- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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Defenses will test the fresh meat that is Ole Miss quarterback Micheal Spurlock early this fall. They will disguise their intentions, hide their twists, zone their blitzes, and do whatever possible to confuse a quarterback who has thrown eight passes in three years.
But the defenses won't be the first ones to test him this year. His own teammates beat them to it.
Spurlock is replacing Eli Manning, the All-American, second-generation campus icon who went first in the NFL draft. Before Spurlock can win any games for Ole Miss this fall, he first had to win his locker room during the winter, spring and summer.
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When Spurlock organized offseason pass drills, he made sure he was on time, and he made sure his teammates were on time.
"There was a feeling of, 'We can do what we want,'" Spurlock says. "I have to put my foot down and show them, 'This is how things are going to be.' Nothing has changed. We want to work here. Eli told me, 'You have to push away from being their friends and everybody liking you. You have to show them you are boss.'"
When a player like Manning leaves, it's easy to focus on the tangible skills that he takes with him. But the intangible skills mean just much. It may not be easy to replace a quarterback, but it may be even more difficult to replace a magnetic leader as well.
Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe can rely on a veteran offensive line for leadership if needed, but maintains that Spurlock can do the job.
"Being the backup helped Micheal, seeing it done right," Cutcliffe says. "Anytime you replace a quarterback who has been a three-year starter, that is always an issue. The players know the athlete that he is. He has taken the leadership role seriously and has watched one of the best do it. He has to remember to just be himself. I don't want him to try and be Eli Manning. I want him to be Micheal Spurlock."
Chuck Amato, the North Carolina State coach who wrote in "Rivers" on his lineup card every game for four seasons, isn't that comfortable yet. For the first time since Amato returned to his alma mater as head coach, Philip Rivers won't be the Wolfpack's starting quarterback.
"Fifty-one games," Amato says, drawing out each syllable for emphasis. "Just to show up that much takes mental toughness. In his freshman year, he got hit 200 times. There were some games he shouldn't have played. I don't know if a coach will have a kid start every game for four years at any position, let alone that one. If he had been at Florida State, Michigan, Penn State, we'd have him right now. He'd be a fifth-year senior."
But Rivers didn't go to one of those schools, none of which wanted him as a quarterback. Auburn offered him a scholarship to play tight end. Instead, he came to North Carolina State, finished second on the NCAA career chart for passing yards (13,494), threw 95 touchdown passes, and was drafted fourth in the NFL draft last April.
"Every day, he was always there," junior halfback-wide receiver Tramain Hall says of Rivers. "He was a master of the game."
As the Wolfpack begin preseason practice, fourth-year junior Jay Davis has an edge over redshirt freshman Marcus Stone to replace Rivers. Amato will make his decision during preseason practice. He has had to remind his players that a leader doesn't have to play quarterback.
"When Philip was there," Amato says, "some guys that could have been really good leaders just stepped back, let him do it. This year, we'll have some kids come to the forefront. But will they be that good? Will the quarterback be that good? No. That's college football.
"It's hard to separate quarterback from leader," Amato continues. "Does great leadership get him to be a good quarterback, or does being a good quarterback get him to be a good leader? They're making quite an effort on offense for someone to step up. I hope it's an offensive lineman. They don't get the acclaim that they should. Boy, if one of them could just step up, that would be big."
When the quarterback is young, it's almost mandatory that the leadership come from another position. At Texas, third-year sophomore Vince Young is a gifted athlete from whom great things are expected. But the leaders this season will be two players with potential to be All-Americans: linebacker Derrick Johnson and tailback Cedric Benson. They plan to be proactive.
"Me and Derrick are more part of the team than leaders I've been around in the past," Benson says. "The real leadership that me and Derrick bring to the team is off the field. We talk often about what we need to do for the season. There's a better camaraderie. Guys will call and ask for advice on everything, which makes me feel good."
It can make all the difference. Leadership is as much a part of a winning team as a bowl itinerary. In an age when underclassmen leave early for the NFL, the worth of older players is untold.
"I think that is one of the most overlooked things in college football," says Georgia senior defensive tackle David Pollack, who thought long and hard last winter about turning pro. "We have a lot of young kids that will play hard, but sometimes you have to get after them. Just get up in their face and help motivate them, and they will follow."
For the Pollacks, the natural leaders with All-American on their résumés, that's not difficult. In the natural evolution of college football, it's the Micheal Spurlocks of college football who have to take charge. It can mean the difference between winning and having no bowl itinerary at all.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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