Spring look around the Big East
With spring practices underway, our Big East notebook addresses the big quarterback questions facing each team.
Who will win the quarterback battles at Cincinnati, Connecticut and Pitt? Who has the most depth at the position? Which team has a Heisman candidate running its offense? Our Big East notebook addresses the quarterback situations and much more.
Assuming he has recovered from shoulder surgery, rifle-armed Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk seems the best fit for new coach Brian Kelly's wide-open offense. Mauk, expected to begin graduate classes next month, is not taking part in spring practice but will be eligible for the season under a since-rescinded NCAA rule that allows grad students to play immediately at a new school. He was grandfathered in after the rule was rescinded in January -- and the Ohio native is not lacking for confidence, telling the Cincinnati Enquirer the Bearcats will compete for a national title this season. Mauk sustained a season-ending dislocated shoulder in Wake Forest's opener last year. He started 10 games in parts of three seasons there and passed for 1,522 yards, four touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His main competition will be junior Dustin Grutza, who has nearly two full years of starting experience. Grutza is tough and nimble but possesses average arm strength. Redshirt sophomore Craig Carey could figure in the mix.
Highly touted junior-college transfer Tyler Lorenzen has to be considered the favorite over redshirt sophomore Dennis Brown. The 6-foot-5, 223-pound Lorenzen was a walk-on at Iowa State, where he played receiver for two seasons before transferring to Palomar College in San Francisco. There, he passed for 2,960 yards, 26 touchdowns and three interceptions last year. He also ran for 836 yards and eight TDs. The 6-3, 196-pound Brown won't go down without a fight. He acquitted himself fairly well when thrown into the lineup two years ago against West Virginia and Rutgers. He redshirted last season but might have been UConn's best quarterback. The Huskies were last in the conference in completion percentage (51.4) and passer rating (103.94). Last year's primary starter, D.J. Hernandez, saw the writing on the wall -- it said, "Tyler Lorenzen" -- and successfully lobbied for a switch to wide receiver. He might still be the third-string quarterback.
Along with West Virginia, the Cardinals have the most stable situation in the conference. Heisman Trophy candidate Brian Brohm decided against the NFL and will return for his final season eager to run new coach Steve Kragthorpe's pass-happy offense. Brohm's adjustment will be eased by the fact that Kragthorpe promoted Brohm's older brother, Jeff, from quarterbacks coach to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. Hunter Cantwell, who stepped in ably for Brohm last season, gives the Cardinals an experienced backup and makes it a no-brainer to redshirt stud freshman Matt Simms, son of NFL great Phil Simms. Former coach Bobby Petrino labeled the 6-4, 230-pound Cantwell an NFL prospect. He showed as much when Brohm went down. In about 10 quarters of action, Cantwell completed 38 of 66 passes for 626 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.
The real competition begins this summer, when much-publicized freshman Pat Bostick joins the fray for Pitt's first quarterback derby since 2004. In the meantime, junior Bill Stull and redshirt freshman Kevan Smith are splitting reps in the spring. Coach Dave Wannstedt said Stull is "a little bit ahead" of Smith because of his experience in running the offense, but Smith has a legitimate shot to win the job. Both are hard workers who appear to have a decent pocket presence. Wannstedt doesn't expect to name a starter until a week or so before the season opener. Bostick, a classic drop-back type with a strong arm, will be given every chance to claim the job. Out of Manheim Township (Lancaster, Pa.), the 6-3, 220-pound Bostick passed for 54 touchdowns over his final two high school seasons.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The only race here is to see who will back up incumbent starter Mike Teel, a junior who needs to pick up where he left off late last season if the Scarlet Knights are going to compete for a national championship. In his first 10 starts, Teel passed for seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In his final three -- against Syracuse, West Virginia and Kansas State -- he threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions. He is said to be exhibiting increased confidence and accuracy this spring. He also is the offense's unquestioned leader now that fullback Brian Leonard is off to the NFL. Sophomores Jabu Lovelace, an excellent runner, and Domenic Natale, a Michigan State transfer, are competing with redshirt freshman Chris Paul-Etienne for the No. 2 spot. Paul-Etienne has the strongest arm on the team.
South Florida Bulls
Dynamic sophomore Matt Grothe is entrenched as the starter and could challenge Louisville's Brohm and West Virginia's Pat White for first-team All-Big East this season. Grothe is healed from a hairline fracture of his fibula, sustained in USF's bowl game, and should be bolstered by an improved ground game. Coach Jim Leavitt feels good about the backup, Grant Gregory, son of new USF offensive coordinator Greg Gregory. Grant Gregory transferred from Indiana two years ago. He switched to safety but returned to quarterback. He's an excellent scrambler. There's a chance Carlton Hill could challenge Gregory if he becomes eligible for summer camp. Hill was a major recruit two years ago and was slated to be USF's quarterback this time last year before off-field issues ruined his chance. If he returns, he might be moved to tight end or wide receiver.
Junior Cameron Dantley, son of former NBA star Adrian Dantley, is backing up starter Andrew Robinson this spring. Dantley walked on two years ago and earned a scholarship after last season. He'll have some competition for the backup job in a few months, when freshmen Cody Catalina and David Legree arrive. Catalina, out of Greensburg (Pa.) Central Catholic, is a dual-threat quarterback with big-time potential.
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers couldn't be happier with their situation. "We think Pat White is as good as anyone in the country," coach Rich Rodriguez said. "And we think Jarrett Brown is as good as anyone, too." Everybody knows about White, a possible Heisman Trophy contender. Not as many are familiar with multi-skilled sophomore backup Brown -- though you could ask the folks at Rutgers about him. They saw the 6-3, 210-pound Brown fill in for an injured White in the regular-season finale and cost the Scarlet Knights a league title by passing for 244 yards and rushing for 73. Rodriguez hopes to rotate Brown in for the odd series during the regular season. White has packed on some weight so that he'll be able to take more punishment. His accuracy and ability to read defenses improved markedly last season, his completion percentage rising from 57.0 to 65.9. Former starter Adam Bednarik is back from an injury-marred season and has been impressive.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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