August 10, 2007

The position battles to watch


If competition truly does improve performance - as many football coaches suggest - then quarterback John David Booty might not be Southern California's only Heisman Trophy candidate.

C.J. Gable could be one, too.

Or Chauncey Washington. Or Emmanuel Moody. Or even Joe McKnight.

Tailback at USC has long been one of college football's most glamorous positions. Five Heisman Trophy recipients and three Heisman runners-up can be counted among the lineage. This year, the Trojans' backfield has accumulated more blue chips than Doyle Brunson.

With 10 players who were nationally ranked tailback prospects on the roster, the fight to earn playing time in USC's backfield appears to be the nation's most intriguing position battle.

However, it's by no means the only one.

Quarterback competitions are raging from Oregon to Miami and several places in between, including South Bend, Ind. Jimmy Clausen, the country's No. 1-ranked prospect, is challenging to become the first true freshman to open the season as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.

Still, the sheer numbers, great talent and history of the position make the USC tailback competition No. 1 on our list.

If that competition enhances the level of play, then the starter in September could be a Heisman contender in December. Position battles to watch
1. USC tailback
The USC depth chart could supply an entire conference with starting tailbacks, so predicting who will emerge as the Trojans' starter is like betting on the Kentucky Derby - there are a lot of thoroughbreds from which to choose. The USC roster boasts 10 tailbacks who were rated four- or five-star prospects, including C.J. Gable, Chauncey Washington and Emmanuel Moody, who were all starters at some point last season. Freshman Joe McKnight has already distinguished himself in camp and won't be easily kept on the sideline.
2. Notre Dame quarterback
Evan Sharpley, Demetrius Jones and Jimmy Clausen have combined to throw two collegiate passes. Does coach Charlie Weis hand over the keys to Sharpley, a junior who has been in the program two years? What about Jones, a scout team star last season? Will it be Clausen, the heralded freshman who was the nation's top-rated prospect? He'll probably go with Clausen, but when?
3. Florida State quarterback
The topic of whether Drew Weatherford or Xavier Lee should start for the Seminoles is hotter than Tallahassee in August. Weatherford has more experience. Lee is more explosive. Neither could win the starting job in the spring, and the competition likely won't be decided until the week of the season-opener. Also, watch out for redshirt freshman Christian Ponder, who has drawn praise of late.
4. Louisville cornerback
The Cardinals have very realistic national championship hopes, but their shaky pass defense appears to be the main threat to those aspirations. Louisville ranked 80th nationally in pass defense last season, and that was with All-Big East pick William Gay one on corner. Rod Council, who started three games in '06 will hold down one side. Junior Bobby Buchanan and newcomer Woodny Turenne, rated the nation's top junior college transfer, are vying for time on the other side.
5. West Virginia cornerbacks
Coincidentally, the primary threat to the Mountaineers' championship quest is similar to Louisville's. In fact, West Virginia's secondary is more of an issue because it ranked 109th nationally in pass defense and allowed 17 touchdown passes last season. Antonio Lewis, Vaughn Rivers and Larry Williams all started at least seven games at cornerback a year ago. At least one of them won't be in the starting lineup when the Mountaineers open the season.
6. Miami quarterback
Neither senior Kyle Wright, a two-year starter, nor junior Kirby Freeman - who performed well when Wright was injured at the end of last season - has established himself as the clear leader in that competition. "Believe it or not, their numbers are almost identical with completions, incompletions, touchdowns, interceptions, everything else," offensive coordinator Patrick Nix said.
7. Oklahoma quarterback
OU is one of two teams to capture a national championship while starting a freshman quarterback (Jamelle Holieway in 1985). The Sooners may try to duplicate that feat this year with redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, or perhaps true freshman Keith Nichol. The Sooners offense is loaded everywhere else, so the quarterback just has to prove capable of managing the game.
8. Florida cornerbacks
An emphatic position of strength for the Gators in last season's national championship run, cornerback is now an area needing an upgrade. As many as four players could vie for the starting job opposite sophomore Markihe Anderson. Wondy Pierre-Louis has drawn praise and may be the early leader for that job, but Markus Manson, redshirt freshman Jacques Rickerson and true freshman Joe Haden will also challenge for starting status. Manson did receive some playing time last season.
9. Georgia cornerback
The loss of Paul Oliver left the Bulldogs needing to fill two holes in the secondary. Bryan Evans may provide the spackle on one side, but he has already pulled a hamstring in fall drills. Senior Thomas Flowers - who is coming off a foot injury - has stepped in for Evans. When Evans returns, Flowers will vie for time on the other side with sophomores Asher Allen and Prince Miller.
10. Ohio State quarterback
Strong-armed passer Todd Boeckman has an edge in the competition to become the successor to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith. But stronger-armed Rob Schoenhoft isn't far behind. The depth chart could be quickly altered if Boeckman falters.
The Rivals five
Here's a look at five position battles that aren't as high-profile, but still highly competitive.
Oregon State quarterback
The competition in Corvallis doesn't feature big-name prospects, and they aren't looking to step in for a Heisman Trophy winner. However, drop-back passer Sean Canfield and mobile junior college transfer Lyle Moevao are vying to replace Matt Moore. The starter will direct an offense which averaged almost 28 points a year ago.
UCLA offensive tackle
Aleksey Lanis was a starter last season, but injuries slowed him down in the spring. That enabled senior Brian Abraham, who was excellent in the spring game, to take over the starting job at right tackle. Though listed as the top backup at both tackle spots, Lanis still has the chance to regain a spot in the starting lineup.
Tennessee receivers
Having lost their top three receivers from 2006, the Volunteers are seeking new targets for Erik Ainge. Veterans Quintin Hancock, Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers combined to catch just 21 passes last season. Their production should increase, but to guarantee that will require beating out freshman Brent Vinson, a five-star prospect, and five-star junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal.
Texas A&M guard
The Aggies anticipate fielding their best offensive line since Dennis Franchione arrived in College Station. A&M averaged more than 397 yards per game in 2006, and it returns four of five starting linemen. Chris Yoder and Michael Shumard are competing for the one vacant spot up front.
LSU running back
Having lost a quarterback and two receivers who were first-round picks in the NFL Draft, the Tigers figure to be more dependent on their running game. Even though Alley Broussard recently opted to leave the program, LSU still has a lot of talent in the backfield. Keiland Williams rushed for 107 yards in last season's Sugar Bowl victory and looks like the early starter. However, redshirt freshman Richard Murphy has drawn rave reviews in practice and he's predicted to have a "break out" year. Whether that translates to "breaking in'' to the starting lineup remains to be seen.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at

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