Miami Hurricanes coach Mark Richt knew he needed to make the move but wasn’t sure how to handle the uncomfortable conversation that would follow.
How does he tell Malik Rosier, the fifth-year senior in the midst of his second season as the Hurricanes’ starting quarterback, that he’s being replaced by redshirt freshman N’Kosi Perry?
“It’s not easy news to deliver,” Richt said. “It’s not easy news to take.”
It was, however, a decision that had to be made. Richt and the coaching staff had seen enough progress from Perry, the former four-star dual-threat quarterback from Ocala, that they couldn’t justify keeping him on the bench any longer.
So like that, Rosier went from the veteran starter with a 13-4 record who just a year ago led Miami to appearances in the ACC Championship Game and the Orange Bowl to riding the bench while his protege took over the offense.
“Malik didn’t do anything wrong,” Richt said. “N’Kosi just kept coming on to the point where I felt it was time to give him this opportunity.”
Richt’s decision also follows the model seen by the past two national champions of starting a younger quarterback instead of an established veteran. The No. 17 Canes (4-1, 1-0 ACC) are hoping the switch leads to similar success.
At top-ranked Alabama, Nick Saban benched starter Jalen Hurts in the second half of last year’s national championship game for then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa and watched his budding star lead the Crimson Tide to a 26-23 overtime victory. Tagovailoa has started all five games this year, throwing for 1,161 yards and 14 touchdowns without an interception.
At No. 4 Clemson, Dabo Swinney named true freshman Trevor Lawrence — the top overall prospect in the 2018 recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite ranking — as the team’s starting quarterback last week over veteran Kelly Bryant.
But one benefit Miami has over those national powerhouses: The Hurricanes have no chance of their former starter leaving for another team.
Bryant, who has a year of eligibility remaining, will transfer from Clemson after this year. Hurts, a junior expected to graduate this year, could have left and had up to two years of eligibility left at a new school.
There’s no risk of that with Rosier, who is already midway through his fifth and final season of college football.
Richt’s only risk was making sure Perry was ready physically and mentally to handle the role — similar to how he treats any freshman on the cusp of a major role on one of his teams.
“Once they get more and more comfortable with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it, it’s going to be literally impossible to keep them off the field,” Richt said.
With that in mind, Richt eased Perry into the starting role.
Perry didn’t travel for the team’s season opener against LSU while serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules that Richt said happened “months and months ago” but nevertheless “slowed down the train a little bit” and gave Perry an extra speed bump in earning Richt’s trust.
“It certainly didn’t come overnight,” Perry said. “I had to work on it every single day, every single night. As time went on, it just got easier and easier, practicing good habits. Now it’s natural to me.”
Perry made his collegiate debut a week later against Savannah State, completing 9-of-14 passes for 93 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in the 77-0 blowout.
Perry’ case for the starting job, though, began in earnest two weeks later in the Hurricanes’ 31-17 win against FIU on Sept. 22. Richt’s plan that week was to put Perry into the game on the third drive regardless of the situation and see how everything panned out. Perry completed his first 10 passes for 116 yards and went 17-of-25 overall for 224 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“After the first drive, I was still in,” Perry said. “Then the next drive, still in.”
He’s still in. Perry earned his first start the following week against North Carolina and — along with a stellar performance by the defense — left with a 47-10 win despite an unsteady performance under center (8 of 12 passing, 125 yards, one touchdown, one interception).
It’s Perry’s job to lose now.
“He’s kind of taken over this whole offense,” receiver Darrell Langham said.
As for Rosier, he’s now adapting to life on the sidelines. He’s keeping an optimistic approach and doing what he can to help the team as a whole and Perry individually. He gives Perry feedback after each drive, finding those one or two areas where Perry can improve the next time he leads the offense.
“He’s always been that type of leader, to help me or any of the other quarterbacks,” Perry said. “So, whoever was the starter, I’m sure he would’ve been as helpful as he is right now and as he was before when he was the starter.”
Perry is the starter now, though. How far the Hurricanes go will be up to him.
“More attention is paid to it because it’s the quarterback and that guy is possibly going to be the leader of your offense and possibly your entire team,” offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. “It can be tough at times depending on your situation. I think we’re in a good spot.”