But that's exactly what Will Stein has accomplished.
Stein, a 5'10 junior, came to Louisville in 2008 as a non-scholarship player after leading Trinity to the Kentucky state championship. Thursday night, he'll open the 2011 season as Charlie Strong's starting quarterback against Murray State.
"Last year at Rutgers was the biggest game of my career so far with the bowl implications on the line," Stein said. "But being the starter in the opener is definitely the biggest game I've ever been a part of. I'm very grateful these coaches have had trust in me since they came here and believe in me that I can get the job done and help us win."
Stein has played in six career games, starting two in 2009 – Steve Kragthorpe's final season. Last season, Stein appeared in two contests, including the season-finale against Rutgers in which he completed 9 of 14 passes for 72 yards and one touchdown to help Louisville become bowl eligible.
"I'm ready for this opportunity and I know the team is behind me 100 percent," Stein said. "I'm just going to go out there and play my game, manage the team and I think we'll do pretty well."
Though he hasn't played a lot the previous two seasons, Stein has prepared like a starter since arriving on campus.
"I been doing that every day since I got here," Stein said. "When Jeff Brohm was the quarterback coach he always told me I was good enough to play and I bought into that. I've always played with kind of a chip on my shoulder. This is definitely a blessing and I'm ready to take it on."
Stein has played with a chip on his shoulder because he's always heard critics tell him he's too short to play quarterback. Stein, though, never bought into the negativity, instead making the most of his size and talents.
"I've seen too many guys who are 6'5 and can throw the ball 80 yards but can't make a simple read," Stein said. "It's not all about size. I've learned how to play at my size. I've always been short. So it's nothing new to me. People make a big deal out of it, but if you're throwing touchdowns and completing passes who really cares?"
Stein's football instincts and ability to make plays on the run are his strengths.
"I think I can extend plays pretty well," Stein said. "With my size you have to have some different qualities as a quarterback, you can't just sit back in the pocket. So I can move around, make plays. I think overall I'm a smart quarterback. I know how to manage the team. (Quarterback) coach [Shawn] Watson has a lot of faith in me and that's all I need."
What does Stein have to do to be an effective on-field manager for the Louisville offense?
"It (means) managing everything from the pass game to the run game and making correct reads and not playing outside my element, just playing within myself and the system," Stein said. "If you do that….you'll complete a lot of passes and be an efficient quarterback."
Strong has made clear he only needs Stein to manage the game, protect the football and get the ball into the hands of Louisville's playmakers. That means Stein has had to learn to harness his inner Brett Farve, the improvising former NFL quarterback.
"Managing the game is probably 99 percent of it, but there's that one percent where if you see a guy open down the field you've got to make the play," Stein said. "Coach likes to say, ‘Don't be Brett Farve.' That's his quote on me. But sometimes you've got to be that if you want to be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference."
Stein will make the biggest start of his career against Murray State without Louisville's best offensive lineman – All-Big East junior center Mario Benavides, who will miss the game with a foot injury.
"It definitely hurts because he's a huge part of our offense," Stein said. "He's the workhorse up front. But we've got guys who are going to step up and play well. We've moved Alex Kupper back to center, which will definitely help."
Like Stein, Kupper arrived on campus without a scholarship. Kupper, a starter at guard last season, provides his former Trinity teammate confidence under center that he'll be well protected.
"We have a great bond because we went to Trinity and played all throughout high school together," Stein said. "He's definitely somebody I trust. If you don't trust the guy you're getting the snaps from that could definitely mess up a lot of plays."
"I will do whatever it takes to win," Stein said. "I'm a team player and if they feel they need to put Dominique or Teddy in it doesn't matter to me as long as we win. I'm not going to judge the coaches decisions. They know what is best for this team."
If an offensive line that features five new starters provides enough time, Stein has plenty of offensive weapons to get the ball to, including a wide receiver corps that he called the best in his four years at UofL.
"They're awesome and extremely underrated," Stein said. "As a group they can really stretch the field. They're all big, rangy guys and catch just about everything you throw them. We're excited about (Josh) Bellamy, Andrell (Smith) and Michaelee (Harris). You've got (tight end ) Josh Chichester out there and young guys like DeVante (Parker), Eli (Rogers), Jarrett Davis. We've got a lot of guys who can really make plays."
"We have four or five great running backs who are going to help," Stein said. "Vic and Jeremy can make the right reads and plow through people."