When Plan B becomes a winner: A history of the backup QB and championships

Backup QB-Jake Fromm-Georgia-Rose Bowl
Jacob Eason (right) and Jake Fromm await kickoff of Georgia's game against Notre Dame. Fromm was Georgia's Plan B entering the season.

LOS ANGELES – A highly regarded quarterback goes down with an injury. A freshman replaces him, and behind his own grit, and a great defense, leads the team to a championship. That was the story … for Oklahoma.

It was 1985. Troy Aikman was the highly regarded quarterback who got hurt. Jamelle Holieway was the precocious freshman thrust into duty and remains to this day the only true freshman quarterback for a college football national champion.

Jake Fromm hopes to repeat history when he leads No. 3 Georgia against No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on Monday in the first of two national semifinal games. The offensive coordinator for the 1985 Oklahoma team, Jim Donnan, has watched the Bulldogs this season from his home in Athens and noted the parallels.

“I think certainly the experience that’s necessary to play quarterback is really, as someone who’s coached them for 40 years, that’s definitely important. But I would take talent over experience any day,” Donnan said.

It also helped, as Donnan pointed out, that Oklahoma had a great defense, led by Brian Bosworth, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker that year (Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith won the 2017 Butkus Award).

Aikman, unlike Jacob Eason, wasn’t cleared to return until the Orange Bowl. By that point, the Sooners had redesigned their offense into a wishbone for Holieway and had won seven straight games. Aikman transferred to UCLA after that season.

Before taking over at Georgia, Jim Donnan had a freshman quarterback take him to the Division I-AA national title game at Marshall in 1992.  The Thundering Herd won. (AP/file photo)

Donnan, who went on to coach at Marshall and then Georgia, recalls the way that Oklahoma team responded to Holieway, and the parallels to Fromm are hard to miss.

“From day one the kids liked him, he’s a lot like from what I’ve read, Jake is …. He blended in very nicely, very quickly with the players, and earned their respect with what he’s doing. A very mature guy, leader.”

That’s the way Fromm’s teammates talk about him now.

Junior receiver Terry Godwin recalled Fromm, during spring and preseason meetings, being the player always asking questions. And not in the annoying teacher’s pet way. The way that impressed his veteran teammates.

“In every meeting. Team meetings, offensive meetings, anything,” Godwin said. “Like we all knew that he was going to be that guy to ask questions to learn, to figure out what the coach is thinking so he can try to think like the coach. And that’s what we’ve got on the field, basically a coach back there at quarterback.”

Fromm ended up being named the SEC Freshman of the Year, an unexpected turn this season for this Georgia team, expected to be led by Jacob Eason.

“Yeah it’s weird to think about it like that because you just don’t think that’s going to happen,” Georgia senior tailback Nick Chubb said.  “But something like that happens, and we’re ready for it.”

Other teams have had to pull off similar adjustments.

The most famous such case in all of football is Tom Brady. Then a second-year player and an unknown, Brady was thrust into the New England Patriots starting role on Sept. 23, 2001, after longtime starter Drew Bledsoe was injured. Brady played so well and the team kept winning, so the Patriots stayed with Brady all the way to the Super Bowl win.

Then there was Jeff Hostetler, who replaced an injured Phil Simms as the New York Giants’ starter late in the regular season in 1990 and ended up guiding the Giants to a Super Bowl victory.

At the college level, the first champion in the College Football Playoff era ― Ohio State ― was led by a quarterback the team hadn’t planned on having: Cardale Jones, who didn’t become the starter until the Big Ten Championship Game following an injury to J.T. Barrett, who himself was only starting because expected starter Braxton Miller was hurt during the preseason.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts nearly became the second true freshman to win a national title last year, but he was edged out by Deshaun Watson’s late heroics for Clemson. The year, before Alabama won the title behind senior Jake Coker.

The scenario also happened again for Donnan a few years later when he was the coach at Marshall. His starting quarterback went down early in the season, thrusting freshman Chad Pennington into the starting role, and he guided Marshall back to the Division I-AA championship game, which the Thundering Herd lost by a field goal.

“I can speak here from personal background,” Donnan said this week. “You can do it with a freshman quarterback.”

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