STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Rob Bolden’s poise came through loud and clear over the phone.
The freshman quarterback got a call from his excited mother, Tonia Williams, before starting his first game at No. 22 Penn State. Asked if he was nervous, Bolden replied, “‘I’m OK.’ Just that bland,” recounted Williams, of Southfield, Mich. “Calm down. It’s football. It’s a game.”
His cool demeanor has carried over on to the field, an attitude Bolden will need to maintain Saturday night when the Nittany Lions (3-1) visit No. 17 Iowa (3-1) and the Hawkeyes’ withering pass rush in each team’s Big Ten opener.
Four-plus months removed from high school, the 18-year-old Bolden’s college career is off to a promising start.
“How long do we have,” coach Joe Paterno asked rhetorically to a question about Bolden’s temperament. “He’s a smart kid. He studies the game. In his own quiet way, he’s a strong leader. So (he has) all the things that you’re looking for in a quarterback, except he’s got to get some more experience.”
Bolden has completed 60 percent of his 113 passes for 823 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s rushed 16 times for 45 yards and one score. But what has stood out most is a pocket poise more fitting of an upperclassmen.
When pressure nears, Bolden has often stood tall and waited to find a receiver at the last second before absorbing a blow. It’s part of the reason why, statistically, the Nittany Lions are one of the best teams in the country in pass protection, allowing just one sack.
“Probably the most impressive thing to us, he doesn’t look to be in awe of anything out there. For a true freshman to be like that, that’s awfully impressive,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t think he’s going to be all nervous and all that stuff Saturday.”
Bolden hasn’t been perfect. Five picks through four games would be worrisome for any quarterback. There was progress last week against Temple with his first interception-free outing of the season, though he looked uneven again at times, and some poor throws in part bogged down the offense in the red zone.
Penn State has just six touchdowns on 15 trips inside the 20, with another five ending with field goals. Part of the reason for the red-zone trouble may be that coaches just haven’t opened up the entire playbook as Bolden grasps the system on the fly.
The offensive line, which has struggled at times on the run, hasn’t had good push on some short yardage situations, either. It doesn’t help that Chima Okoli will likely make his first career start at right tackle for injured veteran Lou Eliades (right knee).
“Maybe the play selection has to be a little better, throw a little earlier in some downs and things of that sort,” Paterno said. “But overall, I don’t want to go berserk. I think we’ve got to be solid when we get down” in the red zone.
Bolden also been shielded from the media, with Paterno sticking to his policy of keeping true freshman off limits even with Bolden’s high-visibility job.
But just when Bolden appears to be flailing, he displays flashes of brilliance, like his clutch third-down throws during a 12-play, 96-yard drive which ate up six minutes of the fourth quarter last week and ended with Michael Zordich’s 1-yard TD run for a nine-point lead with 3:35 left vs. the Owls.
Like others in Happy Valley, senior tailback Evan Royster was mildly surprised Bolden was tabbed the starting quarterback over returning sophomores Kevin Newsome and Matt McGloin.
“I didn’t know if the coaches would put enough confidence into a freshman quarterback, but I definitely thought he was capable of it,” Royster said. “He came in and was really fundamentally sound. He’s making the right reads right now, that’s what we need.”
The off-field adjustment to college life hasn’t been that difficult since Bolden lived on campus in high school at all-boys St. Mary’s Prep in Orchard Lake, Mich.
He’s had to get used to raising his voice in the huddle, though, in front of 100,000 fans every week at Beaver Stadium. Teammates joked he spoke in such a low tone in his debut against Youngstown State that they couldn’t hear him over the crowd.
But it’s a role Bolden has wanted to play since middle school. In fact, his mother asked him, six years ago, to write down a list of life goals.
“He knew what he wanted … I’ll never forget,” she said. “To play high school football, then college football, then he wanted to go the NFL.”
If keeps up his development, Bolden might check that last goal off the list, too.