USC in the presumptive Pac-12 pecking order and well outside of the national championship conversation. Although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Hundley would have opted to forgo the draft for a fifth year on campus3 after serving as the face of the program’s emergence from perennial mediocrity, it’s not a stretch to imagine UCLA running stride for stride with front-runners Ohio State, TCU, Baylor, Alabama, and Auburn in the preseason playoff odds if he had. Instead, the Bruins have been relegated to the fringes of the playoff class: They’re 14th in the initial Coaches Poll, corresponding with their average position in preseason magazines, and 11th in ESPN’s Football Power Index, one spot ahead of USC, but with a significantly lower chance of winning the Pac-12 title (20.0 percent) than Oregon (35.6).

So far, the smart money has followed suit. With Hundley leading the hype last summer, Vegas pegged UCLA as a 14-1 shot to win the national championship as the season approached, and the bandwagon was still picking up steam all the way up to the opening kick. With a glaring question mark occupying the shotgun this year, a much more accomplished lineup from top to bottom is currently listed at 33-1 to win it all, the same odds UCLA faced when the initial 2015 lines were released in January.

Tempered preseason expectations notwithstanding, the prospect of surrounding a gifted young passer with a full-fledged contender is intriguing in almost every other respect — partly because of the potential payoff if Rosen is all he’s cracked up to be, and partly because so few other first-year quarterbacks have ever been thrust into a scenario in which their performance could be the difference between a genuine breakthrough and another year in limbo. Rosen is facing the perennial question: Just how good can a true freshman quarterback really be? But UCLA is facing a far more important and less common quandary: Just how good can a team be if it starts a true freshman quarterback?

Josh Rosen earned his L.A. bonafides at St. John Bosco High — and his five-star QB status. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Josh Rosen earned his L.A. bona fides — and his five-star QB recruit status — at St. John Bosco High. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Generally speaking, the ascension of a true freshman to the top of the QB depth chart is a sure sign of disaster, signifying that something has already gone very wrong, or is about to. The prospect alone fills most coaches with dread. “If it gets to where it’s a true freshman, it probably means that things aren’t going the way we want them to,” said West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, who has never handed the reins to a freshman quarterback in more than a decade as an FBS head coach or assistant, and who wasn’t interested in entertaining any hypothetical scenarios in which he might do so voluntarily. “I don’t know if it’s ever happened, if you ever got to the point where you’re playing a true freshman quarterback and you win a championship. Can you win enough games to go to a bowl game and be successful? It’s probably happened. Can you win the Big 12 and go to the College Football Playoff and win on that level as a true freshman? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s ever happened. You gotta have a lot of good people around you, I guess.”

Other coaches are less rigidly opposed to the idea, if only out of a sense of pragmatism. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has cast his lot with multiple true freshman signal-callers, both out of necessity and by choice, and he conceded that in certain situations tossing a fresh face into the deep end makes good long-term sense. “It’s a rare case with a [freshman] quarterback to make a coach feel comfortable enough for the coach to say, ‘We’re going to make you the guy,’” Gundy said. “But as a coach, there are times when you think, if there’s not much difference [between two competing quarterbacks], ‘OK, I’m going to play the young guy and build toward the future.’”

That was certainly the case for Oklahoma State in 2014, when Gundy tapped true freshman Mason Rudolph for his first career start on the heels of a miserable, month-long losing streak in which the Cowboys failed to top 14 points in four consecutive defeats. With Rudolph in the lineup, OSU threw a minor scare into no. 7 Baylor, stunned no. 18 Oklahoma on the road to secure bowl eligibility, and upset Washington in the Cactus Bowl to finish 7-6. Now, as a sophomore, Rudolph is entrenched and the Cowboys have the look of a viable dark horse in the Big 12. “It’s unbelievable the turnaround in the attitude,” Gundy said, comparing the depths of last November to the optimism entering 2015. “The attitude is almost like we won 10 games. It’s been a blessing for us.”

Still, by the time Rudolph’s number was called, his team was out of Big 12 contention, meaning even the faintest hint of light at the end of the tunnel was bound to be met with enthusiasm. This is the situation that greets most true freshman quarterbacks: the proverbial “rebuilding” year, when the stakes are lower, the emphasis tends to shift from the present to the future, and the inevitable growing pains that come with youth can be written off as the cost of eventual progress. When a championship is plausibly within reach, as it could be for UCLA this fall, the equation changes dramatically.

In fact, in the four decades since the NCAA’s 1972 decision to grant true freshmen eligibility to play in their first year on campus, only one has led his team to a national crown: Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, who took over for injured starter Troy Aikman in October 1985 and proceeded to win eight consecutive starts en route to a Big 8 title and a championship-clinching upset of Penn State in the Orange Bowl.4 In addition to taking over a full month into the season, though, Holieway had a couple of systemic advantages that are almost inconceivable for any quarterback 30 years later: (1) because he was so proficient at running the triple option, Holieway got away with completing just 24 passes for the entire regular season; (2) the Sooners’ defense that year was the ’roid-raging college equivalent of the ’85 Bears, with All-Americans Tony Casillas and Brian Bosworth helping to hold opponents to 14 points or fewer in all 11 of OU’s wins. No offense in 2015 would ever dream of being that one-dimensional, and no defense can expect to consistently keep opponents off the scoreboard to anywhere near that extent.

While no other team forced to turn to a true freshman behind center has come close to matching the Sooners’ ceiling with Holieway, the best-case scenario has typically involved some combination of fortunate timing and a killer defense. Since the turn of the century, only nine first-year signal-callers have started at least six games for a team that finished in the AP Top 25, and their numbers stand out mostly for their modesty:

15.8.12-Freshman QB Chart

All in all, that’s a fairly distinguished group, including four future draft picks (Ainge, Henne, Barkley, and Stafford),5 a no. 1 overall pick (Stafford), and a four-year starter who rode into the sunset after earning a national championship as a senior (Leak). As freshmen, though, they were merely dropped into good situations and left to hope like hell that they wouldn’t screw up too badly.6

Of those nine, only Henne and Barkley started their respective season openers, and only Godfrey made it to 10 wins, almost all of them against Conference USA competition. Although Mustain technically presided over eight consecutive Arkansas victories in 2006,7 the vast majority of his job consisted of handing off to Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis, and then trying to stay out of their way. For obvious reasons, the Razorbacks kept the ball on the ground on 65 percent of their offensive snaps that season, and Mustain’s grip on the position was so tenuous that, after throwing two interceptions in a routine midseason win over Louisiana-Monroe, he was effectively nailed to the bench throughout the month of November and the SEC championship game. (It was around that time that the anti-Mustain backlash from Arkansas fans reached fever pitch, one of the many catalysts for his subsequent transfer to USC.) LoVecchio followed a similar trajectory at Notre Dame, taking over in October for a defensively oriented, run-first outfit that had already suffered two losses, just in time to lead a seven-game winning streak against unranked opponents; from there, the Irish were annihilated by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl, and LoVecchio hit the transfer market after spending most of his sophomore year as a bystander. Pryor wasn’t handed the reins at Ohio State until after the Buckeyes’ national hopes had been snuffed out in a blowout loss at USC; ditto for Leak, Ainge, and Stafford, whose teams had already suffered at least one crippling loss before the QBs were promoted for good.

Superficially, the member of this group who bears the most obvious resemblance to Rosen is Barkley, who was also a polished, five-star pocket passer from a SoCal Catholic school, and who also got a jump on winning the starting job as a freshman by enrolling early for spring practice. And given the rest of Barkley’s career — he left USC with Pac-12 records for passing yards and touchdowns, the latter of which he still holds — there are certainly worse role models for Rosen to emulate. But Barkley’s Trojans managed just nine wins during his freshman campaign, so if any evidence exists that a true freshman is capable of elevating his team into the national title conversation — or at least keeping it there — it’s nowhere to be found in L.A. Instead, the Bruins should look across the continent, to Clemson, where Deshaun Watson was as close to unbeatable in 2014 as any first-year phenom in recent memory. Over five starts, Watson turned in the best pass efficiency rating in the nation among passers with at least 100 attempts, and his value stood out most in his absence: Clemson’s three losses on the season came in games in which Watson barely played (at Georgia), came off the bench (at Florida State),8 or was knocked out in the first half (at Georgia Tech). Had he received the keys from the start, and remained healthy opposite the nation’s best overall defense, who knows? The Tigers had the basic ingredients at their disposal to play their way into the playoff committee’s Final Four.

But Watson wasn’t handed the keys from the start and didn’t remain healthy once he had them, and the majority of the starters on that defense are currently vying for roster spots in NFL training camps. Even after flashing brilliance, his potential remains largely hypothetical, and his team’s potential in 2015 is at least temporarily on the wane. Where UCLA’s immediate fate is concerned, almost all of the pieces are in place for a legitimate run, but the bottom line is that there’s very little recent precedent for winning big with a true freshman at the controls — and for winning really big (big enough for a playoff bid), there’s no relevant precedent at all. Rosen may be as good as advertised; he may be better. If the 2015 Bruins have any chance of reaching their full potential, though, he’ll have to be better — and better faster — than any of the touted blue-chips who have preceded him, and also luckier.

Jerry Neuheisel earned some meaningful snaps in 2014 and has the pedigree, but can't match Rosen's raw skills. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Jerry Neuheisel earned some meaningful snaps in 2014 and has the QB pedigree, but the junior can’t match Rosen’s raw skills. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Of course, before he can go about redefining our assumptions about how high a loaded lineup can climb with an 18-year-old behind center, Rosen actually has to win the starting job, which may take longer than the Rosen bandwagon would prefer. Neuheisel may not be a long-term solution, but he has demonstrated basic competence in his only extended action, passing for two touchdowns with no turnovers in last year’s 20-17 win over Texas after Hundley was sidelined in the first quarter. In a pinch, Neuheisel could be a viable caretaker for the position if coaches want to bring Rosen along slowly, and he may be less likely than the freshman to implode at random intervals. Rosen has the highest ceiling, but Neuheisel has the higher floor.

Still, no one is holding their breath for Neuheisel to become the West Coast’s answer to Craig Krenzel, slogging his way to the top on some combination of coach’s-son savvy and pure grit. So if coaches aren’t willing to anoint the rookie as the opening-day starter, how long will the transition take? And will they be willing to throw him into the fire with Pac-12 or playoff ambitions in play? Resolving those questions will require a delicate balance. By the time Neuheisel has proven that he is or (more likely) isn’t capable of getting UCLA over the final hurdle to a Pac-12 championship, the biggest goals may already be out of reach.

After three years of unquestioned stability with Hundley, Mora’s challenge in Year 4 will be to weigh all of those short-term questions with the long-term reality of Rosen as the face of the program. If Mora believes that his freshman gem is up to leading a championship run, we’ll likely know it sooner rather than later. The first question Mora has to answer, though, is whether he’s still building for the future, or whether the future is now.

Filed Under: 2015 College Football Preview, College Football Preview, College Football, UCLA Bruins, Josh Rosen, Jerry Neuheisel, Mike Fafaul, Jim Mora, Pac-12, Pac-12 South, USC Trojans, Oregon Ducks, Arizona State Sun Devils, Stanford Cardinal, 2015 College Football Playoff, College Football Recruiting, Recruits, Matt Barkley, Deshaun Watson, NCAA, NCAAF, Football, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton