Daunting task: College coaches face huge challenge in trying to establish depth at quarterback
“He waited very patiently, sitting behind one of our all-time leaders,” Wells said. “Then he went out as a fifth-year senior and broke a bunch of his records. But that’s a rare combination these days.”
In talking with coaches from BYU, USU and Utah, they all said their recruiting philosophy is to try and sign a quarterback each season. The hope is that there will always be younger quarterbacks learning from veterans, ensuring team continuity should injury steal a team’s starter.
“You need three or four in your program every year,” said Utah assistant Dennis Erickson, who started coaching in 1969. “The key is to give them all a chance to compete and decide which one is best for your program. The other thing you have to have is balance. You have to keep them balanced so you have an older person playing and then younger ones fighting for the backup spot. You always have to have guys coming up through the program.”
That’s a situation that saved Utah State’s season last fall when starter Chuckie Keeton suffered a season-ending injury.
Freshman Darell Garretson took over for Keeton, and he went 6-1 in helping the Aggies to a victory in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“We do what we can as coaches to train the next quarterback because, as they say, you’re only one play away, one turned ankle, whatever, from being that guy,” Wells said. “But it is very hard being the backup quarterback.”
Building and maintaining depth presents a lot of unique issues for a college coaching staff.
Unlike most other positions, there is only one on the field at a time.
Second, coaches can’t give quarterbacks playing time in other ways, like special teams, because they can’t risk injuries.
And third, the quarterback not only becomes the face of the team, their skills often determine the identity of an offense. Changing quarterbacks like a team does with running backs or receivers is almost always a disaster.
“It’s tough,” said Wells of how difficult it is to keep quality quarterbacks committed to a program when they’re not playing. “When you’re recruiting receivers or DBs, there are multiple packages, multiple ways to play them. Maybe a young kid who isn’t ready to start can fit them in, get their feet wet and ease them into the transition. ... I’m not going to rotate quarterbacks. That can be hard to deal with. If you get a talented freshman, maybe you do create a package for him. If Chuckie Keeton had not been good enough or efficient enough in 2011 to be the starter, I absolutely would have created a small package for him.”
Wells readily admits that often it requires just a bit of good fortune to sign, retain and develop those quality quarterbacks when only one is getting playing time.
“You get lucky,” he said. “If we all knew how it was going to work out, it would be easier.”
Erickson said he understands how difficult it is to work hard and never play. Still, he said changing schools may seem like a solution, but it isn’t always the right move.
“Some get advice about leaving from the wrong people,” he said. “It’s a different world now, an internet world now. There is a lot more moving around. Why they move around, well, there are probably a lot of different reasons. It doesn’t happen at all positions as much as it does as quarterback."
This year, the U. will benefit from an athlete's decision to transfer. Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Kendal Thompson announced he was transferring to Utah after graduating in May, which makes him immediately eligible. Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said he loves recruiting and working with quarterbacks who aren’t afraid of competition for playing time.
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