On Sept. 18, the day after the Colorado football team was routed at Minnesota, 49-7, true freshman Owen McCown was called into the office of head coach Karl Dorrell.
Three blowout losses prompted Dorrell to hand the keys of the offense to his 19-year-old, inexperienced third-string quarterback.
“(Dorrell) just told me the plan and I was ready to go,” McCown said Tuesday when he met with the media for the first time since joining the Buffs over the summer.
Although McCown wasn’t spectacular in Saturday’ s 45-17 loss to UCLA, the Buffs (0-4, 0-1) are sticking with him as they visit Arizona (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
McCown didn’t expect to be guiding the Buffs’ offense this early in his career, but he also doesn’t seem to be fazed by the task in front of him.
“Surprisingly, I wasn’t that nervous; more excitement,” he said. “Obviously I wish I would have played better and wish we came out with the win, but overall, it was an exciting first start.”
McCown completed 26-of-42 passes for 258 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran for a score.
Listed at only 175 pounds, the 6-foot-2 McCown figured he would need some time to develop physically – and that was CU’s plan coming into the season. When veterans Brendon Lewis and JT Shrout struggled, however, the plan changed.
“(Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike) Sanford always said to all of us quarterbacks to be ready with preparation and stuff like that,” McCown said.
McCown didn’t play in the first two games and didn’t get off the bench until 4 minutes, 10 seconds to play in the loss to Minnesota. He was sacked on his first play, but completed 4-of-7 passes for 52 yards and drove the Buffs to the Minnesota 3-yard line before time expired.
“You never know when you can get pulled in there,” he said. “Obviously I got in there and I thought it went good.”
Although taking over this early was unexpected, it was probably inevitable that McCown would get a chance to start at some point in his career, given his background.
His father, Josh, played 18 seasons in the NFL, throwing for 17,731 yards and 98 touchdowns. His uncle, Luke, had a 12-year NFL career as a quarterback. And another uncle, Randy McCown, was a quarterback at Texas A&M in the late 1990s. McCown’s younger brother, Aiden, has taken his former job as the starter at Rusk (Texas) High School this year and is off to a great start.
Growing up around NFL quarterbacks, McCown quickly acclimated to CU, despite not arriving until June. Dorrell was impressed with how fast McCown learned CU’s offense.
“He’s seen a lot of stuff,” Dorrell said. “So, it probably was more just getting familiar with how we call things with things that he’s seen that might have been called differently in other places he’s been. I think he was able to really accelerate his learning, just because of familiarity with concepts.”
Still, McCown was a late bloomer in high school. As a freshman and sophomore, he played at Myers Park (N.C.) High School, where he was a backup to Drake Maye, now the starter at North Carolina.
As a junior, the family moved to Rusk and McCown became the starter, with mixed results. Last year, he blossomed, throwing for 3,362 yards, 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions while rushing for 371 yards and 11 touchdowns.
This summer, he came to CU intent on being ready when needed.
“It really wasn’t that bad,” he said of learning the offense. “I just pushed myself hard every day to learn it and stay ready.”
Lewis and Shrout have responded to Dorrell’s decision by taking McCown under their wing, he said.
“They’ve been awesome,” McCown said. “They both came to me and any way they can help me they said they want to do it. It means a ton.”
McCown also had the fans behind him Saturday and he earned some respect from teammates because of his poise against UCLA.
McCown has been around the game long enough, however, to know it won’t be smooth sailing – and it hasn’t been to this point. He had two costly turnovers against UCLA and was sacked five times. But, he got up after every play and went on to the next.
“Dad always said whenever you get knocked down, get back up,” he said. “I think that’s just kind of the mentality I’ve had my whole life.”