April 12, 2010
As the old adage goes, there are no more popular players on most teams than the backup quarterback, especially the untenably young backup quarterback, and no more popular argument than the classic quarterback controversy. Nowhere is that more true than in the spring, when optimism is unrestrained, experiments abound, imaginations run wild and speculation is too deliciously cheap to be bound by reality.
It's only here, for example, where a couple of nice scrimmages and some generic praise from the head coach could lead a headline writer at Sports Illustrated today -- much to Nick Saban's surprise, I'm sure -- to openly wonder if sophomore A.J. McCarron had surpassed senior incumbent Greg McElroy, who took every significant snap during the Tide's national championship season and hasn't lost a game he's started since junior high. Or where a couple big plays in the spring game and a possible niche role in the fall could prompt anyone to toss out early-enrolling freshman Trey Burton as a legitimate threat to undisputed heir apparent John Brantley at Florida, or where South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier can hold the sword of Damocles over incumbent Stephen Garcia, despite the absence of anyone else on the roster who has ever taken a snap in a college game, or who even seems obviously destined to. If the desire for a "controversy" is deep enough, apparently you can piece one together from half-sketched practice buzz just about anywhere you look.
Elsewhere, the yearning for drama gets less ludicrous, if still slightly detached. At North Carolina, redshirt freshman Bryn Renner will "likely spark conversation" about the fate of three-year starter T.J. Yates, putting himself in position -- "unbelievably," in the words of coach Butch Davis -- to compete for Yates' job in the fall. At Michigan, incumbent Tate Forcier is said to be locked in mortal combat with track star and occasional Wildcat option Denard Robinson, who offered no credible passing threat as a freshman, as well as early enrollee Devin Gardner. At USC, the new coaching staff is reportedly committed to to giving castoff senior Mitch Mustain -- yet to take a significant snap in two years as a Trojan -- every opportunity to compete with sophomore phenom Matt Barkley, who took every significant snap (when healthy) as a true freshman. Everyone in Minnesota is on pins and needles to gauge the progress of frequent Wildcat QB MarQueis Gray in catching three-year starter Adam Weber, who continues to take the vast majority of reps with the first-string offense.
We all have to pass the slow months one way or another. Given the success rate of relative neophytes and up-and-comers actually overtaking entrenched starters, though -- in the last three years, only Kansas' Todd Reesing (over Kerry Meier in 2007) and UCLA's Kevin Prince (over Kevin Craft last year) have actually emerged to beat out a returning starter at a major school before the start of the following season -- it's safe to assume the starter stays the starter until actual games determine otherwise. Way less interesting than floating the notion of a senior with a championship ring being displaced by a fire-balling sophomore, I know, but even sober reality has its drawbacks.