The Fresno State Bulldogs lost another game last night. You’re going to hear many calls for quarterback Chason Virgil to be benched, to take a breather and learn from the sidelines as his teammates play out the string of an increasingly forgettable season.
These people are wrong.
Life as a quarterback can be very demanding. It can be more so if the team you’re leading is in serious need of a rebuild, and especially if that quarterback, like Virgil, is a freshman. True or redshirt, the job comes with a serious learning curve and, if you look at the numbers across the Group of 5, Virgil’s uneven growth isn’t unique.
I went and looked for freshman quarterbacks who either beat out more experienced counterparts before or during 2016. Here’s what that list looks like:
|Team||Starting QB||"Replaced" QB||How he got the job|
|Alabama||Jalen Hurts||Cooper Bateman||Week 1 starter|
|Bowling Green||James Morgan||James Knapke||Starter from game 4|
|Buffalo||Tyree Jackson||Grant Rohach||Starter from game 2|
|Duke||Daniel Jones||Parker Boehme||Week 1 starter|
|Florida State||Deondre Francois||Sean Maguire||Week 1 starter|
|Fresno State||Chason Virgil||Zach Kline||Week 1 starter|
|Georgia||Jacob Eason||Grayson Lambert||Starter from game 2|
|North Texas||Mason Fine||Alec Morris||Starter from game 2|
|SMU||Ben Hicks||Matt Davis||Starter from game 2|
|Texas||Shane Buechele||Tyrone Swoopes||Week 1 starter|
|USC||Sam Darnold||Max Browne||Starter from game 4|
Some of these aren't great comparisons. Buechele, Darnold and Eason, at a minimum, were considering among the top handful of blue chip quarterbacks in their class. Alabama is the most talented team in the country, and Florida State isn't that far behind. Jones is the only Power 5 QB in the bunch that merits comparison, but he probably wouldn't have seen the field much if not for a season-ending Achilles injury suffered by projected starter Thomas Sirk.
The other Group of 5 signal callers, on the other hand, make for a much more interesting set of peers. North Texas and Southern Methodist were among the worst teams in the FBS in 2015, while Bowling Green has suffered a startling freefall from its conference championship last year. Buffalo has taken a step back after surprising many, and Fresno State, well... I don't need to re-explain the decline.
So who were the guys beaten for the job? Kline, of course, was a Cal graduate transfer. Morris was an Alabama transfer who split snaps with Fine before ceding the competition early, and Rohach had transferred to Buffalo from Iowa State. Davis tore his ACL. Knapke was the only QB who struggled enough on the field to be replaced.
How do the freshmen numbers stack up? I decided to include Chason Virgil's 2015 appearances as a "full season" of 12 games that could be compared to everyone else:
|Name||Att||Comp||Comp %||Pass yards||Rush yards (YPA)||Pass yards/attempt||TD||INT||QB Rating|
|Chason Virgil||377||196||52.0||2,311||360 (5.8)||6.1||16||13||110.59|
|Mason Fine||183||102||55.7||1,099||197 (4.6)||6.0||4||2||111.20|
|Ben Hicks||245||127||51.8||1,512||38 (3.5)||6.2||9||9||108.45|
|Tyree Jackson||246||130||52.8||1,374||321 (5.0)||5.6||8||7||104.80|
|James Morgan||217||127||58.5||1,430||70 (3.3)||6.6||11||11||120.48|
Several things stand out here. Only Morgan and Virgil rank in the top 100 nationally in YPA -- tied for 88th and 98th, respectively -- and only Morgan and Fine rank in the top 100 in completion percentage. However, Virgil's given the Bulldogs an extra edge as a runner when they've enabled him to do so, and his TD/INT ratio is better than the rest (if only by the slightest of margins). And that's without having adjusted for tip drill interceptions out of his or his peers' control, of which there have been several for Virgil in 2016.
More than that, examining the group through Bill Connelly's Passing Success Rate -- 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down -- all have struggled mightily: None of the air attacks rank higher than 102th nationally and two of them (Buffalo and SMU) are among the ten worst by that metric. Virgil and the Bulldogs currently rank 110th.
Have other quarterbacks improved their numbers in similar situations? Judging by the 2015 freshmen who are now sophomores: Mostly yes, though the second-year gains are modest.
- Louisiana-Monroe's Garrett Smith improved the Warhawks' Success Rate from 108th to 83rd from year one to year two, and he's improved his YPA while everything else has held steady.
- Old Dominion's Shuler Bentley had similar numbers to Smith, but hasn't played much in 2016 since senior David Washington has been healthy.
- Ball State's Riley Neal has put up uneven stats, improving his completion percentage and YPA while also throwing more interceptions in 2016. He, too, has improved the Cardinals' Passing Success rate from freshman to sophomore year, though.
Even among more talented G5 teams, the going can be tough for freshmen. Brett Rypien was the Mountain West freshman of the year in 2015, but he was turnover-prone from time to time. Cincinnati's Hayden Moore has seen his numbers roll back a little, though he hasn't been 100% healthy. Chase Litton's numbers at Marshall have held mostly steady, though the wins have tapered off.
Tanner Mangum hasn't seen the field at BYU since Taysom Hill has come back to full strength. The exception to these struggles, if you want to argue it, is probably Middle Tennessee's Brett Stockstill, who's been excellent from day one but still finds his Blue Raiders chasing both Western Kentucky and Florida International, at the moment, for a spot in the Conference USA title game.
Essentially, no freshman in the G5 wilderness escapes early struggles. What makes Virgil different from his closest contemporaries is that Fresno State is in the process of hiring a new head coach for the building process while the other four have already begun to discern whether they'll rise or fall together with recent hires. Chad Morris and Lance Leipold are in their second year, Seth Littrell and Mike Jinks are in their first. ULM and Ball State have rookie head coaches, too, in Matt Viator and Mike Neu.
If you go back further to 2014, however, three-year starters like Matt Linehan, Brandon Silvers and Taylor Lamb have all enjoyed degrees of success: Idaho's battling for bowl eligibility, Troy leads the Sun Belt and Appalachian State isn't far behind. New Mexico's Lamar Jordan has come to lead one of the nation's most explosive running attacks. Only Florida International's Alex McGough has really stagnated, which might explain part of why coach Ron Turner was fired.
All things considered, it seems most likely we won't know whether Virgil is a bust or not for another two years; the new head coach will need to bolster the talent base before any definitive judgment can be made. It may not be pretty in the immediate future, but with skill position players to grow with -- Keesean Johnson, Jamire Jordan and Dejonte O'Neal are sophomores, and freshmen like Jared Rice, Bryson Oglesby and Treyvon Green have (or should) slowly begun to see more playing time -- letting him and everyone else learn on the job is the best move to reopen Fresno State's competitive window sooner rather than later.