Sonny Cumbie has had to rely on freshmen quarterbacks before in his coaching career and that experience might serve him well in 2021 with the Texas Tech football program.
There was once a time when the thought of throwing a freshman into the fire at quarterback would make college offensive coordinators tremble in terror. But as the high school football world has evolved into a year-round passing camp, young quarterbacks are arriving on campus more ready than ever to play immediately.
In 2021, it is looking more and more likely that the Texas Tech football team may have to turn to a freshman to lead the offense, especially now that veteran QB Alan Bowman has left the program. But the good news is that already twice in his coaching career, new offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie has navigated seasons with a freshman starter at QB.
The first came in 2013 when Cumbie was Kliff Kingsbury‘s offensive coordinator. That year, an offseason injury to presumed starter Michael Brewer forced the Red Raiders to turn to a pair of true freshmen in Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield to take every snap of the regular season.
Still, Tech finished 8th in the nation in total offense at over 511 yards per game. And when it came to passing yards per game, Cumbie and the Red Raiders were second in the nation at 392.8 per game.
What was also impressive was that the offense didn’t bog down despite the fact that Tech had to switch starting QBs multiple times due to injury and the occasional ineffectiveness of one of the two freshmen passers. And through it all, both Webb and Mayfield completed over 60% of their passes with each having a pass efficiency rating north of 127.
Now, many people are quick to give all the credit for that season’s success to Kingsbury, who was certainly the mastermind of the offensive gameplan and who worked more closely with his QBs than your average CEO type of head coach a la Matt Wells.
That fact wasn’t lost on Cumbie who left after that season to be a co-offensive coordinator and QBs coach at TCU where he believed he would have more influence on the offense. And by 2019, he was the only OC in Forth Worth.
That year, the Frogs had their own QB turnover leading to the promotion of true freshman Max Duggan to starting QB early in the season. But that season’s TCU offense was not quite as dynamic as the 2013 Texas Tech offense was.
In fact, Cumbie’s offense ranked just 62nd in the nation in yards per game at a touch over 400. And when it came to passing yards, the numbers were even worse as the Frogs ranked just 97th at 196.3 per game.
What we must remember is that Duggan was an extremely coveted recruit in 2019. Rated by 247Sports as the No. 5 dual-threat QB in the nation and a 4-star prospect, he held offers from the likes of Nebraska, Arizona State, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and a host of other programs. In other words, it wasn’t as if Cumbie was having to work with a talent-deprived freshman that year.
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Still, Duggan was not great when it came to throwing the football in his first year as a starter. He averaged just 179.5 yards per game through the air as the Frog offense was certainly the team’s weakness. What’s worse, he threw for only 15 TDs while being picked off 10 times.
But to Cumbie’s credit, he managed to find a way to compensate for Duggan’s lack of passing acumen. That season, it was actually Duggan’s legs that proved to be his saving grace. Carrying the ball 130 times, he racked up an additional 526 yards and six scores.
So what does all of this have to do with Texas Tech in 2021? Well, the truth is that there are similarities between the freshmen Cumbie has worked with in the past and the two that could realistically win the starting job this fall.
Assuming that Henry Colombi is not a legitimate option to start this season given that he got his shot in 2020 and couldn’t keep his hold on the job, right now, the two leading candidates for the starting job are redshirt freshman Donovan Smith and true freshman Behren Morton, both of whom will participate in spring football this year.
Smith, the former 3-star signee from Frienship High School in Wolfforth is back after missing all of 2020 following shoulder surgery might be cut from a similar cloth as Duggan in that his legs might be his greatest weapon at this point in his career. Remember that he played wide receiver until moving to the Frienship ISD as a senior where he would have his only season as a starting QB.
So should he prove to be the best option at QB, Cumbie might be able to rely on his experience with Duggan in 2019 to help him get the most out of Smith. But it is hard to imagine that Smith will be able to win the job if he can’t throw the ball with greater efficiency than Duggan did as a freshman.
That’s because 2021 signee Behren Morton reportedly is as advanced of a passer as Tech has recruited from the high school ranks since at least Pat Mahomes and perhaps since Graham Harrell. Rated the No. 12 pro-style QB in America and the No. 108 player in Texas by 247Sports, he is the highest-rated QB Tech has signed in the era of recruiting rankings.
Should he rise to the top and earn the starting nod, perhaps Cumbie will be able to open up the offense the way he and Kingsbury did in 2013 with Webb and Mayfield, two future NFL QBs, at the helm. But can Cumbie turn a freshman passer into an above-average college Qb without the help of Kingsbury? That’s yet to be seen.
Keep in mind that Tech will also be scanning the transfer portal and the JUCO ranks for help at the QB position and should a gem fall into their laps, it could change the face of this QB competition. But for now, it appears as if a pair of freshmen are the most likely candidates to lead next season’s offense. Thus, Cumbie will have to rely on his experience with freshmen passers, which could be a huge asset in a year that will be make-or-break for his head coach.