With the extra year of eligibility granted during the coronavirus pandemic as one factor, and with the transfer portal as another, the upper regions of the national passing stat lists glow with the lavishly seasoned: a 24-year-old (Sam Hartman, Notre Dame, sixth college season, two programs), a 23-year-old (Spencer Rattler, South Carolina, fifth season, two programs), three 23-year-olds about to turn 24 in February (Nix, Rice’s JT Daniels, Georgia Southern’s Davis Brin), three 22-year-olds about to turn 23 in December (LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel, Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall), and Penix, who’ll be 24 in May.
That first Daniels, JT, is the man of the era, really.
He’s in his sixth college season at his fourth college program.
Ask him for travel advice.
And Georgia, of course, just got done winning two national championships with quarterback Stetson Bennett, who finally got done playing college football in January at age 25 in the championship game, in rains of both water and confetti.
“It’s really changed everything back to the way it used to be for me,” said Mel Kiper Jr., the NFL draft analyst and evaluation virtuoso. “When I came up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, quarterbacks would play three or four years. They would go to the Senior Bowl with seniors.” He recalls Senior Bowls seeing Dan Marino, Philip Rivers. Nowadays, he points out, CJ Stroud of the Houston Texans just turned 22: “He is younger than seven quarterbacks that I’m evaluating for the draft.”
Nix, for one, will tie a record Saturday, starting his 53rd college game, pulling up alongside Kellen Moore and Colt McCoy. Way, way back in 2019, the recruiting outlet rivals.com ranked the Alabamian Nix as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class; No. 4 was the North Carolinian Sam Howell, nowadays in a second season with the Washington Commanders. In the class before that, in 2018, Rivals ranked the Floridian Penix No. 14 among pro-style quarterbacks; No. 1 was Trevor Lawrence, nowadays in a third season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. No. 2 was good old JT Daniels.
These aged know what to do but, maybe more importantly, what not to do. Penix, who has played fewer games (39) in more years than Nix because of injuries, has had touchdown-to-interception ratios of 1-0, 10-4, 14-4, 4-7, 31-8 and now 16-2. Nix has gone 16-6, 12-7, 11-3, 29-7 and now 15-1. Chuck Morrell, the erudite defensive co-coordinator at Washington, outlined this very kind of thing to reporters in Seattle regarding Nix and his 80.4-percent completion percentage (131 of 163).
“Anybody above 80 percent, that’s elite-level stuff,” Morrell said. “I think he’s doing a good job taking care of the ball and, you know, really refuses to take sacks, finds a way to get the ball out on time, and then just operating their offense overall. It’s a really steady, veteran presence, and that’s, you know, super-common with the league this year.”
That league, the near-death Pac-12, has projected No. 1 NFL choice Caleb Williams of Southern California, possible future projected No. 1 choice Shedeur Sanders of Colorado, plus the raved-about Cameron Ward at Washington State, the Clemson-seasoned DJ Uiagalelei at Oregon State, plus Nix and Penix. It would have Cameron Rising, the 24-year-old Utah quarterback who came in at No. 8 way back in Penix’s 2018 high school class rankings, but Rising’s knee injury has prevented the sight of his expertise so far this season.
Among the know-how and the old-age know-how, the geezer era has found epitomes in Penix and Nix — the former with his four years at Indiana, the latter with his three at Auburn, both with covid-added years and helpful nomadism.
“These guys,” Kiper said, “needed two more years to really show: Bo Nix, ‘What happened at Auburn was Auburn,’ and Michael Penix, ‘And I had four seasons of injuries and now I want to show I can be healthy these two years.’”
Their head coaches barely even worry about them.
“For us, for Mike, it’s about just doing his thing,” said second-year coach Kalen DeBoer, who has helmed Washington’s deeply competent resurgence to the national forefront, “because we know the level he can operate at, it’s elite, and if he just is himself and stays within his means and trusts his teammates, big things are going to happen just like they have each and every Saturday for him.”
“I don’t have to give him any encrypted message,” Oregon Coach Dan Lanning told reporters in Eugene about Nix. “‘Bo, go out there and do your thing.’ That’s all I’ve got to tell him.”
Of the 32 starting quarterbacks in each NFL team’s most recent game, 15 played in three college football seasons, 14 in four and only three in five. Only two played more than 50 college games (Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts with 56 and Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett with 52). There can be a sense that when the NFL sort of knows, the NFL sort of knows. But thinking does shift, and Kiper is here to dispel the idea that the lingerers linger because they’re doomed to remain unwanted, even if the lingering does afford more time for the pinpointing of flaws.
“My thing is common sense,” Kiper said. “If you look at just common sense, the more you play, the more experience you get. . . . So for quarterbacks, wouldn’t it make sense that the more you play, the better you are, the more confident you are? Just playing the game and being under center.”
As evidence, he cites Brock Purdy, the surging revelation of a San Francisco 49ers quarterback who played four full seasons and 48 games at Iowa State and in 2022 became the 262nd and final man drafted. It’s not that Purdy isn’t at least somewhat an outlier. It’s that his timing proved swell.
“The quarterbacks that aren’t highly, highly rated have to stay,” Kiper said. “Had he been highly rated, he might have left after his third year at Iowa State, and gone to the NFL, and not been a factor.” As Kiper said he tells high school players: “What’s the problem with being in college for five or six years? Why are you rushing to go to the NFL?” He thinks certain 20-year-olds such as J.J. McCarthy at Michigan and Quinn Ewers at Texas might wind up rushed to the NFL unwisely rather than gathering in another year under center.
All the while, the college game of the week doubles as a game of the sages.
Penix, an exemplar of determination after all of his injuries, sounded very much 23 just before he forged into this second season in the opposite corner of the country from his upbringing (Tampa). “I would say I know one of my biggest emphases last year was becoming a more vocal leader,” he said at the Pac-12 media gathering. “I feel like I definitely took a huge step in that. This year it was holding people accountable, not letting things slip, things we may not see as being something that’s that bad or a big change.”
Nix sounded even older, because he is (by 10-plus weeks): “The most important thing is understanding how each individual is capable of being led. . . . Now, as long as I’ve been in college, as long as I’ve played, the guys kind of look to me for certain things. I have that pressure to be the leader. Sometimes I don’t do a great job, and sometimes I have to tell them I apologize, and I’ll do better next time. I try to meet them where they are and go exactly where they need to be, help them with whatever they’re going through. Probably I’ve been through the same thing.”