of Michigan’s season opener in 1975, Bo Schembechler shocked his coaches, his team, and probably, himself, telling the Wolverines that true freshman Rick Leach would start at quarterback against Wisconsin the following day.
A superstar out of Flint Southwestern High School, Leach had beat out senior Mark Elzinga, who had been biding his time behind Dennis Franklin in 1973-74.
Leach’s debut was inauspicious: 2 completions on 10 pass attempts; 34 yards; 3 interceptions; 1 touchdown. A passer rating of 21.56. But it was also a successful first game because Michigan beat the Badgers 23-6.
Statistically, the season didn’t get much better for Leach but he did lead the Maize and Blue to an 8-2-2 record as the starter under center, and he would only lose six games the rest of his career.
What made Leach’s season so remarkable was its unparalleled equal – he was the first true freshman QB (at least in the modern era) to start a season opener for Michigan. It was a feat that would go unrivaled for almost 30 years, until Chad Henne stepped into the huddle for the 2004 season opener against Miami (Ohio).
In total, only 13 true freshman have ever seen the field for the Wolverines at the quarterback position, and just six have started at least one game: Leach, Rich Hewlett (1979), Henne, Ryan Mallett (2007), Tate Forcier (2009) and Shane Morris (2013).
Who had the best rookie season? Here is a look at the top five based on yards thrown.
Chad Henne, 2,743 yards, 2004: In a pre-Twitter world, Michigan was able to keep a secret until the morning of the opener – quarterback frontrunner Matt Gutierrez had suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp, and in his stead, a true freshman had bested redshirt freshman Clayton Richard to earn the start against the RedHawks.
If Henne’s first game was any indication – 14 of 24 for 142 yards – he would be a mere conduit, allowing those around him to star. Such an early reaction, however, would prove false.
Henne threw for 250 yards or more in four games, attempting 30 passes or more six times. He threw four touchdowns (without a pick), with 273 yards, and completed 68.6 percent of his passes in a heroic triple-overtime win versus rival Michigan State while he enjoyed another four-touchdown, zero-interception game against Texas in the Rose Bowl.
Henne became the first true freshman QB to ever lead a Big Ten team to a Rose Bowl while tying a Michigan school record with 25 touchdown passes.
Tate Forcier, 2,050 yards, 2009: QB Force -- a Web site dedicated to the Forcier family and its three burgeoning quarterback prodigies, and a subsequent nickname for Tate -- took college football by storm the first four games of the 2009 season, as he led Michigan to a 4-0 start in Rich Rodriguez’s second year, throwing for seven touchdowns (and rushing for another two) and 671 yards against just two interceptions.
Forcier was a favorite for the Heisman Trophy a month into the season, and was even playing well at Michigan State until his overtime interception led to a 26-20 loss. Everything seemed to unravel after that – Forcier threw seven interceptions to four touchdowns as U-M went 1-6 in its final seven games.
Overall, Forcier completed 58.7 percent of his passes as a rookie with 13 TDs and 10 INTs. He rushed for 240 yards and three scores.
The rest of his short career at Michigan -- he was gone before the 2010 bowl game -- included off-field academic issues, on-field pouting and one or two reminders of his potential greatness: he led Michigan to a 67-65 triple OT win over Illinois as an injury sub for Denard Robinson in their sophomore year.
Ryan Mallett, 892 yards, 2007: No one else on this list can boast Mallet’s claim as the only undefeated true freshman QB, going 3-0 with wins over Notre Dame, Penn State and Minnesota.
Though he would go on to ruffle some feathers - there was a very public blow-up with Mario Manningham on the sidelines in Madison -- Mallett effectively saved Michigan’s season following a Week-2 injury to Henne, his three-touchdown effort against Notre Dame helping U-M to avoid an 0-3 start.
The following week, he led the Maize and Blue to a 14-9 upset of No. 10 Penn State, throwing for 170 yards on 55.2 percent passing, and he had 233 yards and a score in his third start, a 34-10 over Minnesota.
Mallet’s final first-year numbers – 43.3 percent passing, seven touchdowns, five interceptions – weren’t as boast worthy as his record but were good enough to keep the Wolverines’ season afloat. He would leave with the arrival of Rodriguez, and the new coach’s stubborn refusal to employ a drop-back passing style that would fit his five-star QB’s skill set.
Rick Leach, 680 yards, 1975: As mentioned, it wasn’t butterflies and roses for Leach in Year 1. He completed a paltry 32.0 percent of his 100 pass attempts and has the worst interception-to-touchdown ratio of any starting QB since 1970 (4:1 with 12 picks and three TDs) but this was a different era of a Michigan signal-caller, runners as much as passers.
To that effect, Leach was effective, rushing for 552 yards and five scores (averaging 4.9 yards per attempt) on a team that averaged 320.0 yards on the ground per contest.
In that freshman year, Leach wouldn’t lose a game until THE Game, starting his career undefeated in his first 10 Saturdays, including victories over No. 5 Missouri and No. 15 Michigan State.
Shane Morris, 261 yards, 2013: The lefty appeared in just three games as a true freshman, starting Michigan’s bowl game against Kansas State after starter Devin Gardner broke his foot in the season finale vs. Ohio State. In that affair, Morris completed 63.2 percent of his passes for 196 yards, with two picks.
He failed to throw a touchdown pass despite 47 attempts in his rookie year – the only QB in U-M history to have at least 25 passes in a season without a TD toss – which was a sign of things to come; Morris threw 92 career passes without one ever resulting in an end-zone celebration.
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