In the midst of FIU’s quarterback woes last season, true freshman Haden Carlson got to do what most freshmen do: watch and learn.
He, along with the rest of the Panthers’ quarterback room — Stone Norton, Max Bortenschlager and Kaylan Wiggins, — was at a crossroad all year, with the coronavirus pandemic sabotaging the offseason and limiting practices.
Carlson wasn’t thrown into the fire once during his freshman campaign, though if the season spanned longer than five games, he likely would’ve had his name called.
“Midway through the season when we were struggling in offense and at the quarterback position, we started giving him some [first-team] reps,” FIU head coach Butch Davis said. “Out of 60 to 70 plays in the course of a practice, we started giving him six, seven or eight. Then the next day, maybe he’d get eight or 10, and then next week he’d get more.”
“If we would have played more than five games last year, there was probably a legitimate possibility that he would have started in a couple of the games.”
Carlson, who enrolled at FIU last August, didn’t have much of an opportunity to prove himself early. After arriving out of Steinbrenner High School (Lutz, FL), his offseason was stripped of spring practices, an ideal strength and conditioning program, scrimmages, and a spring game.
Nonetheless, he covered ground and improved with scout team reps during the season. And his coaches took notice.
“I’m really excited about him,” offensive coordinator Tim Harris told 305 Sports. “When you watched our scout team last year, you saw every reason of why we went out and recruited him. His leadership ability, how he controlled the scout team guys, how he ran the huddle, he had the respect of those guys.”
Carlson, who was ranked a three-star recruit and the 44th pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class, received his only scholarship offer from FIU, despite a senior campaign in which he threw for 2,582 yards, 33 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Coach Davis, who couldn’t care less about stars and recruiting profiles, has seen the talent and potential in Carlson since day one. So much so that he’s reminded of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who’ll be playing in his second consecutive Super Bowl Sunday.
“You hate to make an analogy about any kid, but let me tell you about Haden,” Davis said. “He’s got a little bit of the kid at the Kansas City Chiefs. He can extend plays, he scrambles, he’ll throw balls underhand, over his arm. He’s got the arm, now he just needs the opportunity.”
FIU, a year removed from having two quarterbacks — Alex McGough and James Morgan — drafted in three years, looks to get back to that dominance. Last season, the Panthers’ pass offense averaged a dreadful 123.4 yards per game and ranked 121st amongst FBS teams. And Harris, who’s the longest-tenured coach on the Panthers’ staff, knows what a leader in the quarterback room looks like, and will be looking for similar characteristics from the starter in 2021.
“I’ve have had the opportunity to be here when we had the success with Alex McGough and James Morgan, and one thing that stood out about the both of those guys was the respect that they had from their teammates,” Harris, who was named the OC on January 12, said. “And they gained that respect based on how they worked in our building.”
“That’s what we’re telling our guys now. You don’t gain respect by anything outside of the work that you put in.”
The Panthers are three weeks into their eight-week offseason strength and conditioning program, and Carlson. who’s listed at 6-foot-3, 192-pounds, will have to outperform Bortenschlager, who’ll be a six-year senior, Wiggins, a fifth-year signal-caller and true freshman, Grayson Allen, over the course of the spring.
“Going into spring ball, the focus on competition on a daily basis is going to stay the same,” Harris said. “And that’s starting now. It’s not going to be the first day of spring practice.
Entering year two, Carlson will — hopefully — have a traditional offseason. And he’s already making his presence felt.
“I’ve been watching him in the couple of weeks that we’ve been back, and as he’s going through workouts, you can see that he has a bounce to his step,” Harris said. “I’m really excited to watch him develop throughout the rest of the offseason and through spring football.