Few signal-callers set after Big 12's spring games

A funny thing happened on the way to the May vacations for many coaching staffs. Unexpected quarterback battles developed at a number of Big 12 schools.

Originally Published: May 2, 2007
By Tim Griffin | Special to ESPN.com

Baylor quarterback Michael Machen has seen a lot of good and bad times in his sports career.

A quick start in the Atlanta Braves' organization made some project him as a potential big league pitcher before his later struggles. After that, stops at Coffeyville Community College, Alabama and Kent State placed him at different points in college football's food chain.

Michael Machen
James Lang-US PRESSWIRE Former Kent State QB Michael Machen hopes to win the starting job at Baylor in 2007.
It's not really surprising that a budding quarterback battle for Baylor's starting job at quarterback isn't particularly intimidating for the 25-year-old Machen. He's lived with that competition throughout his career.

"I came to play football here," said Machen, who graduated at Kent State last December and is taking advantage of an NCAA transfer rule to finish his final season with the Bears as he works on a master's degree. "I moved my way up since I've been playing sports, and competition is what it is. It's nothing that's unusual or unexpected. I've done it and expect to come through and play at the end."

Quarterback battles have been the rule across the Big 12, where a surprising number of positional tussles have sprouted across the conference. With many returning quarterbacks, it was expected to be a quiet spring across most of the Big 12.

A funny thing happened on the way to the May vacations for many coaching staffs. Unexpected quarterback battles developed at a number of schools and likely will stretch until shortly before the season starts.

Only Iowa State, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M have solidified quarterback positions after the conclusion of spring practice. And at Oklahoma State and Kansas State, strong performances by backup quarterbacks during spring practice have cemented those players' chances to receive some playing time once the season begins.

Projected title contenders Nebraska and Oklahoma both have wide-open quarterback battles at the end of spring practice. And Baylor, Colorado, Kansas and Texas Tech also are sorting through multiple options after the end of their spring games.

Machen said he relishes the challenge of beating out Blake Szymanski to replace Shawn Bell as Baylor's starter. After sitting out last season as a transfer, Machen surfed the Internet for information to find the best opportunity to play his final college season.

"I looked at stuff everywhere," Machen said. "But I saw what Shawn Bell was doing last season before he got hurt. Coming into this system is perfect for me. My coach at Kent State ran a similar offense before I got hurt. It's almost the same here. I couldn't have expected anything better to finish my career out."

Machen was drafted in the 14th round in the 2000 MLB draft and pitched three seasons with the Braves and Baltimore Orioles before ending his baseball career. He returned to college as a walk-on at Alabama in 2003, where he was convinced to return to college football by Dennis Franchione and where he later caught the eye of Mike Price during his brief stint as coach of the Crimson Tide.

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But with Brodie Croyle's emergence under Mike Shula, Machen looked for other opportunities at Coffeyville Community College. While there, he led the Ravens to a 10-2 record and threw for more than 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns.

After nearly transferring to Nebraska, Machen ended up at Kent State, where he was a starter in 2005. He suffered a broken collarbone 10 days before the start of the 2006 season.

While he was out, Kent switched to an option attack under sophomore quarterback Julian Edelman. The Golden Flashes erupted on an early five-game winning streak, making Machen's days numbered there.

That sent him packing to Baylor, where he is on schedule to earn his master's degree in sports management in December. Szymanski, a three-game starter after Bell's injury last season, jokes that he calls Machen "Uncle Mike" because of his life experiences and elder status.

Baylor coach Guy Morriss has been pleased with Machen's quick development in his offense. He said that the resilient Machen's previous athletic career makes him a better risk than many incoming transfers.

"He doesn't get rattled too much, and I think that's good," Morriss said. "[Baylor offensive coordinator] Lee Hays can be a little hard on him, and this kid isn't going to get his feelings hurt and start to pout. He's been around a little bit. He can make all the throws in this offense and I like his demeanor, his pocket presence."

Some coaches shy away from potential controversies. But Kansas coach Mark Mangino likes that eight-game 2006 starter Kerry Meier and Todd Reesing are in tight competition for the Jayhawks' starting job.

"Both these guys are quality players," Mangino said. "And we feel for the first time in a long time, maybe even since we've been here, that if something was to happen to one of them that a quality quarterback would come in the game."

Sam Keller
AP Photo/Nati HarnikArizona State transfer Sam Keller is facing competition for the QB job at Nebraska.
Nebraska's battle this spring was the most ballyhooed in the conference. Incoming transfer Sam Keller was expected to easily win the starting job with the Cornhuskers after two strong seasons at Arizona State. But junior backup Joe Ganz is battling him for playing time as Zac Taylor's successor.

Both Keller and Ganz worked with the first-team offense in Nebraska's spring game. And both looked sharp as Keller threw for 193 yards and a touchdown and Ganz chipped in with 157 passing yards, a passing touchdown and another rushing TD to lead a 38-0 victory over the backups.

"Overall, we felt very good about how Sam Keller and Joe Ganz performed," Nebraska coach Bill Callahan said. "When you look at the numbers they posted, it's pretty impressive, and I was really pleased with everything they did. I'm going to continue to evaluate our quarterback situation."

Ganz came away confident after his consistent performance throughout the spring.

"I'm sure a lot of people thought that when Sam came here that I'd probably transfer or just be content to be the backup," Ganz told reporters after the spring game. "But that's not my nature.

"I wanted to go out and show fans that I can do this and I'm capable of doing it. Hopefully, they walk away from this game saying we've got a competition instead of just giving it to Sam, like they have been."

Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell was presumed to have a lock on the job after passing for conference-leading totals of 4,555 yards and 38 touchdowns last season, capping his big season with a dramatic record-setting comeback victory over Minnesota in the Insight.com Bowl. But redshirt freshman Taylor Potts has played his way into contention after the Red Raiders' spring game.

Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was not pleased with some of Harrell's early work in practice and felt that additional competition would help spur his development. As Potts kept developing, Leach declared that the position was "open."

Most observers would be surprised if Harrell isn't the starter when the Red Raiders open the season. But that fact isn't a certainty, which is what Leach wants.

"Early on, it [competition between the quarterbacks] wasn't close enough, because all people improve the most in a competitive situation," Leach said. "By the second week, Taylor had improved enough and gotten in enough of a rhythm that they were very comparable."

Joey Halzle
Jerry Laizure/AP PhotoJoey Halzle is in the running to become the next Oklahoma quarterback.
Competition has been similarly keen at Oklahoma, where redshirt freshman Sam Bradford is hooked in a tight battle with junior Joey Halzle and freshman Keith Nichol for the Sooners' starting job.

"I thought they all got better throughout the spring," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "They all have shown the ability to make the throws and the decisions we need. But early on, all have made the decisions here and there that obviously hurt them and hurt the offense. And you only get that stinging feeling by doing it."

Stoops is careful to say that none of the players has separated from the others. He doesn't expect to make a final decision until shortly before the Sooners' season opener against North Texas, although Bradford started with the first team offense in the spring game and Nichol had the playbook trimmed back because of his inexperience.

"It's not a matter of concern because there is still a lot of time before Sept. 1," Stoops said. "Yeah, it would be great if one of those guys had experience and you could give him all the snaps. But none of them have played, and the only way they can be respected in the huddle and the locker room is to earn the job. That isn't given to anybody. It just takes time."

Oklahoma coaches have carefully shielded all three quarterbacks from most media responsibilities during the spring, and Stoops cut back on many of his interviews. It's led to an air of mystery that likely will shroud the Sooners' program throughout the summer -- which is what Stoops probably wants.

Oklahoma State expects to play both Bobby Reid and Zac Robinson in every game this season -- perhaps at the same time in some formations.

Reid is expected to take the majority of snaps at quarterback for the Cowboys after guiding an impressive offensive performance last season. The Cowboys were one of only two teams nationally to average 200 yards rushing and passing last season.

But Robinson, who saw action in seven games and nearly orchestrated a comeback victory over Oklahoma in the Cowboys' regular-season finale, also will receive regular work.

"I think they'll both play in every game," OSU associate head coach Joe DeForest said. "There's no doubt about it. I think they'll each have something they can bring to the game, and having them both in games is going to give a lot of people problems."

Colorado coach Dan Hawkins is sorting through a potential controversy with the Buffaloes that involves his son. Cody Hawkins and Nick Nelson both got most of the snaps after 2006 starter Bernard Jackson was switched to a hybrid position that includes running, receiving and kick-returning duties.

Hawkins appeared to have the inside track after a stronger showing in the spring game. Nelson, a transfer from Saddleback College, also will continue to compete.

"They both showed signs of being able to run the club," Dan Hawkins said.

And at Kansas State, Josh Freeman was expected to be the starter after a strong 2006 freshman season that was capped by a trip to the Texas Bowl.

But some questions exist after Freeman struggled in season-ending losses to Kansas and Rutgers (in the bowl game). Those concerns intensified after Freeman's team produced zero yards of total offense in Kansas State's spring game as backup Carson Coffman orchestrated a 19-0 victory over Freeman's Purple team.

Coffman and Freeman have been close friends since high school, which makes their competition much friendlier than some around the conference. It led to a friendly bet on the results of the spring game, with the loser shaving his head.

Freeman's bald head probably won't catch that much attention around the Kansas State offices over the next few weeks, considering coach Ron Prince's similarly shorn look. Prince said he isn't concerned about Freeman's recent setbacks stifling his development.

"I just told him it was a tough game," Prince said. "When you come out and don't play well, it's how it goes in sports. You work hard, but it didn't work out. He's a proud young man. I know he'd like to play better and have a lot of other things happen."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.