It's not often a true freshman starts for a national title contender, and it's even less often a true freshman delivers a national player of the week-caliber performance in his first game. But that's what UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen did this week, putting together arguably the best quarterbacking performance in the country in the Bruins' 34-16 win over Virginia on Saturday.
UCLA lost Brett Hundley this offseason, one of the best quarterbacks in college football, and it might have upgraded anyway, if Rosen's performance was any indication. His stat line was an absolute marvel: 28-of-35 passing, 351 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and 10 yards per attempt.
It's not as if Rosen wasn't predicted to be a star. A former five-star whom most expected to start since the day he got on campus, he was supposed to be good, perhaps even a Heisman candidate at some point in his career.
But after the performance against Virginia, it might not be ridiculous to think the Heisman hype could arrive earlier than expected.
And in watching Rosen perform on Saturday, perhaps the first comparison to pop into everyone's heads was the latest freshman to win the Heisman, Jameis Winston.
Winston's Heisman season in 2013 began a lot like Rosen's. He was well known in recruiting circles and among those who follow the sport closely, but his performance in the first game of his freshman season (against Pittsburgh) is what truly caught everyone's eyes. And it's clear that statistically, there are similarities.
|Player||Completions-Attempts||Yards||Touchdowns||Interceptions||QBR||Opposing defense's S&P+ rank|
|Josh Rosen||28-35||351||3||0||90.8||N/A yet, but No. 19 previous season|
|Jameis Winston||25-27||356||4||0||97.3||No. 28|
Winston's numbers were a little more impressive, but Rosen might've faced the tougher defense. Also, Winston was a redshirt freshman, not a total rookie. Either way, it's impossible to dispute that these performance were almost unimaginably good for young quarterbacks making their first starts, no matter what happens next for Rosen.
The fact that Winston played so well against a solid defense was our first on-field clue he was something special, as Bill Connelly wrote immediately following that game.
In terms of recent history, only two quarterbacks' first games compare with what Winston pulled off on Monday night. In 2007, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford completed 21 of 23 passes for 363 yards and three scores. In 2010, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez completed nine of 15 passes for 136 yards and rushed seven times for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Their opponents in those games: North Texas and Western Kentucky.
Bradford and Martinez did not face the same level of hype and national pressure heading into those games, and Pittsburgh is not North Texas or Western Kentucky.
This wasn't a cake defense, but Winston made it look like one.
Of course, there's the other side of the comparison. Former Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill started against South Carolina
as a freshman to kick off 2014, and he dominated the Gamecocks with a whopping 511 yards and 3 touchdowns on 44-of-60 passing. Hill immediately got added to sports books as a Heisman candidate, but he lost his candidacy and eventually his starting spot, as the Texas A&M offense stumbled.
So what would lead one to think Rosen might be closer to the next Jameis Winston than the next Kenny Hill?
There are two major similarities between Rosen's performance and Winston's performance that didn't apply to Hill's. The biggest is the quality of the opponent.
The Pitt defense Winston shredded was quite solid that season, finishing No. 28 nationally in Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings. The Virginia defense Rosen dominated should also be quite good, as it finished 2014 at No. 19 in the country and returned some impressive talent in its secondary. Contrast that with the South Carolina defense, which was all sorts of lost against Hill and finished the season No. 71 nationally.
Moreover, Winston and Rosen showed off a consistency that Hill didn't. They marched down the field methodically, making plays that any defense would struggle to handle, while Hill took advantage of a brand-new South Carolina defense that was never in the right place.
As the Hill hype shows, Week 1 is too early to name a Heisman frontrunner, and it's way too early to anoint a freshman as the best quarterback in the country. But Winston's success two years ago shows some clues about what it can take for a player to legitimately arrive on the big stage.