No Penn freshman had attempted a pass in a game since 2013, when future NFL quarterback Alek Torgersen played in a single contest. Yet last season, then-freshman Aidan Sayin attempted 163 passes across five starts.
With the aspiration to reach the NFL and become the greatest QB in Penn history, Sayin just doesn’t have time to waste.
“I wasn't necessarily expecting to play,” Sayin said. “I was just trying to do well on scout, help our defense out, and eventually I moved up the depth chart."
Now heading into his sophomore season, the Carlsbad, Calif. native rides the momentum of a run in which he stepped in halfway through the season to mend a struggling offense. In mid-October, the Quakers were 2-3 and hadn’t managed to reach 21 points for four consecutive games. The team needed something to shake things up, especially with a quarterback – then-senior John Quinnelly – who had been battling injury.
“I just felt that we needed something last year to give us a spark,” head coach Ray Priore said.
So in week six at Ivy rival Yale, the coach called on Sayin to lead the offense, despite his inexperience and, as Sayin points out, his lack of starting practice reps.
"I started, which was a bit of a shock because I was still playing scout team in week four," Saiyn said. "And then week six, I was starting. So it was a bit of a shock, but I was ready for it, I think.”
Though Penn would fall short at Yale by 14, Sayin threw two touchdowns. The next week, Sayin proved himself to be the deserving starter, leading the offense to a season-high 45-point output against Brown and contributing another two TDs.
Penn would lose the final three games of the season, but Sayin gained a wealth of experience that he hopes has prepared him in his role as permanent starting quarterback.
With the starting quarterback job comes the expectation of leadership. Although Sayin’s lack of seniority may dampen his voice among the established crowd in the locker room, his leadership emerges in more subtle ways, according to teammates.
“He's not as vocal of a leader, but I think it almost impresses people even more because he's very focused,” senior wide receiver Malone Howley said. “He's such a gamer. I think the biggest thing is all the receivers trust him so much, whether it's [if] the ball is gonna be there when you need it to be or making the right decisions.”
Whether this style has been effective so far is up to Sayin and his intentions. But the sophomore quarterback is striving to become a more pronounced leader for the team; a goal he says has been made easier by his experience with the offense last season.
Although he’s played with his teammates for a year, Sayin has known Dan Swanstrom – Penn’s new offensive coordinator who describes Sayin as “very consistent” – for a little over seven months now.
In that time, Sayin had to grow his mental capacity as a football mind to adjust to a second new offensive system in just two years.
“His study of the game really, really improved,” Priore said. “And he's always studied, but because coach Swanstrom's offense is really focused on progression reads – you're reading safeties, you're reading corners, you're reading linebackers – you have to be really a student of the game for what we do.”
Sayin also spent much of the offseason at home, where he worked four or five days a week with Jose Mohler, a quarterbacks coach who Sayin has been practicing with since seventh grade as Mohler’s first client.
Together, they worked on a number of technical aspects of Sayin’s game, including his off-platform throws, his off-schedule throws, and his footwork.
“We always just share that we're enthusiastic about development, and any ways he can just continue to build consistent, confident repetition on his timing and shortening up his mechanics and just being more efficient,” Mohler said.
At home in Carlsbad, Calif., Sayin has another quarterback who inspires him forward, though that person happens to be a high schooler. Sayin’s younger brother Julian, a junior quarterback at Carlsbad High School, where Aidan also played, is currently a heavily recruited prospect by the likes of Alabama, LSU, and Georgia.
When they’re together at home, the two brothers, both impressive quarterbacks in their own right, drive each other through a competitive sibling rivalry. If Julian throws a good ball, Aidan knows that he has to match it, or else he won’t hear the end of it until they throw again.
Although they are brothers, their games are each unique. But Mohler, who’s trained both extensively, sees several clear throughlines between their styles of play.
“They're both very comfortable off-schedule,” Mohler said. “When things don't go as planned, you're going to see a very athletic approach from them. They're not going to be the type of kid that rushes for 60-yard touchdowns consistently, but you'll see them scamper for a third-and-eight or make a play with their feet and throw an abstract throw off-platform.”
As his younger brother learns to traverse through the great process of college football recruitment, Sayin enters a sophomore season that holds a great deal of uncertainty – a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive system, and a season to fully prove himself as capable of reaching his dreams.
“I'm looking to win multiple championships, and hopefully set records here, and be the best quarterback Penn has ever had,” Sayin said. “And then also, I want to play in either the NFL or play in Europe, something like that. I want to continue playing football.”
Both Priore and Mohler agree that if Sayin dedicates himself to the game the way he already has, and proves wins for Penn, his dreams could very well be reality.
The clock starts now, though. After a five-start freshman year, Sayin has three seasons – 30 games total – to live up to his sky-high expectations.