Commentary

Best to have a backup plan at QB

Originally Published: October 2, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The subject is the care and feeding of the species Quarterbackus clipboardus. Like the Loch Ness monster and Sasquatch, the Quarterbackus clipboardus has mythical qualities and is popular in legend. While reality has not been kind to Nessie or her mountainous friend, the backups who have moved abruptly into the starting job this season have done more good than ill.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOklahoma backup QB Landry Jones (No. 12) didn't have much time to prepare for his starting role after Sam Bradford (No. 14) injured his shoulder against BYU.

One month into the season, injuries have felled starting quarterbacks at No. 1 Florida, No. 7 USC and No. 8 Oklahoma, as well as at two undefeated teams: UCLA and South Florida. Backup quarterbacks have taken over, sometimes with a week to prepare, sometimes only with the time it takes for the medical staff to help their friend and teammate off the field.

Only at USC, where sophomore Aaron Corp turned in a lackluster performance in an upset loss at Washington, has the backup quarterback not performed at the level of a starter.

At Oklahoma, redshirt freshman Landry Jones replaced Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, out four weeks with a shoulder injury. Jones looked unprepared in the second half of the Sooners' 14-13 loss to BYU. Two weeks later, he set a school record with six touchdown passes against Tulsa.

At South Florida, redshirt freshman B.J. Daniels replaced four-year starter Matt Grothe, who blew out a knee Sept. 19. Daniels led the Bulls to a 17-7 victory at Florida State a week later.

Florida sophomore John Brantley completed 4 of 6 passes for 30 yards and a touchdown at Kentucky on Saturday after starter Tim Tebow suffered a concussion in the third quarter of a 41-7 victory.

Coaches who are in this predicament this season, and coaches who have been in this predicament in the past -- which is to say, all coaches -- try to strike a balance between preparing a team to play a game, which will take place, and preparing a backup quarterback to play, which might take place.

The problem is, barring an injury to the starter, reserve quarterbacks do not play unless the game's outcome has been decided. Backup quarterbacks don't get the psychic payoff of playing 25 to 30 percent of a game the way a backup at another position does.

"We have eight guys in our D-line rotation," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, "six in the secondary, a couple of running backs, six or seven linebackers, seven offensive linemen. We rotate our receivers and tight ends. But I've always felt, like the old saying, if you've got two quarterbacks, you don't have any."

It's not just a custom. There is a tactical element. Oklahoma quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel, the 2000 Heisman runner-up who led the Sooners to the national championship, said, "As a quarterback, it's important to get into the rhythm and flow of the game. That's what makes it really tough to play the No. 2."

To the tactical element, add the emotional quotient.

In the wake of the broken jaw suffered by redshirt freshman Kevin Prince on Sept. 12, UCLA has turned to senior Kevin Craft, who started last year and who led the Bruins to a 23-9 win over Kansas State last week.

"The other part is confidence, which is where the ball gets dropped," said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, a quarterback himself who didn't start at UCLA until he was a senior, in 1983. "They have to feel like they're winners. You can't just go in and execute plays."

South Florida coach Jim Leavitt captured his thinking in one word: Trust.

"Quarterback is the guy," Leavitt said. "He is the leader. Everybody is looking at him every day. He's the guy that runs it. You just don't take that guy out. It's the same with the NFL. Why does one guy get $15 million and the other $100,000?"

All of this means, for backup quarterbacks, preparation is reserved for every day but Saturday. Kelly is one of the more aggressive coaches in preparing backups. The past two seasons, the Ducks have lost at least one starting quarterback to an injury. This season, starter Jeremiah Masoli has remained healthy through four games.

[+] EnlargeJohn Brantley
Mark Zerof/US PresswireFlorida backup QB John Brantley will have some big shoes to fill if Tim Tebow is unable to play against LSU on Oct. 10.

"In practice, we run four plays with the 1s, three plays with the 2s," said Kelly, who was the offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach this season. "[Backups are] getting 40 percent of the reps. … If we get 125 reps a practice, Jeremiah probably gets 65-70; Nate [Costa] 50-55."

Kelly said the mental game is just as important in his evaluation as the backup's performance during practice.

"How sharp is he? How well does he have the game plan down?" Kelly said. "We test our quarterbacks every Thursday. Being able to give back, a lot of questions and answers. Our quarterback meetings are pretty interactive. 'What do you do in this coverage? Where do you go with the ball? What's your check?' They've got to give you a lot of feedback. 'What's your progression?'"

Neuheisel recalled playing for legendary quarterback guru Homer Smith at UCLA, who would time his quarterbacks in their seven-step drops (one contest) and measure the distance each dropped (another contest). The point, Neuheisel said, is to give the guys who aren't playing an opportunity to compete and win, whether on the whiteboard or in drills.

As a coach, Neuheisel said he tells his backups to make the quarterbacks coach notice them. It's a trick he utilized during his days as a Bruins backup.

"When there were questions open to anybody to answer, I would get the satisfaction of answering them," Neuheisel said. "When the coach tells me, 'I'm not asking you, I'm asking that guy,' that was great. I would come to the meeting and make the coach tell me to shut up."

That may be the crux of the matter. There's a reason coaches repeat the "one play away" mantra to their backup quarterbacks all the time. It takes maturity uncommon in a 19-year-old to do all the work to prepare for a game, not take a snap, and then do it all over again. And again.

"It's extremely difficult," Heupel said. "It's not difficult to do for a week or two at the beginning of the season. It becomes extremely difficult as the season goes along and he hasn't been pressed into that role. Week 1 or 2 is good, but when you get to Week 8, 9, 10, 11, it's tough. It takes a special kid to continue to prepare in that way without seeing any of the benefits."

Some quarterbacks will lose focus. Others will leave. The number of quarterbacks who have spurned "one play away" to transfer seems to grow larger with every season. That may explain the tenor of Baylor coach Art Briles' praise for senior quarterback Blake Szymanski, who replaced sophomore star Robert Griffin III last week after he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

"I like him [Szymanski] because he's weathered," Briles said in his press conference this week. "His path hasn't been easy, and he's stayed very loyal and stayed very consistent with his emotions for this football program and this university."

At South Florida, while Daniels is getting a crash course in handling adulation, Evan Landi, a redshirt freshman who had been working out at wide receiver, is returning to the position Leavitt signed him to play.

"I'm spending a great deal of time with him and [freshman walk-on] Ryan Eppes," Leavitt said. "You always have to have three who can take a snap. Evan is getting no receiver time."

For the Bulls, he is now one play away.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com