Before the moment finally arrived for Josh Rosen, before he was named UCLA’s starting quarterback, before he took his first snap, and before he was anointed college football’s prince-in-waiting, he described his approach to UCLA's quarterback competition.
“I just have to play within myself and not be a hero,” he said.
It's ironic, then, that he’s being hailed as one just one game into his collegiate career. In truth, Rosen was ready for his debut as the Bruins' starting quarterback -- he’d been preparing for that moment for years.
If you’ve read anything about Rosen over the last few months, then you already know plenty about him. He’s an analytical problem solver with an arm to boot. Born and bred to athletic and successful Ivy League-educated parents, Rosen is a chess player on and off the field, a once nationally ranked tennis player, and the first true freshman quarterback UCLA has ever started in a season opener. We know his deep ball is pretty.
But because he’s a true freshman, there’s still plenty of mystery surrounding him.
We don’t know how he’ll react when he throws his first interception, or when he’s sacked five times in a game or when he throws a pick-six because the ball hit off his receiver's hands. All the great ones have had games where it unravels. Peyton Manning had his four-INT game against Florida in 1996. Andrew Luck threw a late red zone pick against California that cost Stanford the 2009 Big Game. Even Rosen’s predecessor, Brett Hundley, came unglued with four interceptions against Cal in 2012.
That game is going to happen for Rosen. Question is, what happens after it does?
That wasn’t a concern last Saturday against Virginia. Rosen was a clean 28 of 35 for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers. He did take a sack. But “that was my fault."
His postgame language was also noteworthy.
“My offensive line kept me upright,” he said. “My receivers caught the ball ... It was a great start to a hopefully very successful season.”
My offensive line.
Make no mistake about it. This is Rosen’s team, and he knows it. He knows his role -- playing within the system and getting the ball to his playmakers. Three times he’s met with the media and three times he’s delivered that identical message with the same maturity and touch as he showed on his 30-yard touchdown strike to Thomas Duarte. It might be Cliché 101, but he’s not wrong.
But brimming beneath that aw-shucks humility is a seemingly unflappable and sharply contrasting confidence that has motivated him to get to where he is today. It’s also the reason during his recruiting process he developed a reputation for being cocky.
Trent Dilfer publicly chastised Rosen at the Elite 11 for his inability to take coaching, which raised a red flag to some of his suitors.
“He was unbelievable in his knowledge of football,” said one position coach from a Power 5 team. “He was unbelievable in arm strength. He did unbelievable things on the football field. Good athlete, had some good quarterback-driven runs on his high school film. The thing we couldn’t get past was he couldn’t take coaching. We read stuff in the Elite 11 interviews. Unbelievable talent, but scared of what he’d do to a locker room.”
This doesn’t surprise Rosen, nor does it bother him. He doesn’t have the calories to burn worrying about what other people think. He's got film to watch.
"There is a difference between confidence and arrogance and I like to think I can sort of dance that line pretty well because if you’re not a confident guy, you’re not going to play well on the field," Rosen said the day he was named UCLA’s starter.
So far, head coach Jim Mora said Rosen has been an apt pupil and model teammate.
“He’s not cocky, I can tell you that,” Mora said. “He might have had a reputation and some of those other coaches might have thought that. But there hasn’t been a single indication to myself, my coaches or any of his teammates of cockiness. Confident, yes.”
And that confidence was on full display last Saturday. From a skill set standpoint, Rosen showed it all off in the Virginia game. He was smooth in the pocket, stood in there, took a few hits and never dropped his eyes. The arm strength, as well as the touch, was evident. He distributed to 11 different receivers and was named the Walter Camp National Player of Week.
“There are things the good lord gave him,” said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “That’s not me.”
Rosen’s performance has caused a few national prognosticators to reevaluate their picks for the College Football Playoff. UCLA’s lone question mark -- replacing Hundley -- has gone from a weakness to a strength in one Saturday.
To those in Rosen’s inner circle, this come as no surprise. Because when the moment came, he didn’t cower. He stood tall and answered all of the questions.