Anecdotal evidence would suggest that College Football is not new to the whole 'Free Agent' game. Whether it is the Junior College kid who didn't have the grades or commitment out of high school or the RB who didn't get a fair shake at the starting gig, there are constantly opportunities for someone to take a stab at another school. Even so, there does not seem to be a typical ending in either of these situations. Sometimes, we hear stories like Cam Newton, where players redeem themselves, lead their team to a MNC, and snag a Heisman. More often, however, it seems like the story ends in a less than triumphant tone. *coughgregpauluscough*
So, as I read about Danny O'Brien visiting Wisconsin, Penn State, Ole Miss, Vandy, and Connecticut in his pursuit to find a new home due to coaching changes (and the inability to see eye to eye with Randy Edsal), I was reminded of a time a little while back when Nebraska went down the path of free agency to fill the Quarterback spot. Looking back at that story, a person can quickly surmise that there are quite a few negatives to bringing in a hired gun. It is a cautionary tale to any school that believes they can gear up for one last run, create some momentum for the future, or even just establish some semblance of an offense for the young guy to learn under. Either way, in a sport that limits eligibility, it is important to try and weigh out the costs of such a move. Also, we'll try to figure out what the deal with this Danny O'Brien is all about.
Back in 2006, the Nebraska Cornhusker football team was at a crossroads of sorts. Despite having a fairly good JuCo transfer quarterback at the helm, the reality of his lack of depth at QB and his soon to be graduation left the coaches in a bit of panic as to how to find a new deep ball threat to run Billy C's vaunted WEST. COAST. OFFENSE!!! The young QB's just weren't going to be up to speed fast enough, and in less than a year, it would be absolutely necessary to have a QB so talented and smart that Callahan probably knew it was what the whole thing hinged on. Fortunately (or unfortunately as it would end up being) for Nebraska, it just so happened that at about the same time as this need, a new savior was getting fed up with his offensive coordinator, head coach, and time on the bench down in Tempe. This savior's name was Sam Keller.
Keller had potential. Before getting injured his Junior year, Keller threw for over 1,500 yards in a four game stretch including impressive outings against LSU and Northwestern. Unfortunately, injuries really do suck. Realizing that his backup had established a firm grip on the team as a leader and as a good enough QB with a decent amount of upside, Keller decided he wanted, or needed even, a fresh start. With one year left of eligibility, he started shopping himself around and BAM, Nebraska had their man. There would be no need to start a RS Sophomore waiting in the wings, and as Zac Taylor finished up his playing days at Nebraska, Keller became Scout Team Player of the Year (literally).
Well, that ended up probably screwing over Nebraska in the long run. Instead of giving a young Joe Ganz the opportunity to keep learning the offense in real time, the team dealt with an enigmatic QB who was good, not great. This is not to really even knock Keller, who in his one year had a decent stat line considering he came in blind after sitting a year out. Regardless, Nebraska was not able to insert Ganz until game 9 of the season when Keller got hurt (you know, again) and one of the brighter spots in the Callahan era was finally able to work his butt off to get the Huskers back to some respectability. To this day, I still believe with a full year under his belt, Ganz would've been an even stronger Senior QB and leader. That was definitely one of many missteps by the Billy C. contingent.
So why even bring this story up? O'Brien brings a slightly different story to the table considering he can start right away because he was such a diligent student and graduated earlier, and it's not like he had an attitude about leaving Maryland (would YOU stay in that situation?). Even more important, you get two years out of a kid instead of one. In an era where Russel Wilson can be one and done, that extra year is such a huge sell to a school, right? Well, I'm going to be the dissenter here. I know that a lot of papers in areas where O'Brien is considering seem to be high on his skills, but I think that even with good results (remember, Keller broke Nebraska passing records in 9 games), you could definitely be stunting the growth of others. One of the greatest parts about the college game is seeing the progression of 18 year old kids into legitimate football talents. It's one of those crazy things that you don't get to see in very many sports. With basketball's penchant for one and done, baseball's even more obnoxious penchant for not pushing kids to college, hockey's ability to ignore the college ranks for USHL and other high school prospects, and no other heavy professional avenues that are comparable, it is obvious that College Football uniquely attempts to get kids to stay 3 or 4 years in a system. The ones that do that, especially at Quarterback in a pro-ish system, usually shine bright (see Luck, Andrew).
Getting back to O'Brien and the B1G schools (because really, that's all I care about at this point). Both Penn State and Wisconsin probably could use O'Brien as an upgrade. From the reports I've read, Wisconsin is depleted at the position, and Coach Bielema himself knows that this is the surest way to not waste one more year of Montee-ball, but are Wisconsin fans willing to stunt the growth of anyone on their lineup? Is immediate success so sure that instant gratification outweighs longterm viability?
As for Penn State, I also can't blame the staff for wanting a more polished QB. Penn State was a decent QB away from being pretty special on the field last year. With an outrageously good defense, a really good line and RB, and a good enough set of receivers, the Lions had a chance to overcome the distractions off the field with wins on Saturdays. Instead, fans were reduced to a McGloin Bolden mess that made most every other B1G QB not named Bauserman look pretty damn competent. Still, the same adage applies to the Nittany Lions as anyone else. Is it worth bringing in a somewhat known talent with the reality that you are going to stunt the growth of other younger talents on the team? Furthermore, what if he gets hurt like Keller did at Nebraska. Then what? You don't have much time left to get a good ROI, do you? With a new coaching staff looking to establish their system, I guess the learning curve is the same across the board, but I still don't like it.
Lastly, I guess it is important for me to take a quick look at O'Brien himself. He has a great arm and makes really difficult throws, but this was against a definitely down ACC. He is not as athletic as Wilson, and he is not quite as polished of a QB product. While we can blame Edall for many of the issues at Maryland this year, it is also important to note that his statline was atrocious. Not an awful yardage number (1648 over 9 games), but only 7 TDs to 10 INTs is suspect, and a 2-7 record as a starter doesn't inspire loads of confidence. He may be an upgrade to an underclassmen at any school looking at him, but can you honestly say he has a high football IQ? A new coaching staff and him didn't gel, why would that be so different now? I think that if it weren't for the success of Wilson, O'Brien would be getting less love than he is getting at this point.
And I guess it all comes down to this for me. What's the upside? If you're a major BCS school and you're not paying kids to come to school (I'm looking at you Auburn), why would you resort to bringing in a hired gun? Coaching, recruiting, and developing are all parts of the game. Any coach can shoot a pitch to a kid to get him to campus, and most coaches are somewhat competent on gameday, but where the rubber meets the road these days is development. Those who can develop deserve the real monty. If you aren't even trying to do that anymore, then it's time to reevaluate your longterm plans, because it's definitely likely to get ugly.