When Kirk Herbstreit became the starting quarterback at Ohio State in 1992, he was a senior who patiently waited his turn behind Greg Frey and Kent Graham.
Twenty-six years ago, that was the natural progression of the position in college football. In most cases, a player came in and waited to at least his junior year before he became a starter. However, that is not the case these days.
“I think it is very different today because of the way they are developed along the way,” said Herbstreit, who is now entering his 23rd season as the lead analyst on ESPN’s College Football GameDay Show.
That’s why Herbstreit would not be surprised to see true freshman Trevor Lawrence eventually unseat incumbent starter Kelly Bryant at Clemson. Though Bryant led the Tigers to an ACC Championship, as well as the College Football Playoff, Lawrence has the talent, tools and training to come in and be a playmaker right out of the gate.
Once they adjust to the speed of the game it is easier for a freshman to come out and perform, even in the biggest of games.
“They have done such a good job with that position in the college game, whether it is the elite elevens of the world or whatever,” Herbstreit said. “There are so many coaches that work with these kids from middle school and all the way up. I just feel that these guys are so much more polished as quarterbacks coming out of high school and getting into college.”
Clemson has seen a true freshman beat out a senior before. By the third game of his freshman year, Deshaun Watson showed enough that Dabo Swinney benched senior Cole Stoudt for the rookie.
After coming off the bench and nearly leading the Tigers to an upset win at No. 1 Florida State, Watson started the next week against North Carolina and threw for a freshman record 435 yards in his first start, as well as set a single-game record with six touchdown passes.
“Just being able to have a coach that gets you into the game as quickly as he can through play calling and lets you get hit once or twice so you can settle in, it allows you to just execute the offense,” Herbstreit said. “But, for me, just watching these guys as the pages turn that is what makes college football what it is.”
Swinney of course brought Watson along a little slower than some. He played a couple of series at Georgia and played half the game against S.C. State the following week. In Week 3 against Florida State, he came in the game and led Clemson on a scoring drive in the second quarter. He was the starter from that point on.
At Georgia, while playing in front of his family and friends who came up from Gainesville, Ga., which was right down the road from Athens, Watson in his first collegiate drive led the Tigers down the field for a touchdown. He capped the drive with a perfectly thrown ball to Charone Peake for a 35-yard touchdown pass.
It was almost as if he did not even get nervous.
“I do think the anxiety, the excitement or the butterflies are any different,” Herbstreit said. “That’s true whether it is the 40s, 50s, 60s or today. That is the reality of getting out there in front of 100,000 people and on national TV. I don’t think those ever go away, especially the first time you are the guy and you need to lead that team to a victory.”
Herbstreit admits it all has him excited to see how guys like Lawrence and Georgia’s Justin Fields come out and perform on the big stage for the first time this season.
“We don’t have preseason and exhibition games like in high school and in the NFL,” he said. “This is the first time we are going to find out what is up with these guys and it builds up to a lot of excitement and anticipation to see what teams have and what these players have.”