After quick starts, young QBs come back to reality as season wears on

Let’s go back to Tuesday, Sept. 5.

Think about what it must have been like to wake up in Austin, Texas. To read the newspaper in Athens, Georgia, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. To feel the hype of the morning after a big win in Tallahassee, Florida.

Recall the echoes from 1980 of Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson’s famous call of Herschel Walker: “My God, a freshman!” Thirty-six years later, a group of rookie quarterbacks had everyone shouting with the same disbelief.

Shane Buechele had veteran ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore gleefully exclaiming, “Texas is back, folks.” Georgia’s Jacob Eason somehow upstaged the return of Nick Chubb in his debut. Deondre Francois looked like Jameis Winston 2.0 at Florida State and Jalen Hurts was unlike anything Alabama had ever seen.

It was wild; teenagers looking like world-beaters.

But seven weeks later, at the midpoint of the college football season, that feels like so long ago.

They’re still among the most talented quarterbacks in the game. Their futures are still bright. But there have been peaks and there have been valleys. The weight of being so young pulled them back to earth.

Gravity always wins just as hype always fades.

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You have to understand that almost none of this is their fault.

Much of Week 1 was a mirage.

For Buechele and Texas, the spectacle of the season opener had as much to do with Notre Dame being overhyped. His 280-yard, two-touchdown performance is still a great debut, but let’s face it, Duke and Michigan State lit up the Irish this season too. There’s a reason Brian Kelly fired his defensive coordinator so quickly. Buechele went on to have a so-so two-game stretch in losses to Cal and Oklahoma State, and hasn’t had a QBR above 77 since Week 2.

A weak North Carolina pass defense also helped Eason look as good as he did. He hasn’t approached 65 percent completions since and his QBR has pingponged from week to week. The same inconsistency could be said about Francois, who picked on a short-handed Ole Miss secondary one week, ran roughshod over FCS Charleston Southern the next, then came crashing back to reality with 101 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a loss to Louisville. Against South Florida the following week, Francois threw for just 169 yards and a touchdown.

Not-so-stiff competition covered up the underlying personnel problems around those quarterbacks.

When considering Texas, Florida State and Georgia, there’s not a decent offensive line among them. Francois has been banged up throughout the season and getting the ball out quickly is Buechele’s best chance of staying upright.

Watch Eason against Vanderbilt last week and you can see the pressure he’s under. He’s always about to backpedal and his footwork suffers for it. He had to chase down an errant snap from his center and wisely threw the ball into the stands to save a first-quarter field goal. Still, despite a solid-looking 340-yard performance by Eason, Georgia managed one touchdown and just 16 total points in an upset loss at home to the unranked Commodores.

It’s no coincidence Texas, Florida State and Georgia all failed to place a receiver on their respective conferences' midseason all-conference teams compiled by ESPN.

“The hardest thing for a quarterback is to manage, not what you do, it's when somebody else does something wrong,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “But quarterbacks get all the glory and all the blame, so that's part of it.”

Conversely, why do you think Hurts has avoided a bad game for Alabama? He has Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart to throw the football to, of course. And he has arguably the best defense in college football to bail him out. The Tide's defense and special teams have scored more touchdowns than Stanford and South Carolina have scored on offense.

Hurts also has the benefit of Lane Kiffin. You can call Kiffin all kinds of names, just make sure you call him one of the best offensive coordinators in America.

Kiffin has simplified the game, emphasizing quick passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. What’s more, he has made the zone read a more prevalent feature in Alabama’s game plan than ever before. So while you can quibble with Hurts’ passing numbers -- nine touchdowns, three interceptions -- you can’t argue with his overall production thanks to his eight touchdowns and 428 yards rushing.

* * *

While it’s hard in the moment to remember these guys are rookies, it’s important to try.

With time, their knowledge of the game will improve.

David Morris, who has been a quarterback coach to AJ McCarron and Jake Coker, estimates that freshmen know only 65 percent of the playbook at the start of the season. By the end of the year, he said, it inches closer to 100 percent.

“But that’s not the issue,” the former Ole Miss quarterback said. “I don’t know that the coaches feel comfortable with giving you 100 percent. I remember thinking when I was a true freshman that I can handle everything, we don’t have to be so safe. I told [offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone], ‘Trust me, I know this stuff.’ But he was like, ‘No … I’m not going to give you the reins.’

“It’s an interesting psyche between the kid, the coach and how much we want to put on his shoulders. I think it’s smart to make it a gradual process. Their confidence is more important than anything.”

When Georgia coach Kirby Smart went to SEC media days this summer he hinted at that dynamic. He knew he had a special player in Eason, but he also was trying to pull off a “balancing act,” he said. He had to weigh how to manage winning games with the long-term future of his quarterback.

It turns out learning on the job was Smart’s best option.

After the loss to Vanderbilt, Smart said he hoped Eason would learn to avoid taking the big hit, to slide instead of running headlong into the defense. Rather than play like Superman, Smart wanted Eason to learn to find his checkdowns and live to play another down.

“It’s not the arm talent,” Smart said. “It comes down to his decision-making.”

And the only way for that to improve is with reps.

The most important thing that Week 1 proved, Morris said, is that these young quarterbacks aren’t afraid of the big moment, which is something you can’t teach.

Now it’s a matter of helping them understand how to handle the hard times that will come.

“It’s an absolute,” Morris said. “The hardest thing about this position is the highs and lows and not being too influenced by either one of them. You’re an inch away from being pretty darn good and you’re an inch away from being middle-of-the-pack.”

After Week 1, Buechele, Eason, Francois and Hurts all fell within the margin of being elite. But that was just one game.

At the midpoint of the season, there has been separation on both ends. Nationally, Francois and Hurts both rank in the top 20 in QBR, while Buechele checks in at 39th and Eason 66th.

Give it more time, though.

We’ve seen flashes of greatness. It might come and go, but the potential for more isn’t going anywhere.