The true test of Boise State true freshman quarterback Brett Rypien’s readiness to play college football likely will come sometime Friday night in Charlottesville, Va.
How does he react when he makes his first big mistake?
“Experience and failures are the best teacher,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said. “And that’s the biggest struggle with a true freshman or even a young quarterback. There’s going to be some mishaps. There’s going to be some things that you’re going, ‘What are you thinking?’ ”
Rypien, the first Boise State true freshman quarterback to play since Tony Hilde in 1993, is expected to play a major role if not start at Virginia. Sophomore Tommy Stuart is the other half of the two-quarterback replacement for injured starter Ryan Finley (out eight weeks, broken ankle).
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The decision to utilize Rypien, a prep star from Spokane, who was recruited by Pac-12 teams, falls in line with a national trend toward early quarterback debuts. Twenty-four have played for FBS teams in the first three weeks of this season, with nine starting at least one game. Two Top 25 teams — UCLA (Josh Rosen) and BYU (Tanner Mangum) — have true freshman starters.
Throw in graduate transfer quarterbacks like Vernon Adams at Oregon, and many schools are playing with quarterbacks who are new to their programs.
“It’s really amazing,” said former Texas coach Mack Brown, who will call the Boise State-Virginia game for ESPN. “They’re all over the place.”
The growth of spread offenses, which are run with similar schematics in high school and college, has helped new quarterbacks play more quickly. Those offenses also force defenses to play simpler schemes because of the pace of the game, Brown said, further easing the transition for quarterbacks.
“People are doing more of the same things than ever before,” Brown said. “The challenges are trying to figure out how much you can give him, how far do you go, how much playbook, how many checks. If you can run the ball and use play action, it helps him because the reads are simpler and you usually have better protection. A lot of times you’ll throw outside and deep, not across the middle, because it’s more complicated when you’re looking at reads across the middle.”
Brown holds a unique perspective on Boise State’s situation with Rypien because Harsin was his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas in 2011-12. They played true freshman David Ash in every game in 2011, including six starts.
Ash’s season high was 158 passing yards.
“All the quarterbacks for Bryan are lucky because he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s so detailed that they will know exactly what to do,” Brown said. “The other thing is he doesn’t waver from what he wants to do. He’s got a plan.”
That’s how Boise State and Rypien found themselves in this position.
Harsin’s plan was to prepare Rypien to play from the time he arrived in January as an early high school graduate.
When Finley won the starting job, coaches kept Rypien involved as the co-backup with the message that he likely would play at some point this year. Stuart entered the game immediately when Finley was injured, but as soon as the coaches were convinced that Finley’s injury was serious they decided to insert Rypien in the second half.
Drinkwitz told him at halftime.
“That guy had a look in his eye like, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Drinkwitz said. “So I’m impressed with him.”
Rypien’s debut was as close to perfect as anyone could expect. He was 8-for-9 — the incompletion was a throwaway at the goal line — for 126 yards. His three drives with the first team produced touchdowns, and his drive with the second team ended with a field goal.
He almost certainly will experience some bumps in his second appearance.
“He’ll handle it just fine,” said wide receivers coach Junior Adams, who has known Rypien since his high school days, when Adams was coaching at Eastern Washington. “He’s always got a smile on his face. One thing I know is this: In scrimmage situations, he always played well, didn’t he?”
The assumption with young players is that they will benefit from the experience later in their careers. That hasn’t necessarily been the case with true freshman QBs.
NCAA.com reported that 17 true freshman quarterbacks have started season openers for Power Five teams since 2003. It’s a hit-and-miss bunch that includes Reggie Ball (Georgia Tech), Brent Schaeffer (Tennessee), Chad Henne and Tate Forcier (Michigan), Jacory Harris (Miami), Matt Barkley (USC), Rob Bolden (Penn State) and Perry Hills (Maryland).
A recent success story is Jared Goff of Cal, who some think could be the No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bears went 1-11 in 2013, while Goff ranked 84th in pass efficiency; and 5-7 in 2014, while Goff was 21st.
This year, Cal is 3-0, and Goff ranks eighth.
“Jared had a tough, tough task because we weren’t very good,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “We didn’t have much of a supporting cast. ... He handled it incredibly well, and I think that experience is probably part of the reason he is where he is today. Going through that at a young age really helped him develop and gave him that mental toughness that a quarterback has to have. It was a hard year for him, but those reps and those experiences have paid dividends for him.”
Rypien’s situation is more similar to the latest “it” freshman quarterback, Rosen. The Bruins entered the season with a loaded roster and high expectations, like the Broncos.
Rosen, like Rypien, rolled through his first game without a care. Then last week, he threw three first-half interceptions against BYU — mistakes that almost cost the Bruins.
Rosen handled the adversity the right way, coach Jim Mora said, and learned a valuable lesson.
“When you’re a great high school player and your team is dependent on you to do so much to help them win and you bring that attitude to college,” Mora said, “you sometimes find that it’s more difficult.”
Rypien, who threw for 13,044 yards in high school, comes from that type of background. But he also played in an offense that allowed him to throw hundreds of passes and see many of the coverages he’ll face in college.
“There’s a lot of things with just actually doing that that’s hard to coach,” Harsin said. “He has a good feel out there as well when it comes to seeing the defense.”
And by all accounts, Rypien has the demeanor required to handle the challenge that awaits.
“Me and Brett were playing pool,” senior receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes said, “I asked him was he nervous (against Idaho State)? And he was like, ‘No, it was kind of weird,’ because he wasn’t nervous.”