February 14, 2011

Monday with Mike: Key QB battles in 2011

The 2010 season ended Jan. 10 and National Signing Day was Feb. 2. So, that means a long wait for more college football, right?

Actually, no.

Believe it or not, the first spring practices of the 2011 season begin Wednesday, when Army and Duke hit the field.

The most interesting spring practices generally involve teams that have a quarterback battle, and that certainly should be the case this year.

Numerous teams look as if they will be just fine this fall as long as their first-time starting quarterback comes through. With that in mind, here's a look at 10 teams whose starting quarterbacks' play could mean the difference between a 10-win season and a 7-5 or 6-6 campaign.

ARIZONA STATE
The candidates: Michael Bercovici (freshman), Brock Osweiler (junior), Steven Threet (senior).
The buzz: Threet started 10 games for the Sun Devils in his first season of eligibility with the team, but his hold on the job is tenuous. Threet threw for 2,534 yards and 18 TDs, and he completed 61.9 percent of his passes. But he also tossed 16 picks. Threet suffered a concussion late in the season, and Osweiler started the final two games, both wins. Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 native of Montana, threw for 797 yards and five TDs, with no picks, in six games; in those two starts, he threw for 647 yards and all five TDs. Osweiler is mobile for a guy his size; at one point in high school, he was committed to play basketball at Gonzaga. Threet still was having concussion symptoms in January and may not be 100 percent for spring practice, which begins March 22. Bercovici, a true freshman, already has enrolled and will go through spring drills, though he's an extreme long shot to win the job. Everything else looks to be in place, especially on defense, for the Sun Devils, which means a competent and consistent quarterback could be the difference between contending for the Pac-12 title and finishing fourth of fifth in the league.
Projected starter: Osweiler.
AUBURN
The candidates: Clint Moseley (sophomore), Barrett Trotter (junior).
The buzz: QB Cam Newton can't be adequately replaced, so look for coordinator Gus Malzahn to tweak the offense to lessen the importance of the quarterback having to make plays. Auburn also will have four new starters on the line and must rebuild the receiving corps. Trotter will head into spring practice as the new starter, with Moseley hoping to show enough to be the No. 2 guy. Highly touted freshman Kiehl Frazier arrives in the summer, and if either Trotter or Moseley struggles during spring ball, Frazier almost certainly will get on the field this fall. The defense had issues this past season, but the offense was so potent that it really didn't matter. This fall, the defense again could be problematic, which means that a rebuilt offense is going to have to score a ton of points.
Projected starter: Trotter.
CALIFORNIA
The candidates: Allen Bridgford (sophomore), Austin Hinder (redshirt freshman), Brock Mansion (senior), Zach Maynard (junior), Beau Sweeney (junior).
The buzz: This could be the most interesting quarterback competition of all for two reasons. One is the number of guys who are going after the job. Two is that coach Jeff Tedford is going to be far more hands-on with the quarterbacks this season after stepping back a ways for the past three seasons. The top three contenders would seem to be Bridgford, Hinder and Maynard, who is a transfer from Buffalo and the half-brother of Golden Bears WR Keenan Allen. Mansion and Sweeney -- the son of former NFL QB Kevin Sweeney and the grandson of longtime college coach Jim Sweeney -- have had their opportunities, but, for the most part, done nothing with them. (Hinder also has a famous grandfather; it's Jim Hanifan, a longtime NFL assistant who also served as coach of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1980-85 and of the Atlanta Falcons in 1989.) Maynard is the best athlete of the bunch and would give the Golden Bears a running threat at quarterback. Bridgford was a big-time recruit who missed last season with a shoulder injury after redshirting in 2009 as a true freshman; he is the least mobile among the top trio. This is an important spring for Cal, which also is looking for a new starting tailback, rebuilding its offensive line and looking for six new starters on defense. Cal doesn't have the luxury of breaking in a game manager at quarterback; instead, Tedford needs a quarterback who can make plays, which Cal hasn't had, really, since the days of Aaron Rodgers.
Projected starter: Maynard.
FLORIDA
The candidates: John Brantley (senior), Jeff Driskel (freshman).
The buzz: Brantley is the incumbent, but he had a poor season in 2010, his first as the starter. Florida ran the spread option offense last season, and Brantley was ill-suited for that attack because he scared no one as a runner. The Gators are moving to a pro-style attack under new coordinator Charlie Weis, and on the face of it, that offense fits Brantley, who set some state records at Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic running a pass-happy attack. But Brantley became gun-shy in the pocket last season, locking onto certain receivers and throwing way too many dump-off passes. Can Weis "fix" him? Driskel was the nation's top high school quarterback last fall, and he enrolled early and will go through spring practice. He's more mobile than Brantley and has a nice arm. But does Florida really want to use a true freshman starter at quarterback? Sophomores Trey Burton and Jordan Reed also played quarterback last season. But neither is a good passer and both seem destined to play other positions. Reed began last season as a tight end, while Burton also played tight end, fullback and H-back last season and could move to safety. Another touted freshman, Jacoby Brissett, arrives in the summer; you'd think coaches would prefer to redshirt him to get some eligibility space between he and Driskel, but that might not be possible. Quarterback is just one of the offensive worries for the new staff. There is no established go-to receiver, the offensive line has to be rebuilt and a feature back must emerge. The defense should be OK, but an OK defense wasn't able to make up for a punchless offense last season and that could be the case again in 2011.
Projected starter: Brantley.
LSU
The candidates: Jordan Jefferson (senior), Jarrett Lee (senior), Zach Mettenberger (sophomore).
The buzz: Jefferson has started for each of the past two seasons, and an experienced senior starter would seem to be a big deal. But Jefferson regressed last season, when he, frankly, didn't look like an SEC-caliber quarterback. He's athletic and can hurt foes on the option, but he's simply not a good passer. Lee started for most of the season in 2008, but he has been way too mistake-prone in his career and would seem to be the third man in a three-man race. That leaves Mettenberger, a JC transfer who enrolled in January and will go through spring practice. Mettenberger began his career at Georgia, in the same recruiting class as Aaron Murray, but he ran into some off-field trouble and ended up transferring. He is a pocket passer, but not nearly as mobile as Jefferson. New coordinator Steve Kragthorpe is known as a solid quarterback coach. Everything else looks to be in place for the Tigers, though their defense has to replace its three best players (T Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson). With that trio last season, LSU lost twice. That means that if LSU has serious designs on an SEC title this fall, it must get more consistent quarterback play.
Projected starter: Mettenberger.
MISSOURI
The candidates: James Franklin (sophomore), Tyler Gabbert (redshirt freshman), Ashton Glaser (sophomore).
The buzz: Blaine Gabbert's early departure to the NFL hurts; he would've been a legit Heisman candidate this fall. Franklin, who was Gabbert's backup last season, looks to be first in line for the vacant starting job. He's a good athlete with a nice arm; his mobility would enable the Tigers to do some different things on offense. Tyler Gabbert is Blaine's younger -- and smaller -- brother. He enrolled early last year, so this will be his second spring practice. He's a passer, not a runner. This will be the third spring practice for Glaser, who enrolled early in 2009. Like Franklin, he's a dual-threat guy. The Big 12 is down to 10 teams, and Mizzou looks to be, by far, the best of the old North Division teams. Whether that's enough for a top-four finish in the league is the question. Mizzou's offensive line should be a strength, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see coaches place a renewed emphasis on the run. The defense should be OK, meaning coaches likely will be fine with a quarterback who takes care of the ball even if he's not necessarily a playmaker.
Projected starter: Franklin.
OHIO STATE
The candidates: Joe Bauserman (senior), Taylor Graham (redshirt freshman), Kenny Guiton (sophomore), Braxton Miller (freshman), Terrelle Pryor (senior).
The buzz: Pryor is headed into his fourth season as the starter, but it's his early season status -- he has been suspended by the NCAA for the first five games for receiving illegal benefits -- that makes Ohio State's quarterback situation worth watching. While Pryor never has quite lived up to his high school billing, he still has guided the Buckeyes to three BCS games and won two of them. He played some of his best football down the stretch in 2010 and would've been on every preseason Heisman list except for the little matter of the suspension. Ohio State is hopeful an appeal means the suspension is cut by one or two games, but the potential exists for Pryor's backup to start five games this fall. Bauserman, who played three seasons of minor league ball in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization after high school, was Pryor's backup last season. He has thrown 47 passes in 24 career games. It's more likely, though, that Graham or Miller will start the opener. Graham's dad, Kent, played quarterback at Ohio State and in the NFL. He probably is the best pure passer on the roster. Miller, a highly touted true freshman, enrolled in January and will go through spring drills. He was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation out of Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne. Pryor had foot surgery last month, which means he could be held out of contact work in the spring. The length of his suspension may play a role in his replacement. Miller has a high ceiling, but do the coaches want to play him when they could redshirt him instead? It would seem that unless he is head and shoulders above Graham and Bauserman, he -- and the program -- would be better-served by him sitting out as a redshirt.
Projected starter: Graham early, then Pryor once his suspension is lifted.
TCU
The candidates: Matt Brown (redshirt freshman), Sam Carter (redshirt freshman), Casey Pachall (sophomore).
The buzz: Andy Dalton, who seemingly replaced Sammy Baugh as the Horned Frogs' starting quarterback, is gone, and he leaves a giant void. TCU has proved it can replace key defenders. Now the Horned Frogs need to prove they can replace the winningest starting quarterback in school history. The battle is expected to come down to Pachall and Brown. Pachall was a big-time recruit in 2009 and is a physical runner in addition to possessing a nice arm. He was Dalton's backup last season. Brown has more speed and also is dangerous as a runner; indeed, he probably has more upside as a runner than Pachall, but Pachall looks to be the better passer. While coaches depended more upon the pass the past two seasons, expect TCU to place a bigger emphasis on the rushing attack this season. An obvious reason is the new quarterback. In addition, TCU is extremely deep at tailback, and it makes sense to play to your strengths. TCU will battle it out with league newcomer Boise State for the Mountain West title. Boise almost certainly will go into the season as the favorite because it returns star QB Kellen Moore. But as noted before, TCU's defense never seems to miss a beat. Thus, if Pachall (or Brown) can avoid mistakes and play consistent football, TCU's parting gift to the MWC could be a league crown.
Projected starter: Pachall.
WASHINGTON
The candidates: Nick Montana (redshirt freshman), Keith Price (sophomore).
The buzz: Jake Locker was inconsistent as a senior, but the Huskies still are going to miss him. Washington will have just two scholarships quarterbacks on the roster for spring ball -- Price, who was Locker's backup last season, and Montana, the son of NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana. Price played in eight games last season, including a start at Oregon when Locker was injured, and is the favorite to win the job. He's more of a dual threat than Montana and can hurt opponents with his legs. Montana was 27-1 as the starter, with 67 TD passes, at powerhouse Westlake Village (Calif.) Oaks Christian. Not surprisingly, Montana is considered a cerebral quarterback who is fundamentally sound. Washington has a solid group of returning skill-position players, most notably TB Christian Polk and WR Jermaine Kearse, and above all needs a quarterback who can limit his mistakes. The Huskies still have some issues defensively, though, which will put pressure on the offense to convert when it has the chance.
Projected starter: Price.
WISCONSIN
The candidates: Joe Brennan (redshirt freshman), Jon Budmayr (sophomore), Curt Phillips (junior), Joel Stave (freshman).
The buzz: Two-year starter Scott Tolzien is gone. He wasn't overly gifted, but he was a good fit for Wisconsin's offensive system. Phillips was listed as Tolzien's backup for most of last season, but he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in November. If Phillips sees any action in the spring, it will be of the non-contact variety. That leaves Budmayr -- who played high school ball with Green Bay Packers OT Bryan Bulaga -- as the odds-on favorite to win the job. Budmayr, who is 6 feet, hasn't played much in the past three years; he missed his senior season of high school with an injury, redshirted as a true freshman, then played in three games last season, rushing twice and throwing 10 passes. Despite his lack of height, he's considered a solid drop-back passer. Phillips is a legit dual-threat quarterback, with good size (6-3/225) and a good arm. Brennan was a solid prep quarterback in New Jersey. Stave is a preferred walk-on who already has enrolled, but he's an extreme long shot. As usual, Wisconsin doesn't need its quarterback to be an All-American. Instead, the Badgers want a game manager who limits mistakes. TBs Montee Ball and James White will be the focal point of the offense, but the defense has some holes and Wisconsin is going to needs its quarterback to make a few plays at key times against high-caliber opponents. Given Phillips' injury and spring status, the decision as to the starter likely won't come until a few days before the season opener. But Budmayr can put a lot of minds at ease with a strong spring performance.
Projected starter: Budmayr.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.




 

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