UCF’s Mikey Keene, USF’s Timmy McClain Among Few True Freshmen Starting Quarterbacks This Season

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UCF quarterback Mikey Keene looks to pass against Navy on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. ... [+] (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)


After his team pulled out a last-minute victory over visiting ECU last Saturday night, UCF coach Gus Malzahn was asked if he considered pulling his struggling true freshman quarterback.

“We have to be real,” said Malzahn, in his first year in Orlando. “He’s young and he was in high school last year. It was his first home start. He’s still learning and there are going to be some growing pains. I think sometimes you have to stick with people and let them grow.”

Malzahn stuck with Mikey Keene despite the Knights managing only a field goal in their first seven possessions. With help from the ground game, Keene heated up and led the Knights on an 11-play, 64-yard game-winning touchdown drive with 23 seconds remaining.

Keene is one of a few true freshmen to have started at quarterback this season, neither of whom did so at the outset. South Florida’s Timmy McClain, Ty Keyes at Southern Miss, UNLV’s Cameron Friel, UConn’s Tyler Phommachanh, and Brady Olson at UMass were handed the keys to the offense as a result of injury or the starter coming out of preseason camp not getting the job done.

As the season progresses, more true freshmen may get an opportunity. The nation saw what Oklahoma’s Caleb Williams could do when he led a comeback against Texas last week.

Kyle McCord was the first true freshman to start for Ohio State in a decade. He was under center for one game (Akron, September 25) while starter C.J. Stroud rested a sore shoulder.

Tyler Buchner could be starting for Notre Dame should Brian Kelly feel the need to make a switch from Jack Coan. 

It can be quite a burden for a young man, regardless of position, to be asked to start at the highest level of collegiate football only a few months after he would have attended his high school graduation. The situation is magnified when it comes to the quarterback position, given the spotlight it attracts.

The learning curve can be daunting and making the necessary adjustments does not come as easily to a QB at this stage of his career as opposed to one with more experience. Then there is the acclimation process, made a little easier by enrolling in January, as most of the aforementioned signal callers did.

Keene, who signed his National Letter of Intent last December, one month before Josh Heupel left for Tennessee, made his first start at Navy two weeks ago. He was pressed into service when Dillon Gabriel (65 touchdown passes in 25 games) broke his clavicle September 24 at Louisville on the game’s final play. There is no timetable for his return.

The 5-foot-11 and 180-pound Keene has had trouble getting the ball down field, averaging only 9.5 yards per completion while operating in an offense that is missing the services of key playmakers in receiver Jaylon Robinson and running back Isaiah Bowser, a Northwestern transfer.

Ohio State's Kyle McCord made a start against Akron on September 25, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo ... [+] by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

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Keene has thrown one interception in each start with the pick against the Midshipmen coming in the end zone on fourth-and-long from the Navy 17 with 24 seconds remaining in a 34-30 loss.

So, the Arizona native broke even in his first two starts, both down to the wire.

“That will give him confidence, but probably more than anything, his teammates will have even more confidence in him,” said Malzahn, in referring to the winning drive against ECU. “It all kind of works together.”

Keene, who has thrown for 427 yards and three TDs, will have his biggest test yet when the Knights are at No. 3/4 Cincinnati on Saturday.

It was easy to see McClain’s growing confidence along with that of his teammates as USF marched up and down the field the final 30 minutes at BYU on September 25. The Bulls put together three touchdown drives in as many second-half possessions to turn a 28-6 halftime deficit into a 35-27 thriller.

Alas, a one-score game at SMU the following week got out of hand thanks in large part to rookie mistakes that surfaced at key moments.

“There were some plays (at SMU) that he made in the other games,” said coach Jeff Scott, in noting what McClain did in two previous starts since taking over for the ineffective Cade Fortin. “Those throws….the game could have been a little different. It all happened pretty fast for him, getting thrown out there at the beginning of the season and he will learn from his mistakes.”

USF had a much-needed bye last week, which gave McClain, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound Florida native, a bit of a breather while giving him the opportunity to digest the good and the bad of his first three starts.

“There is no doubt it is beneficial for a freshman quarterback to kind of go in and watch (video) and have two weeks between games,” said Scott, whose team is preparing for home date with Tulsa.

McClain has thrown for 781 yards, one TD and two INTs. 

Trey Lowe started the season’s first two games for Southern Miss before he was sidelined with a leg injury. Keyes, Mississippi’s two-time Gatorade Player of the Year, made his first start at Alabama on September 25. Talk about daunting, but things got worse the following week when he started against Rice and suffered an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined.

Keyes completed 11-of-24 for 131 yards and a pair of touchdowns with one interception against the Crimson Tide. He has 355 passing yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions on the season.

Friel started for UNLV against UTSA on October 2 when second-year freshman Doug Brumfield could not go due to a knee injury. Friel threw for 306 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in a loss. Coming out of last week’s bye, it is not certain who will start against visiting Utah State on Saturday. Tate Martell — remember him? — is one of the Rebels’ QBs.

Olson’s five starts for Walt Bell’s Minutemen lead the group of true freshmen. He took over when Colorado transfer Tyler Lytle started and sustained an injury in the season opener at Pitt. Olson has since thrown for 848 yards and six touchdowns with four picks.

Phommachanh, brother of Clemson backup QB Taisun, made the first of three straight starts at Army on September 25. He missed last week’s game at UMass — and a matchup with Olson in what was a battle of winless teams — due to a leg injury that has sidelined him indefinitely. He has 321 yards passing (1/2) and 137 rushing.

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