This time last year, Clint Trickett was an injury-prone, turnover-waiting-to-happen quarterback.
But at least he was a quarterback.
Trevone Boykin was a wide receiver. A good wide receiver. But a wide receiver, nonetheless.
Saturday in Morgantown, West Virginia, Trickett and Boykin will meet again, only this time as college football's arguably two most improved quarterbacks from last season.
Trickett’s unrivaled precision has fueled West Virginia’s unforeseen rise into the Big 12 title picture. Boykin’s sudden penchant for big passing plays has TCU unexpectedly thinking playoff.
“That’s what happens with quarterbacks when they get a little game experience and have success,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who has faced Boykin and Trickett in back-to-back weeks. “Those guys are playing with confidence.”
Maybe with as much as any quarterback in college football. That is crazy to consider when neither was even assured a starting job before the summer.
In the spring, TCU welcomed in Texas A&M transfer Matt Joeckel with the idea of sliding Boykin back to receiver. Boykin had manned quarterback only the previous two seasons, when starter Casey Pachall was out of the lineup. Boykin started out his TCU career as a running back, then eventually settled in at receiver. After Pachall suffered a broken forearm early last season, Boykin took over again at quarterback and struggled along with the rest of the offense. In five Big 12 games with Boykin as its starting quarterback, TCU averaged just 14 points and lost four times.
When West Virginia traveled to Fort Worth, Pachall had returned, pushing Boykin back to receiver. Boykin had a banner game with 11 receptions. But after the Horned Frog offense fell flat in the second half, West Virginia rallied to win in overtime.
“I thought he was an awesome receiver. I thought he was the best guy on the field last year at receiver,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “Boykin started two years ago in Morgantown at quarterback as a true freshman and beat us here. I thought he was a pretty good player then. So he's just a tremendously talented kid.”
This season in TCU's new uptempo, wide-open scheme, that talent has manifested at quarterback, placing Boykin into the conversation of legitimate Heisman contenders. He has thrown for 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. And he’s eighth in the nation in passing yards per game, averaging 329.
“You see how our offense was last year and this year,” said TCU running back Aaron Green. “And it all starts with Boykin. He's playing amazing right now. He has all the confidence in himself and in us. When your quarterback is playing like that, there's not much we need to do.”
Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who watched Boykin toss a TCU-record seven touchdowns in the Horned Frogs’ 82-27 wipeout of the Red Raiders last weekend, admitted he’s never seen a quarterback make such a dramatic turnaround from one season to the next.
“I think he’s the best player in the country,” Kingsbury said. “Just watching him and the way he carries himself this year compared to last year, the way he’s leading, extending plays, putting it on the money, he’s night and day from where he was.
“He’s a phenomenal talent.”
Trickett’s transformation has been almost as phenomenally stark.
After backing up E.J. Manuel at Florida State, Trickett lost the starting job in Tallahassee to Jameis Winston two springs ago. He transferred to West Virginia but was slow to transition into Holgorsen’s cutting edge offense. Paul Millard won the starting job in the preseason, and when Millard was ineffective, Holgorsen turned to freshman Ford Childress next over Trickett. Only when Childress suffered a pectoral injury did Holgorsen finally give Trickett a shot.
“Last year, I had no clue what I was doing,” Trickett said, “and I think it was evident.”
He upset Oklahoma State in his first start but struggled after that. He finished with as many interceptions as touchdowns (seven) and missed several snaps due to an assortment of injures.
The Mountaineers brought in junior-college quarterback Skyler Howard for the spring, which Trickett missed recovering from shoulder surgery. But with neither Howard nor any other West Virginia quarterback standing out, Holgorsen named Trickett the starter in the summer.
Since, Trickett has been a completely different quarterback. He leads the Big 12 with a completion rate of better than 68 percent. He has 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions. And he has Holgorsen’s attack humming again.
“He’s the leader,” said West Virginia running back Dreamius Smith. “He will check a play off that he sees different -- it doesn’t even have to be a call Coach Holgorsen sees -- and it turns out to be the right call.”
Last weekend at Oklahoma State, Trickett capped the Mountaineers’ first string of back-to-back road wins since joining the Big 12 by completing 70 percent of his throws with two touchdowns in a 34-10 win over the Cowboys.
“He’s not making near as many mistakes as he was,” Gundy said. “I visited with Trickett for a few seconds before the game, and I could just tell in talking to him he had confidence. The quarterback at TCU is playing with confidence right now, too. Last year, I didn’t think he played with any.”
The confidence is brimming over now for Boykin and Trickett, who have come miles since their meeting last fall. Two quarterbacks who have taken unthinkable leaps upward -- while taking their teams there with them.