Technically, Johnny Manziel is a sophomore. So are Notre Dame’s Everett Golson and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
Manziel, like Mariota and Golson, has been a student-athlete for two football seasons. He graduated high school in 2011. And he undoubtedly won the Heisman Trophy in part because he had one year of preparation in College Station. Would Manziel have won the trophy in 2011 as a true freshman with Ryan Tannehill still on the roster? With Mike Sherman as his head coach? Without the SEC spotlight?
The answer is no chance. A new coach, a new system, a new league, a vacancy at quarterback and one full season to adjust to college life helped Manziel get to New York.
The decision to redshirt turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to Johnny Heisman. Most elite athletes' biggest hurdle when moving from the high school to collegiate ranks isn’t the opposition on Saturdays. It’s adjusting to the college lifestyle and all of the stresses and trappings that go along with it. Learning how to go to class, study, adjust to practice routines and increased training regiments all while trying to play football against the nation’s best is an extremely difficult process. As we have just seen, being allowed to adjust off of the field while not having to produce on it can be the difference between a Heisman Trophy and riding the bench.
Like Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Oregon are just two of many programs that used successful redshirt freshman quarterbacks to have great seasons in 2012. Except, the Irish don’t recognize Golson as a freshman. Neither does Stanford with its starting quarterback Kevin Hogan. That is because they are sophomores in the eyes of the school.
But just like Manziel, that extra year has made all the difference for Notre Dame. Or Oregon. Or Stanford. In fact, Manziel headlines what might be considered the best redshirt freshman quarterback class in history.
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
This story is already well-documented. With eye-popping joystick moves, elite speed and gutsy throws, Manziel led the Aggies to a 10-2 record and its first Heisman Trophy since John David Crow won the award in 1957. Few players had as big an impact on the game in one year as Johnny Heisman.
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The Ducks came up just short of playing for the national championship with an overtime loss at home to Stanford costing them a trip to Miami Gardens and a Pac-12 championship. However, the laidback Hawaiian passer made fans forget about Darron Thomas in short order. He led what many believe is the nation’s top offense to an 11-1 record while leading the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and leading the nation in road passer rating. He scored 34 total touchdowns against only six interceptions and is poised for huge things in Eugene.
Brett Hundley, UCLA
The dynamic Bruins quarterback debuted in Pasadena in Week 2 with a 300-yard passing game and four touchdowns in a win over favored Nebraska. The Chandler, Ariz., native set single-season UCLA passing records and total offense numbers while leading UCLA to an improbable Pac-12 South Division title under new coach Jim Mora. Hundley was a god-send (3,776 total yards, 35 total TD) for a program that has been craving quality quarterback play for more than a decade.
Everett Golson, Notre Dame
It took him some time and he dealt with adversity, but Golson has blossomed into a national championship quarterback. Yes, his defense carried the team early, but this dual-threat ability could be the key to an Irish upset over Alabama. After missing the BYU game with a head injury, Golson flourished under center in the toughest of positions. He scored 10 of his 16 touchdowns in the final month of the season, beginning with a clutch performance against Oklahoma. He posted the best passing game of his career against Wake Forest (career high 346 yards, 3 TD) and will have to make some key second-half plays against the Crimson Tide if Notre Dame wants to win the BCS title.
Trevone Boykin, TCU
Gary Patterson had to turn over the reins to his Horned Frogs offense much earlier than anticipated when Casey Pachall left the team early in the season. Boykin took over against Iowa State in Week 6 and never looked back. He threw three interceptions in his first start, but he bounced back with five total touchdowns and more than 300 yards of offense in a road win over Baylor the next week. He averaged 222 yards passing and accounted for 17 touchdowns in eight Big 12 starts, including wins over Texas and West Virginia. The Mesquite, Texas, product wasn’t supposed to start until 2014, so Frogs fans should be excited about Boykins' potential growth.
Kevin Hogan, Stanford
It obviously took David Shaw too long to make the switch from Josh Nunes to Kevin Hogan. Nunes threw for 208.3 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and seven picks in the first eight games. Then, after five attempts against Colorado, Shaw pulled Nunes permanently for Hogan. The redshirt accounted for 1,157 total yards (193 rushing) and 10 touchdowns in five starts and led his team to consecutive wins over Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA twice to win the Pac-12 championship.
Joel Stave, Wisconsin
The Badgers' offense was totally one-dimensional under supposed savior Danny O’Brien. The lanky walk-on was inserted into the starting lineup and Wisconsin discovered the passing game once again. He was leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency with a 4-1 record as a starter until breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. In fact, Stave left both the Nebraska and Michigan State games with leads only to watch his team lose with him on the sideline. He has the frame (6-5, 225) and arm to be a four-year starter in Madison.
Each one of these names appears ready for a long and successful career on the college gridiron. All but Boykin played on a team that either won 10 games or its conference championship, or in Golson’s case, is playing for the ultimate prize. Boykin and Manziel had to endure conference changes while Hundley and Manziel dealt with coaching changes.
The Heisman Foundation finally jettisoned its bizarre age bias by giving the trophy to the first redshirt freshman in history. It also appears head coaches at major power programs have decided that these youngsters are ready to handle the pressures of big-time college football.
With potentially three more seasons left in the tank, it appears the fans will be the biggest winners in Eugene, College Station and Los Angeles.