College football now exists in an era of free agency, especially for quarterbacks. QBs sign on with new schools — not for money, but in search of playing time.
One theory so many head coaches waited until the last minute to name a starting quarterback for their openers – Alabama’s Nick Saban, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Texas’ Charlie Strong among them – has been to minimize the prospect of a quarterback transferring out. They kept their QBs in the dark until the season started.
This new era, aided by NCAA legislation that allows graduates to transfer with immediate eligibility, has especially impacted this week’s battle for an opportunity to establish college football supremacy in the state of North Carolina.
North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley, a kid from Phoenix by way of Boise State, and East Carolina’s Philip Nelson, a kid from Mankato, Minnesota, by way of Minnesota and Rutgers, will have a lot to say about which program can take advantage of No. 22 North Carolina having lost its opener to No. 18 Georgia.
The footing to climb the Tar Heel stepladder is visible.
The roundabout paths of Finley and Nelson collide Saturday in a non-conference game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Both made their debuts last week impressively leading new teammates.
The Wolfpack beat William & Mary 48-14, while East Carolina defeated Western Carolina 52-7. Their opponents were inferior to Georgia, of course, but what encouraged both schools’ coaches was the command their QBs demonstrated.
Finley, making his first start since a season-ending injury in Boise State’s third game last year, was 17-of-21 passing for 174 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Finley arrived as a graduate transfer in May and won the starting job in fall camp. He followed Eli Drinkwitz, his offensive coordinator at Boise State until he took the N.C. State job in January.
Although Finley didn’t participate in spring drills, he had an advantage in fall camp. He knew the offense, while redshirt sophomore Jalan MClendon and redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers had to learn Drinkwitz’s scheme.
“I thought (Finley) looked really comfortable,” said N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren. “He got guys where they needed to be. He had good checks; he was doing exactly what Eli wanted him to. With the exception of a couple plays, I thought he played pretty smart.
“Sitting in our meetings and hearing him being coached, the things that Eli stressed you could see it coming out in his play. That’s what I wanted to see. The lights didn’t faze him at all, which was great.”
Nelson, who started for the first time in three years, was 28-of-32 for 398 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
He began his career at Minnesota, starting the final seven games as a true freshman in 2012 and nine as a true sophomore in 2013. He left for Rutgers when he lost his job to Mitch Leidner, who remains the Gophers’ senior starter in 2016.
But Nelson never played at Rutgers following an off-season arrest from a bar fight in his hometown. Rutgers dismissed him, but when his charges were reduced to a misdemeanor, East Carolina accepted him in 2015.
Nelson ran the scout team last year, but he asserted himself as a team leader during off-season workouts and fall camp. Two East Carolina quarterbacks read the writing on the wall and transferred out. Blake Kemp left for Northern Arizona in before spring drills and Kurt Benkert to Virginia after spring drills.
“We knew Phil was going to be special and was going to be ready,” said new East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery. “It has been a long time since he played. We had a whole lot to worry about outside of Phil, and he handled his emotions and dealt with them all week. He prepared all week. I wasn’t shocked.”
With 1-0 records, both coaches look ahead to a non-conference game with statewide significance.
N.C. State is trying to play its way out from the shadow cast by North Carolina, the ACC Coastal defending champion.
East Carolina is attempting to rebrand itself as a state-wide program outside the ACC umbrella that fragments fans among four state schools, North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest.
With the college football free agency trend, both schools have turned to a quarterback who believes he has found a new home.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055