Ah, the preseason, where quarterback competitions grab the spotlight.
In Fort Collins, a quarterback battle has been brewing since Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo brought in Faton Bauta, a graduate transfer from Georgia. Bauta has been competing primarily with redshirt junior Nick Stevens, who fought off Coleman Key last year to win the starting job. And as Stevens’ first season as a starting QB went on, he improved and the Rams finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak.
But during the 2016 Spring Game no QB played well in the first half, while Bauta stepped his game up in the second half to throw three touchdowns. Then, Bobo called the two co-No. 1s. Eight practices into Colorado State’s fall camp and not only has Bobo yet to name a starter, but the competition seems to have become even more muddled thanks to freshman Collin Hill’s play.
Hill, a true freshman who came to CSU midway through his senior year in high school, has grown greatly since the spring. So much so that Hill’s pushing for that No. 1 spot.
“There’s no question Collin Hill is part of the competition,” Bobo said during his Media Day press conference on Monday afternoon. “You treat freshmen a little bit different. Everybody always says you treat everybody the same way, but each guy’s different. Not just at quarterback, but all players.
“There’s different ways you critique guys,” Bobo continued. “Some of them like it with a foot up their rear end; some of them need an arm around their shoulder … You’ve still got to hold him to that high standard, because if you’re expecting this guy to possibly be your starting quarterback this year, he’s got to be put in some pressure situations.”
Hill’s a tall (6’3″), strong young man, with maybe the biggest arm on the Rams roster. He has all the physical traits needed to be a starting quarterback at the Division I level, but he’s still a bit behind in the mental department. As Bobo said, “He didn’t know left from right” in spring. Still, Hill’s working diligently to put himself into the conversation.
“He’s responded very favorably,” Bobo said. “I think he’s looser than the other two. The other two are trying to be too perfect, but Collin is still young and dumb enough where, ‘I just see it and I’m gonna throw it.’ The other two guys are probably thinking too much about every little thing we’ve ever mentioned in any meeting. And that’s the thing you guard against as a coach, you don’t over coach.
“Collin is playing with maybe some naive instincts right now, but I like how he’s cutting it loose and letting it rip,” Bobo continued. “If we’re scared to make a mistake, we’re going to turn the ball over … So, our job as coaches, myself and Coach Letson, is getting the guys to go out there and cut it loose.”
And for quarterbacks, there’s a fine line between “cutting it loose” and making the right decision on where to go with the football.
Decision making is a huge part of the quarterbacking position, and other traits of solid starters include arm strength, leadership, knowledge of the offense, mobility and trust of his teammates. Currently for Colorado State, none of the three QBs in question do all of these things better than another.
For Hill, his arm may be the strongest, but his understanding of Bobo’s offense and his willingness to lead as a freshman may be trailing the other two (media isn’t allowed to speak to true freshmen, so we’re not fully sure on his character). Bauta looks to be the most mobile of the three — which would open up things like the read-option and play-action passes — and Bauta, too, seems to be the most willing to be a vocal leader. Still, his arm strength looks to be lacking compared to his competition and his decision making is up in the air like a floating football down the sideline.
For Stevens, the best quarterback of the Mountain West last season, decision making has always been a big question mark. When he threw the interception against CU in the Rocky Mountain Showdown last year, it sent the Buffs to a victory in overtime. Often, Stevens holds onto the ball too long and then forces it into spots he shouldn’t. Though, he steadily improved over the course of 2015, helping the team reel off four straight wins to end the regular season. Also, Stevens’ arm strength is decent and he has the trust of teammates after they all grew together last year.
Of course, the real question is: Who will Bobo and his coaching staff choose?
“That’s part of coaching. We’re going to have to make a decision,” Bobo explained. “Is it going to be popular with those three guys? No. It’ll be popular with one of them. But I do think we’ve had a healthy competition. I do think they help each other. Those two guys, especially Faton with Collin, have really done a nice job of bringing him under their wing and teaching him and coaching him. And that’s what you want.
“Ultimately, these three kids are in the competition for the No. 1 spot, and they want what’s best for Colorado State, but they all want to be the man, which is a good thing,” Bobo finished.
Can Hill win the starting job? He may be a bit of a long shot as a true freshman, but the gun-slinger from South Carolina has at least put himself into the conversation with his superb study habits and practice over the summer.