What expectations fans should have for new Gators QB Emory Jones is clearly on Gator Nation’s minds. It was the one question that came up over and over when I requested questions for a mailbag, so much so that I decided to take a deeper look.
Jones is a dual-threat QB from Frankin, GA and was ranked as the 85th best player in the 2018 recruiting class by the 247Sports composite ranking. He clearly has physical tools and experience in an offense that lends itself well to immediately stepping in to run Dan Mullen’s offense.
But how likely is that to happen? How often do QBs rated as high as Jones typically step in to make an immediate impact?
Measuring true freshman QB performance of recruits ranked 50-100 nationally
To examine this, I looked at QBs ranked between 50 and 100 in the 247Sports composite from 2007 to 2017. I chose these limits because Jones’ national ranking of 85 falls well within that bin, and it encompasses players who are not considered “can’t miss” prospects but who are expected to be very good players.
The data is not altogether encouraging. The chart below shows the average stats for the 37 players who fit in this category as freshmen, their first playing time, their first major playing time and their careers.
Only 41 percent of the players examined in this study actually played their true freshman seasons. Of those, only seven threw more than 100 passes that season. Those players weren’t any better than the players who had spot duty, averaging a QB rating of 122.2 vs. 122.4.
There are familiar names on the list of players who started as true freshman (Teddy Bridgewater, Tyler Bray, Jake Browning, Jake Heaps and Drew Lock). There are also some less familiar names as well (Rob Bolden, Jake Bostick).
The best true freshman season performance belonged to Bray, who started the season on the bench and got limited duty in losses to Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina before being handed the reigns in the ninth game against Memphis. Bray proceeded to average 309 yards passing per game with a completion percentage of 56 percent.
The worst season performance belonged to Lock, who completed just 49 percent of his passes with 4 TD and 8 INT. That was good for a QB rating of 90.5. Lock has improved considerably in his sophomore and junior seasons, but his performance is the floor for players of this pedigree in their true freshman season.
The concerning thing for me is that the averages shown in the chart indicate that on average players ranked between 50-100 nationally are just average. In 2016, Gators QB Austin Appleby produced a QB rating of 128.0, and that’s pretty much what the stats say is the average performance we should expect from a true freshman starter, but also from the average career for one of these players.
The best-of-the-best from the 50-100 nationally ranked QBs
But perhaps you would say that this isn’t a great comparison. After all, what if Emory Jones is special, particularly within Dan Mullen’s offense?
Well, that may be true. And overall, that means that the Gators will get very good performance from the QB position.
The above chart shows the career stats for the best players from the 50-100 nationally ranked QBs from 2007-2017. The first three were all drafted into the NFL, while Browning is still at Washington for his senior season but likely will be drafted.
More important than draft status, these players all put up career numbers that were fantastic. Penn State’s Trace McSorley was 13th in the FBS in 2017 with a 153.7 QB rating. These guys were close to that or exceeded it for their careers. Also note the completion percentages, which I’ve shown previously correlate to excellent QB play.
I mention completion percentages because though these players didn’t put up otherworldly numbers their first season playing meaningful snaps in college, they did show accuracy that would translate for their careers. The completion percentage for these four in their first meaningful snaps was 64.8 percent versus 66.8 percent for their careers.
This has pretty broad implications when predicting who should be the Gators QB in 2018 and what kind of return to expect from Jones. A narrative has emerged that Jones may get some time to develop because the coaching change to Dan Mullen will improve Feleipe Franks’ development.
But what these numbers indicate is that elite QBs are really good when they enter college. Perhaps development takes them from good to elite, but to expect coaching to take a QB from a substandard performance (113.3 QB rating) is just not something that happens often at all.
This is true not just for players who have elite careers, but elite first seasons as well.
The above chart shows the top-4 seasons from players ranked between 50-100 nationally the first time they got more than 100 attempts. McCarron actually makes both the career and first season lists. Again, accuracy is a theme, as the top-3 players are all over 66 percent while Bray had accuracy issues, perhaps portending that he wouldn’t play much better in any of his subsequent seasons.
Predicting who will be the top QBs
So if accuracy is the most important factor to look for early on to project career success, is there a way to know whether a QB will be accurate before he’s thrown a college pass? If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, you know that I think the answer is yes.
High school stats can sometimes be hard to come by, but I was able to find them for each of the QBs on these lists except McCarron. Of them, Renner and Hundley outperformed their high school completion percentages by around 6 percent. But Bray, Bridgewater and Browning were all right in line.
This clearly indicates that it is possible for a QB will outperform his high school stats. But based on my previous work, I don’t think it’s something you necessarily want to count on.
I do think that we can conclude that Feleipe Franks is not likely to develop into an accurate QB. His completion percentage in high school was the lowest on this chart, and his first year shouldn’t give confidence that he’s going to be able to complete a higher percentage in college.
Emory Jones’ high school profile actually looks very close to that of both Hundley and Bray. But it’s also similar to Cal’s Davis Webb, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson and Pitt’s Nathan Peterman.
If Florida wants a sure-thing at QB, I believe they have that player on the roster already, but it may not be Jones. Sophomore Kadarius Toney completed over 70 percent of his passes in high school with significantly more attempts than Jones. I’m going to keep beating this drum until he graduates, but Toney needs to get a shot.
This isn’t to say that Jones isn’t going to be an excellent player. He certainly could be. But that’s the problem trying to project how he’ll play. There are just as many players who have his profile who have struggled as have excelled.
Looking at players who have been ranked similarly nationally coming out of high school doesn’t really clear up the picture much at all. Of the 37 players examined, 8 (21.6%) have not exceeded 100 pass attempts in a season and 15 (40.5%) have not exceeded 10 career TD passes.
For every A.J. McCarron there’s a Jake Heaps or Willy Korn.
The good news is that the data suggests we’ll know right away. If Jones starts and is going to be elite (i.e. greater than 65% completion), we should know after his third start against Tennessee.
The accuracy that McCarron, Bridgewater and company showed was apparent after three games, as were Bray’s struggles with accuracy. Hundley and Renner immediately came out and amassed completion percentages higher than their high school numbers the first chance they got to play.
All of this to say that none of us have any clue how good Emory Jones will be. History indicates that he’s unlikely to be a strong contender for a Heisman Trophy. History also indicates he’s almost as likely to not attempt 100 career passes as he is to put up significant career numbers.
The only thing the data says it that we’ll know for sure really quickly.
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