The college football season is past the halfway point, and through September and October a myriad of quarterback issues have bubbled to the top. Injuries have forced replacing stud signal callers. Poor play has pushed other field generals to the sideline in favor of another option. Playing styles have conflicted, hamstringing coaches in play-calling and schematic design.
Managing the quarterback position is something not easy. Coaches get forced into doing things they'd rather not, while other coaches elect to do unnecessary things in an effort to create a spark of sorts. Whether it is handling injury, poor play and even working in that change of pace, the root of management is all in the preparation.
Injuries are the easiest thing to manage. Either the player can go, or he cannot. Unlike poor play or offensive creativity, the player is either injured, or he is well enough to play. If your starter is well enough to start, then you start him.
However, things get gray when the starter is "healthy-ish" on game day. Healthy-ish means that he has missed practices during the week, not taken all the starter repetitions and, most importantly, is not fully ready to play. In that case, the coach has to look at the starter's health, the quality of the backup and the risk to the player's health, as well as the best interest of the team.
For teams blessed with a high caliber backup, the answer is simple, put the No. 2 in the game. No sense in risking more injury to the quarterback or sending out a less than capable player to play. This season, Ohio State has made that look simple. Braxton Miller goes down and Kenny Guiton, a quarterback who could start for most schools, steps in to fill his shoes.
Guiton gave the Buckeyes a couple games, let Miller get not just healthy enough to play but back to 100 percent to lead this Ohio State team out against Wisconsin. Other quarterbacks, such as North Carolina's Marquise Lee stepping in for starter Bryn Renner, have stepped in to do the same as the starter got back to being healthy.
It's football and injuries happen. Once the injury news comes, the only course of action is for the coach to prepare the backup for full service. As was the case with Dylan Thompson at South Carolina when Connor Shaw was injured in the loss to Tennessee.
Thompson leads into another quarterback management conundrum, what to do when the play slips at the position. In an attempt to buy Shaw the same type of recovery time that Renner and Miller received, South Carolina ran out Thompson against Missouri, and the Gamecocks offense sputtered. Despite his 15-for-27 performance, pushing 222 yards, South Carolina could not find the end zone with Thompson at the helm.
Thompson has played a lot of football, but on Saturday, the Gamecocks needed a spark and the junior was not the answer. So Steve Spurrier pulled the trigger on Connor Shaw in the fourth quarter, and the senior went to work leading touchdown drives.
In this case, Spurrier is lucky, because by pulling Thompson he did not create a quarterback controversy. Connor Shaw is the starter and all his play against Mizzou did was reaffirm the fact that he deserves to be the leader of the Gamecocks' team.
Where things get hairy is when a true backup excels, muddying the water on whether or not the starter should return to his position. First-year coach, Kliff Kingsbury, at Texas Tech has this situation on his hands currently. Davis Webb stepped in to replace an injured Baker Mayfield, and as Mayfield gets healthy, Kingsbury has to figure out his plan of action.
On one hand, the Red Raiders are looking solid under the direction of Webb, having won three Big 12 games in a row. However, Mayfield won that job in the fall and being benched long-term due to an injury is never the way coaches want to handle the situation. Guys getting Wally Pipped never bodes well for the program or the individual morale of a crucial player, like Mayfield.
Players shouldn't lose a position due to an injury. That said, as long as the backup is playing well, let the starter get fully healthy before he gets a shot to prove his worth on the field. In this case that means Mayfield getting back to 100 percent, then taking the reins and looking to duplicate his early success.
Having two freshmen, with not just starting experience but success, gives Kingsbury more bullets in his gun going forward, and should make for an intriguing spring season. Texas Tech's Big 12 mate, and opponent this Saturday, Oklahoma State is less blessed in that department.
J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf have been back and forth for two seasons in Stillwater. Walsh seemed to win the job this year, only to be pulled in favor of Chelf against TCU. Mike Gundy's team simply cannot find the recipe for consistent, high level quarterback play.
In this situation, the only advice to be given is ride the hot hand.
There is no clear best at the quarterback spot and given the up-and-down nature of the players involved, Gundy's best move is to take things game-by-game. Prepare both quarterbacks but select a starter and give him all of the chances to succeed, including living with some mistakes as he gets comfortable. Let him play and, if it does not work, give the other quarterback a chance to make things right.
That does not mean jerk the players around. That does not mean force them to play with the gripping fear of one mistake costing them playing time. Rather, that means giving the opportunity to succeed but when the play negatively impacts the team, making the change. Essentially, the same thing that happens at every other position on the field.
The Cowboys' situation is not to be confused with the change of pace quarterbacking that has emerged as a major role in certain offenses. North Carolina State, prior to the return of Brandon Mitchell, had to force Bryant Shirreffs into the game in an effort to open the offense up. Ole Miss does the same with Barry Brunetti entering games to use his legs.
Expanding the playbook by using a quarterback with a different skill set is a recipe that works to keep defenses off balance, and it forces teams to use practice time in preparation. The key to managing these situations is ensuring that all parties understand their respective roles. Most notably, the starter has to know that he's being pulled in an effort to help the team and impact the game plan in a meaningful way.
And that speaks to the most critical cog in managing quarterbacks at the collegiate level: empowering the kid.
It does not matter if the player is a backup, a starter or a change of pace player, knowing his role and fully understanding where he fits with the team is one of the most important things to the quarterback equation. Every player needs to be given the tools to succeed, and that starts in practice.
For all of the talk about leadership, players can only assume those roles after the coaches allow it to hold weight. Being a leader by title but with no power only cuts off players at the knee. In the case of the quarterback, starters have to be starters; that means getting reps with the ones and being pushed to command the offense.
Backups have to know their role as well. That means fewer reps but the ever critical mental repetitions. More time in meetings proving that they understand the system and can step in if the situation calls for them to play.
Package players have to know what to do when they get in the game. Nothing is worse than a team being forced to use a timeout because a limited use, special unit player, is not sure what to do on a given play. Special quarterbacks have to be ready when their number is called and they have to know their package inside and out.
Whether it is injury, poor play or unique looks, the most important element to managing the quarterback position is preparation. Game days get crazy and the best way for a coach to ensure that things run smoothly is to spend Sunday through Friday making sure the quarterback position is ready.
That's the key to quarterback management, prep on top of prep, on top of prep, to get the guys at the position prepared for any situation that could arise over the course of the 60-minute ballgame.