Joey Yellen hasn’t been a college football player all that long, but he already understands the importance of being ready as a backup.
As a freshman at Arizona State, Yellen backed up Jayden Daniels for eight weeks before being thrust into a starting role against USC. That came after not getting much work during the season, as the Arizona State staff wanted to give as many reps as possible after Daniels, also a freshman, beat out Yellen for the starting job in training camp.
When he transferred to Pitt in January, Yellen knew he would be coming in behind incumbent starter Kenny Pickett. He also wasn’t sure that he would get NCAA eligibility for the 2020 season.
That was resolved earlier this week, when the NCAA granted Yellen a waiver for immediate eligibility after transferring. Now, the redshirt freshman quarterback is set on being better prepared to be Pickett’s backup if his named gets called.
“Really, this is nothing new to me,” Yellen said after practice on Monday. “I’m just trying to make myself available if needed, trying to get better by the day, making the most out of the practices, trying to get into the full swing of things with the offense. I’m starting to see it a little bit better now.”
Yellen won’t be handed the backup job at Pitt, as 2019 backup Nick Patti, who played well in limited action behind Pickett, returns, as does as four-star redshirt freshman Davis Beville. The Panthers have a deep stable of quarterbacks, but on Thursday, they got a taste of what 2020 could be like for college football teams.
Several Pitt players reported symptoms that could be consistent with COVID-19 when filling out their medical questionnaires that morning. Out of an abundance of caution, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi sent his players home and had them tested. The tests ended up coming back negative and the team was able to resume play on Friday.
But if that had happened on a game week, Pitt might have been forced to take the field without the impacted players, making the value of a backup all that much more important.
“As far as the coronavirus, that’s just adding an extra layer of craziness to what is already crazy with college football,” Yellen said. “I’m just going to try to be available and be ready if I’m needed.”
The adjustment process going from Arizona State’s offense to Pitt’s has Yellen starting all over again, so his early start enrolling in January will be key to him learning the offense in time to make an impact this season.
“I went from a spread back to a pro style,” he said. “I’m back in a huddle again for the first time since high school. Saying the plays was actually kind of difficult at first. Really, it’s just going through all the motions, seeing all the concepts for the first time, getting the chemistry with the receivers that I’m working with.”
Regardless of who ends up being Pickett’s top backup, Pitt seems poised to have a group with more talent and experience behind the Panthers’ starter than they’ve had in a long time, with two four-star prospects in Beville and Yellen and two players with NCAA starts in Patti and Yellen. In what could be a very strange year, that could end up being a big plus for Pitt.
“The quarterback room has been great,” Yellen said. “Everybody kind of helps each other. Everybody is good friends in there and it’s just a fun group to be a part of.”