SCOTT: QB battle at the forefront at LSU

LSU faces the kind of quarterback competition coaches and fans like. One proven quarterback in JaMarcus Russell has proven he can win big games. Another quarterback in Matt Flynn who shown he can do what it takes to win a big game. A third quarterback in Ryan Perrilloux who has only begun to tap into his potential.

 

 

The rest of the SEC should be so fortunate. Aside from LSU, only Auburn, Florida and perhaps South Carolina enter the 2006 season with a solid, proven quarterback running the offense, and even Florida senior Chris Leak still has a lot to prove about his ability and willingness to run coach Urban Meyer's spread option offense.

 

With the loss of quarterbacks such as Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler, Alabama's Brodie Croyle and Georgia's D.J. Shockley and the ongoing questions surrounding the quarterback position at Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, the SEC faces considerable uncertainty entering the season.

 

Throughout the SEC, both new (such as Alabama's John Parker Wilson) and used quarterbacks (such as Tennessee's Erik Ainge) enter the summer carrying the weight of that uncertainty.

 

"It's just a fact of life in college football," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "One of them graduates. You've got to get somebody else ready and that's always an interesting thing. It happens every year to some programs.

 

"Some of them, it works out a little better than others. Sometimes it doesn't."

 

How well those teams answer those quarterback questions will go a long way toward determining who – and who won't – contend for the SEC championship this fall.

 

That said, here's a look at where every SEC program stands at quarterback entering the summer. Well, every team but LSU, of course. Any LSU fan worth his tailgate supplies already knows what's going on with Russell, Flynn and Perrilloux.

 

 

ALABAMA: Just when Croyle helps lead Alabama to a 10-2 season he completes his eligibility and moves on to the NFL as a third-round choice of the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

Alabama coach Mike Shula and offensive coordinator Dave Rader have been grooming Wilson, a sophomore, for the starting job since the spring of 2005. Senior Marc Guillon has experience as a starter and showed considerable progress in the spring, but it's Wilson the coaches want for his strong arm and his ability to move around in the pocket.

 

"The best thing that happened to him was last spring he came in and took all the reps in spring ball too, then," Shula said. "He went through the season and didn't play probably as much as we would have liked him to play but did a nice job when he came in."

 

Now if the Crimson Tide can just get Wilson to cut down on the interceptions that became something of a bad habit in the spring.

 

"In the spring game at the end of the first half, he was 13 of 14 and in the second half he came in and threw an interception and forced a ball," Shula said. "My point is, he's going to make some plays for us, and he's going to make some mistakes because he's young, and he's going to get better with experience."

 

 

ARKANSAS: Robert Johnson lost his starting job to true freshman Casey Dick last fall and Dick played admirably for a rookie, but neither quarterback lived up to coach Houston Nutt's expectations in the spring.

 

"I think there is competition there," Nutt said. "Casey realizes that. Robert closed the gap. But I want to leave things as they are, prove it on the field, starting August."

 

At that point, incoming signee Mitch Mustain, the Parade High School Player of the Year from Springdale, Ark., will be on campus. It remains to be seen if his experience playing for new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn at Springdale will help him compete for the starting job as a true freshman.

 

"Mitch will get an opportunity," Nutt said. "The one thing you'll look for the very first scrimmage is, he'll be thrown in there against a fast defense and let's see how he responds."

 

 

AUBURN: Junior Brandon Cox grew up in the fire as a sophomore and overcame a shaky start by completing .578 of his 306 passes for 2,324 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also emerged as the SEC's second-leading quarterback in both passing efficiency and passing yards per game (218.7).

 

"He's proven he can win. Now he's got to prove he can be a champion," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "That's where Brandon's next step has to take him, to go from a good quarterback to a championship quarterback. That's how you're remembered -- when you can win big."

 

Cox's backup, sophomore Blake Field, won his only start last year against Division I-AA Western Kentucky, but his main competition for the No. 2 job, sophomore Calvin Booker, decided in early May he would transfer to Georgia Tech instead of waiting his turn at Auburn.

 

 

FLORIDA: Tim Tebow is the best quarterback in the history of Florida football. Of course, that's because he's undefeated as a starter and has never turned the ball over or missed an open receiver in a big game. It also helps that he outplayed Leak in the spring game.

 

Other than that, Tebow is just a true freshman with a ton of talent and a whole lot to learn. Meanwhile, Leak is still the starter after a solid spring and Meyer continues to insist Leak will start and Tebow will play a part-time role this fall.

 

However, you can guarantee that as soon as Leak struggles in any way, shape or form, impatient Florida fans will be demanding a quarterback change. The interesting thing will be watching how the coaches and quarterbacks handle the situation.

 

 

GEORGIA: After five years of David Greene and D.J. Shockley the Bulldogs started over with junior Joe Tereshinski, sophomore Blake Barnes, redshirt freshman Joe Cox and true freshman Matthew Stafford competing for the job.

 

Tereshinski heads into the preseason as Georgia's No. 1 quarterback – for now, but Stafford, a top national prospect who graduated and enrolled early and participated in spring practice, played better than the others in the spring game and is likely to improve over the summer.

 

"I really didn't see it as a competition in the spring, especially with those young guys because they don't know what to do yet," Richt said. "They learned a lot. They should have enough of a working knowledge to compete in the fall. If they don't, then it will eliminate them from the race. But they're sharp guys and they've learned an awful lot and they've got all summer to continue to get better.

 

"It will be more of a true competition in the fall rather than what we saw in the spring."

 

Even though the situations remains very uncertain for Georgia, coach Mark Richt doesn't sound all that concerned.

 

"I've done it over 20 years and coaching quarterbacks all that time," Richt said. "You just know they're leaving. That's just part of it. You've got guys that you're getting ready and trying for their opportunity. I don't think I've ever really sweated it much."

 

KENTUCKY: Both junior Andre Woodson and sophomore Curtis Pulley experienced their share of ups and downs in the spring and the starting job remains wide open entering preseason practice.

 

"Both of them are doing some good things, but this race is far from over," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "There's a lot of ground that can be made up in the summer months and in the first couple weeks of fall camp."

 

Woodson, who started in 2005, is more of a drop-back quarterback who must do a better job of protecting the football, whether he's passing or moving around in the pocket. Pulley is more of a raw athlete who brings impressive scrambling ability but must become more accurate and make better decisions in the passing game.

 

"It might not be decided by the first game," Brooks said. "We may use both of them, though that wouldn't be my first preference."

 

 

OLE MISS: Juco transfer Seth Adams and redshirt freshman Billy Tapp both did some positive things in the spring, which is good for them but not real meaningful when it comes to the competition for the starting job.

 

While Adams and Tapp compete for the starting job, incoming quarterback Brent Schaeffer has been the starter since the moment he committed to play for the Rebels. Schaeffer, the former Tennessee starter who left after his true freshman season and spent last fall at a junior college, missed the spring and won't be available until preseason practice begins.

 

"We tried to turn it into a position to see if we can get our second team ready in case something happens to Brent," Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron said of spring practice. "We had a battle there and we still have a long ways to go. The speed of our offense wasn't what we needed and what we expect to have with Brent."

 

In the meantime, new offensive coordinator Dan Werner and Schaeffer are trying to make up for lost time by phone.

 

"We talk a lot," Werner said. "Normally, when a guy comes in from juco or high school, the first day, he doesn't even know how to get in the huddle. But he's going to be way, way past that. It's not a normal new guy situation."

 

 

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Here's a gamble most folks would take: we're betting less than 12 percent of all SEC fans can name the starting quarterback at Mississippi State.

 

No, it's not Wayne Madkin. He's ancient history. Same with Kevin Fant. Not Omarr Conner, who started most of the past two seasons before losing his job and moving back to receiver.

 

It's Michael Henig, a sophomore who finally became the starter in the ninth game of the 2005 season and experienced some painful lessons down the stretch. He also made considerable progress in the spring. Even versatile backup Tray Rutland also showed some improvement before a suspension ended his spring.          "Mike has really progressed," senior receiver Tyler Threadgill said. "We feel like our offense can score with anybody."

 

 

SOUTH CAROLINA: Junior Blake Mitchell returns as the starting quarterback after an inconsistent first season as the Gamecocks' starter. He held on to the job in the spring but redshirt freshman Cade Thompson spent the spring narrowing the gap.

 

In the annual spring game Thompson completed 10 of 13 passes while Mitchell completed 10 of 27 passes and produced the game's only turnover. That wasn't enough to change coach Steve Spurrier's depth chart, but it did give him some confidence in Thompson as a potential starter.

 

"Blake didn't play his best. He knows that. But he's still the starter," Spurrier said after the spring game. "But it was encouraging that Cade says, ‘Hey, if something happens, I can go play.'"

 

 

TENNESSEE: After flip-flopping between Ainge and Rick Clausen throughout the 2005 season on the way to a startling 5-6 finish, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer made some staff changes and brought David Cutcliffe back to run the offense and coach the quarterbacks. Cutcliffe held both roles when the Vols won the 1998 national championship in 1998. Now he's got to find a way to get Ainge back on the right track.

 

"He adds a lot to the staff as far as experience, knowledge of the game and energy and enthusiasm," Fulmer said of Cutcliffe.

 

It remains to be seen if Cutcliffe's return is enough to salvage Ainge's once promising career. Ainge showed plenty of potential as a true freshman in 2004 but lost his confidence and rhythm in 2005.

 

If the spring was any indication, Ainge appears to be headed in the right direction.

 

"It was a strange, strange year, and I think a lot of things contributed to Erik not having the kind of sophomore season we all expected him to have," Fulmer said. "We all saw the talent he had, and I think he is much closer to being that kind of player."

 

 

VANDERBILT: No SEC team will likely experience a more significant drop at the quarterback position this season than Vanderbilt. It's going to be impossible for the Commodores to replace everything Cutler brought to the field as an athlete, playmaker and experienced leader.

 

With Cutler in the NFL, as a first-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos, the Commodores will turn to either sophomore Chris Nickson, who possesses a strong arm and the ability to make plays with his feet, or redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams, another versatile quarterback who brings even less experience and consistency than Nickson.

 

With Nickson limited by a hamstring injury in the spring neither player won the starting job. That means Nickson, Adams and the Commodores have a lot of work to get done before the Sept. 2 season opener at Michigan.

 

"We have to get someone ready to perform against Michigan," Johnson said. "That's what spring practice is all about. We put them in all kinds of situations and see how they react. That didn't go as well as we planned, obviously, because Chris was hobbled just about the whole time. That's still to be determined."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham, Ala. based freelance sports writer and author. Reach him at RScottfree@aol.com.

 

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