ATLANTA — No experience required.
Jalen Hurts came within a single second of leading Alabama to a national championship in his freshman season. Now, Jake Fromm is on the cusp of a title in his first year at Georgia.
Long gone are the days when a young quarterback needed to ride the bench for a season or two, getting up to speed on a college system much more intricate than what he ran in high school. Even the most successful programs in the land are willing to turn their offense over to an 18-year-old as soon as he steps on campus.
Hurts and Fromm are the most prominent examples of the potential rewards far outweighing the ever-dwindling risks.
“There’s a completely different mindset now about playing young players,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Jamelle Holieway remains the only true freshman quarterback to lead a team to the national title in the modern era, taking over at Oklahoma in 1985 after Troy Aikman was injured.
Hurts came achingly close a year ago, when Alabama lost to Clemson 35-31 on a last-second touchdown pass in the championship game. Fromm has a chance to match Holieway’s feat on Monday night, but he’ll have to get by Hurts — a grizzled ol’ sophomore this time around — when the Bulldogs (13-1) meet the Crimson Tide (12-1) in an all-Southeastern Conference title game .
Saban points to an increased emphasis on passing games and spread offenses at the high school level, which has fast-forwarded the development of top quarterback prospects.
“They’re not coming up in some hand-the-ball-off I-formation,” he said. “Their knowledge and experience is a lot greater than maybe in old-fashioned football.”
Fromm threw for 12,745 yards and 116 touchdowns during his four years at Houston County High School in central Georgia, a football hotbed that prepared him well for what he would face with the Bulldogs.
“We would throw it 30, 40 times, even 50 times, as many times as it took,” he remembered. “The college offense is a little more wordy. But the passing schemes and the coverages and all that, it’s just about all the same. At the end of the day, one guy’s running a route, if he’s open, you throw it to him. It’s not too hard.”
Of course, that’s overlooking all the hard work Fromm put in — Hurts, too — to get to this moment.
“He came in early most mornings during the offseason to throw in quarterback drills,” said Von Lassiter, who was Fromm’s high school coach. “In season, he came in and went to class, but after lunch he was with the football coaches for the rest of the day. He would watch video, lift weights, we fed ‘em, and then we practiced. Then he watched video afterward.”
During the summers, Fromm and his teammates traveled around the state to compete in highly competitive 7-on-7 leagues, a mostly passing version of touch football that had become increasingly popular, allowing prep quarterbacks to further hone their passing skills.
“The way we ran our program in high school was a lot like a college situation, and we really have more time with them than the colleges can have,” Lassiter said. “So he’s used to sitting in the film room, used to being in the weight room, used to handling all that stuff along with class. It helped to prepares him for college.”
Hurts and Fromm have clearly benefited from playing on teams with stellar defenses, stout running games and standout special teams . They have settled into the role of game managers, going to the air when necessary but always very cognizant of avoiding the big mistake.
In a way, that demonstrates their maturity even better than some gaudy numbers.
“You’ve got be a good decision-maker,” said Brian Daboll, the third offensive coordinator Hurts has worked with during his two seasons at Alabama. “What am I going to gain from this play versus what can it cost us? He’s a good risk-reward manager with the football, does a good job of protecting it in the pocket with two hands. He’s a runner, too, so that there’s some times where he’s running through the line of scrimmage around the perimeter.
“But obviously a huge component in terms of offensive football is doing a good job protecting the football.”
With a pair of 1,100-yard rushers, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, lining up behind him, Fromm has averaged just 18.5 passes per game. He’s made the most of his chances, however, completing nearly 64 percent for 2,383 yards, with 23 touchdowns, only five interceptions and the SEC’s top quarterback rating .
Hurts is more of a dual threat than Fromm, ranking second on the Tide with 808 yards rushing and eight TDs, but he hasn’t been quite as efficient through the air. The Tide has relied heavily on one receiver (Calvin Ridley) and Hurts struggled a bit with his accuracy down the stretch.
But, even though there’s been some grumbling from Alabama fans, it’s hard to complain about a quarterback who’s thrown only one interception all season and has a career record of 26-2 with a pair of championship game appearances .
“I think my overall game has improved,” Hurts said. “I think it’s helped this team.”
It seems inevitable that a freshman quarterback will be celebrating a national championship sometime in the very near future.
It almost happened last season. It could happen Monday night.
If not then, surely in the next few seasons.
“The kids are throwing the ball at higher level. The offenses are more sophisticated,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “You’ve got all these things that help quarterbacks grow and become better players.”