Daunting task: College coaches face huge challenge in trying to establish depth at quarterback
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Former BYU quarterback Jason Beck thought about transferring more than once.
As it turned out, there was one thing he wanted more than a better shot at playing time — to finish his career a Cougar.
“I debated it both years, after my sophomore and my junior year,” said Beck, who was hired as the team';s quarterbacks coach in 2013. “After my junior year, I could have graduated and transferred without penalty. But I loved BYU and was committed to the program there. You never know what the future will bring, and you hope something will work out for you.”
Playing behind All-American John Beck (no relation) from 2004-2006 meant only starting one game in his college career, but that doesn’t mean he regrets staying.
“For me, I loved my teammates,” he said. “I love the university I was at and what it represented. It was bigger than just on-the-field playing time. A lot more went into it.”
His situation became complicated when he married BYU soccer standout Jaime Rendich his junior year. Although he and John Beck became close friends, he never completely gave up the hope that he’d find his way onto the field.
“I found my situation rewarding even though I wasn’t playing,” he said.
Now coaching at his alma mater, Beck understands — in a way that many coaches can’t — the unique frustration that quarterbacks struggle with and why so many consider transferring.
“I know exactly how they feel, the position they’re in,” he said. “I’ve had those conversations with backups. It’s an interesting dynamic. You’re very close as quarterbacks because there’s only four or five of you. A lot of times you have a good relationship, a good friendship with those guys, but at the same time you’re competing against each other.”
No quarterback sets out to spend his career on the sideline. No quarterback aspires to be a backup.
And yet, the reality is that most of those who are lucky enough to play college football will spend significant time as a backup. In some cases, guys will do what Beck did and spend their entire careers waiting for an opportunity that never comes.
The difficulty for college coaches is building depth at a position that is so limited in opportunity and yet so critical to a program’s success. Locally, high school superstars like Jake Heaps have opted to transfer rather than wait for their turn, while guys like James Lark have been content with the role of backup.
“That’s the struggle,” said USU coach Matt Wells of building and maintaining depth at quarterback in college programs. “As soon as you get one, it’s hard to continue to recruit those same kind of competitive, talented kids. They see (the starter) and think, ‘I may have to sit.’ That’s difficult in recruiting. And you’re always trying to get better than what you have at that time.”
In the last five or six years, more college quarterbacks seem to be unwilling to wait two or three years for a shot at starting. Instead, they transfer, even if it means sitting out because of NCAA penalties, in hopes of improving their odds and situations.
“I do tend to see that trend,” Wells said. “Quarterbacks, by nature, (are) very competitive people. They don’t want to sit. They want to play. I don’t look at (transferring) as quitting. I look at it as a reality for those kids that’s going to be tough.”
He said when he was coaching at Tulsa, a player came in, redshirted and then sat for three years.
“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.
“I question the young man who doesn’t want to compete,” Christensen said. “I want a guy who is the best and who wants to come in and compete. That’s a very good sign.”
The key is keeping that competition healthy.
This season, Utah has impressive depth at quarterback, accompanied by significant questions. Last year’s starter, Travis Wilson, won’t know if he’s cleared for contact until July after an MRI last fall revealed an old injury to an intracranial artery, ending his season early.
Ute sophomore Adam Schulz said as a player with no offers coming out of high school, he had to look at a team’s quarterback situation when he tried to find a place to play as a walk-on.
“I’m from Wisconsin, so I looked at the Big Ten,” he said. “Wisconsin had five or six quarterbacks. I ended up walking on here because there were three. Less quarterbacks and more of an opportunity. ... You don’t want to go some place where they have six or seven quarterbacks. It hurts your chances regardless of how good you are.”
But he said it’s more complicated than just choosing a place with a thin quarterback lineup.
“You have to look at the best opportunity, where you’re the most comfortable and what’s the best place for you,” he said. And then a player has to be confident in his own abilities, which Schulz, who had limited playing time in his sophomore year after Wilson’s injury, said he has.
“You have to have a healthy competition,” he said. “You can’t have someone who is just trying to take out the competition.”
Brandon Cox, a freshman, and Conner Manning, a redshirt freshman, said they all learn from each other and share information, even while they’re trying to outplay each other for a shot at more repetitions in practice and games.
“The main thing is just to work hard and try to make the most of what you’ve got,” Cox said. “When you have depth like we do at quarterback, the hardest part is just trying to get everybody reps.”
He said they don’t see each other as enemies to be defeated.
“We don’t look at it as, like we’re trying to fight for (Wilson’s) job,” Cox said. “We’re a group, we’re all one team, so we try to make everybody better.”
Would he consider transferring if he doesn’t get playing time in the near future?
“I’m here to compete,” he said. “I think I can. I’m here to get better every day. I can’t control how many reps I get or anything like that. I’m doing what I can do, and doing it the best I can do it.”
Schulz said the brotherhood that defines football is a bond quarterbacks share, regardless of their role on the team. Like Jason Beck and John Beck, they work to make each other better and try not to worry about how or when they’ll finally get in a game.
The one thing a successful program can’t have is athletes who sabotage or refuse to support each other.
“We’ve never had that here," said Schulz. "Jordan (Wynn) and Jon (Hays), they always taught me. They’re your brothers at the end of the day, and it’s whoever is best who will play.”
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