Arms Races: Miami’s pick-prone pair takes it from the top

Inside the fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of ACC Week.

The System. The "pro style" is dead. Long live the pro style!

The aggressive, play-action-heavy scheme favored by ousted offensive coordinator Mark Whipple is out after two years; the quicker, more precise "West Coast" version is in under new OC Jedd Fisch, fresh from a one-year stint as quarterbacks coach with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. Prior to that, in his last stop as a coordinator — at age 34, his only stop to date — Fisch oversaw an attack in Minnesota that finished dead last in the Big Ten in yards per game, points per game and pass efficiency in 2009, failing to top 16 points in five of its last seven games. That was his only year in Minnesota.

Under Whipple, the 'Canes were never afraid to go long, with increasingly mixed results. Which is probably one reason most of the spring seemed devoted to instilling the virtues of "dinking and dunking."

The Incumbent: Jacory Harris. If you're feeling charitable, you might describe Harris as a "gunslinger." If you're not, you might just call him a reckless interception machine: As a sophomore in 2009, Harris was picked off 17 times, more than all but one other quarterback nationally, and served up another 15 interceptions last year despite sitting out three full games with a concussion in November. He tossed four picks in a September loss at Ohio State; his last time out, he threw three interceptions in seven attempts and was relegated to bench for good with a 15.8 pass efficiency rating and Notre Dame sitting on a 21-0 lead in the second quarter of the Sun Bowl. {YSP:MORE}

Prior to the concussion, though, there was no doubt about Harris' grasp on the starting job, and still plenty of optimism over his potential — this was the same guy, after all, whose scintillating start in wins over Florida State, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma in September 2009 earned him some fleeting Heisman buzz. When he's on, Harris is a fearless downfield slinger with great touch, a flair for the dramatic and a bombs-away mentality that made him left him the ACC leader in '09 in overall passing yards (3,352), completions for first downs (166), completions covering at least 15 yards (86) and completions covering at least 25 yards (36).

Job one for Fisch should be figuring out how to get that Jacory — gunslinger Jacory — back in the driver's seat. But how do you fit that guy into a system that calls for a crisp automaton operating on cruise control?

The Young Gun: Stephen Morris. Morris' unexpected debut down the stretch played out like Harris' career in miniature: After a hot start in wins over Maryland and Georgia Tech, he was picked three times in a 31-17 loss to Virginia Tech, accomplished nothing off the bench in an overtime loss to South Florida and picked up Harris' torch in the bowl game with yet another pick on his third attempt, helping the Irish extend their lead. In mid-November, he looked like a star in the making; six weeks later, he staggered across the finish line with an even worse TD:INT ratio (7 touchdowns to nine interceptions) than his interception-prone counterpart.

That was slightly more forgivable, though, in an 18-year-old who didn't expect to see the field at all as a true freshman until just before halftime of the seventh game. Morris took his first step toward winning over the faithful there with a pair of touchdown passes and a touchdown run in a failed fourth-quarter rally after Harris went down at Virginia, before leading the offense on a game-winning touchdown march to beat Maryland in his first start. The following week, he bombed Georgia Tech for 230 yards on just 10 completions in a 35-10 win, before everything turned south.

Even in the debacle of a bowl game, Morris' solid second half was the only remotely positive takeaway from the entire affair, garbage time or no. If it comes down to "potential," Morris has a lot more time to reach his than Harris does, and not much further to go.

The Wild Card: Uh, Spencer Whipple? A former transfer from UMass (and son of ex-offensive coordinator Mark Whipple), Whipple was rewarded with the top spot on the depth chart to open spring practice based on his work in winter conditioning. He closed spring practice back at No. 3, and is only holding on to that in the fall because the 'Canes whiffed on two local quarterback targets, Teddy Bridgewater and Jacoby Brissett, in recruiting.

Whipple's only significant game time to date was a 2-of-6, two-interception flop after Harris' concussion at Virginia last October, which forced the former coaching staff to burn Morris' redshirt in the first place. Head games notwithstanding, if Whipple gets real snaps with the outcome of any game in doubt, something has gone very wrong.

The Smart Money: Morris. The new staff seemed devoted to giving Harris his fair shot to rebound from the flammable finish in El Paso, but do the math: Morris has three years of eligibility remaining to grow within Fisch's offense, where Harris only has one. With both candidates coming from roughly the same place into new system, Harris' one clear advantage — experience — could easily work against him if coaches decide the up-and-comer is the best investment in the long run.

Beyond that, Harris' collapse in the bowl game left him with the distinct aura of damaged goods. In a lot of ways, he was the face of the promise of the Randy Shannon era, a homegrown star who came aboard at the head of a celebrated recruiting class overloaded with homegrown stars, intent on restoring the hometown program to its birthright as a national power after years in the doldrums. Overt time, Harris' struggles dovetailed with his coach's, and with the latter gone, Jacory's baggage and short remaining shelf life could make him less amenable to a clean slate if there's any doubt at all.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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