Amidst a season that University of Connecticut football fans will soon hope to forget, they have finally found a glimmer of hope in the form of true-freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh. The Avon Old Farms product started the season as the third string option, but as sophomore quarterbacks Jack Zergiotis and Stephen Krajewski each failed to score against FBS opponents, an opportunity to start fell into his lap.
Anyone who looked at the stat sheet in Phommachanh’s game against Army wouldn’t necessarily figure that he showed much promise as a passer. After all, he threw 26 passes for just 11 completions and 109 yards, but the number of drops by UConn receivers was incredible. There were several times when Phommachanh put the ball right in their hands, but the receivers just couldn’t hang on. Two of these passes would likely have gone for touchdowns, at a time in the game where Army still had their first-string defense in. Although he wasn’t perfect in the air, he certainly was better than his numbers demonstrated.
Once he realized that it would be hard to score through the air when passes weren’t being completed, Phommachanh decided to do things himself. Five minutes into the second half, the freshman broke a tackle and took it to the house for a 38-yard touchdown run, the Huskies’ first score of the year against an FBS opponent. Just before the end of the game, Phommachanh added another TD rush, effectively demonstrating that he is the best runner on the team. He collected nearly three times as many ground yards as the next best rusher, which really should not be the case for your freshman quarterback.
Even though Phommachanh clearly shows potential, there are a number of things that he still needs to brush up on. For instance, there were a few times where a receiver would get open downfield and Phommachanh would take too long to throw the ball, resulting in a dangerous incompletion or an interception. Other times, Phommachanh would roll out of the pocket, unsure whether he wanted to pass or run, which led to wasted plays where there were clear opportunities that he didn’t take advantage of.
These plays come down to decisiveness, which should be resolved with time on the field and in practice with the first team offense. In college football, there is a developmental period for freshman quarterbacks as they get acclimated to the style and level of play. There’s a reason why you don’t see most successful program’s quarterbacks until their sophomore or junior seasons—they take time to develop. It’s why UConn fans can’t reasonably ask Phommachanh to have any true ‘success’ with this team this year. The best we can expect is for growth and for him to be ready to come in and win some games next year.
All told, Phommachanh holds some unique qualities that make him a perfect fit for a team like UConn. His ability to both throw accurately and take the ball himself for reasonably large chunks on the ground will pay dividends for the team as the season progresses. Since the offensive line has been so unimpressive, a quarterback with his set of abilities is critical. If the pass protection in the backfield gets poor and the pocket collapses, Phommachanh has the ability to make big plays happen with his legs, or at the very least get rid of the ball. He showed this ability numerous times against Army, trading sacks for moderate gains, which is essential for keeping drives alive.
One concern that I do have for Phommachanh is his health and the hits that he sustains. There were a few times where Army defenders popped him pretty hard, which is something that needs to be mitigated. For his own sake, the young quarterback needs to learn to sacrifice the potential of a big play and slide. The last thing you want is a Casey Cochran 2.0 situation. Cochran, a redshirt sophomore in 2014, promised to be the next big thing at UConn as a dual-threat QB like Phommachanh. In the first game of the season, he got a little too greedy on the ground and suffered a concussion that ended his career. Phommachanh cannot let this happen.
If he does the right things, slides and gets a bit of help from his receivers, fans will be in for a fun campaign. The pressure is off for this season, so just sit back and watch Phommachanh develop, because he is a stud in the making.