Pay Attention To The Men Behind The Curtain

Backup QBs in the Top 20 are playing more than a backup role

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Oct. 9, 2007

By Carolyn Braff


Carolyn Braff

Carolyn is an assistant editor and writer for
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Last Saturday, Tavita Pritchard put backup quarterbacks on the map.


Or at least the scouting report.


Stanford's second-string quarterback had completed one career pass before leading the Cardinal, a 41-point underdog, to a stunning upset over USC. Because he was not Stanford's first choice to step in under center (starter T.C. Ostrander had to sit out the game after suffering a seizure), Pritchard's performance made a statement for backup QBs everywhere.




Better game plan for us, too.


Florida brought the two-quarterback attack into vogue last season as the Leak-Tebow one-two punch became virtually unstoppable, and this season has seen its fair share of signal-caller tandems. However, the tag-team passers of 2007 are more the product of necessary changes than ideal game planning. Injuries, miscues and suspensions have plagued the nation's starting quarterbacks, allowing backups to earn extra time.


"It's probably one of the most important parts of the offense," West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said of the backup. "You don't want to miss a beat. You have to have a quarterback that can come in and keep things going."


It seems this year, teams are only as good as their backup quarterback. But fortunately for six of the nation's top 20, that's pretty good.


LSU came into the season riding the arm of fifth-year senior Matt Flynn, who paid two seasons' worth of dues as JaMarcus Russell's backup. But when Flynn went down with an ankle injury in Week 2, sophomore Ryan Perrilloux was called upon to keep the Tigers unbeaten when Middle Tennessee came to town (and given the state of things in Ann Arbor, no one was looking past the Blue Raiders).


With his 20-for-25, 298-yard, three-touchdown performance, Perrilloux showed the Tiger faithful that this backup did not have to stay in the back.


Since that game, while Flynn's ankle continues to heal, the Tigers have been splitting time, but leaving most of the throwing duties to the senior.


"It is a position where we have two quality quarterbacks," head coach Les Miles said. "Perrilloux comes in and gives us a spark. Flynn comes in and takes care of business."


At this point, Perrilloux is not quite Tebow (he rushed six times for 23 yards and a touchdown in LSU's win over Florida), but the two quarterbacks will be continue to play in tandem until Miles sees a good reason not to.


At South Carolina, the backup story is less about tandem than about takeover. In the second half of the team's 28-16 loss at LSU in Week 4, head coach Steve Spurrier yanked fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell in favor of freshman Chris Smelley.


Although he did not play a perfect second half, completing 12-of-26 passes for 174 yards with a touchdown and an interception, Smelley played himself into a job. The redshirt freshman has been the only man under center in the Gamecocks' last two outings, a pair of conference wins, and it looks as though under center he will stay.


But Smelley was never seen as a true backup, as Spurrier gives every signal-caller on the roster a chance to be the go-to guy on Saturdays. No stars are brought in unquestionably at South Carolina and the best man always plays.


West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez has a similar philosophy, even with a Heisman Trophy candidate leading his depth chart.


"Everyone competes for the starting job every day," Rodriguez said. "Inevitably, your quarterback is going to get banged around. Normally, you are going to need at least two, especially in a critical game."


The No. 2 in the Mountaineers' last two critical games has been sophomore Jarrett Brown, as consecutive injuries to starter Pat White have given him the opportunity to step in and step up. Last week against Syracuse, Brown completed all five of his passes for 85 yards and rushed for a touchdown, perhaps redeeming the previous week's underwhelming 11-for-20, two-interception second half against USF.


Brown may not have earned a Perrilloux-type role in the Mountaineers' offense, but opponents are starting to remember his name.


The injury bug also created a double-QB situation for Cincinnati, as Ben Mauk's surgically-repaired right shoulder gave him trouble at the season's start. The senior surrendered starting responsibilities to junior Dustin Grutza, but the two worked together, at points alternating series, to bring the Bearcats to a 4-0 record. A healthy Mauk has since retaken sole ownership of the quarterbacking duties, but the team is more than confident in its backup.


For Hawai'i, backup quarterbacks have always been part of the game plan - that's what happens when your starter throws for 416 yards and six touchdowns in the first half. Record-crusher Colt Brennan's unbelievable first-half numbers and unenviable injury luck have made room for backup Tyler Graunke, whose talents have kept the team rolling at 6-0.


The Warriors' system requires the coaches to be well-versed in the art of breeding "backup" quarterbacks.


"Particularly in our offense, it is imperative that we have a backup that can go in and win football games," quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison said. "They cannot see themselves as backups. Our offense is so centered around the play of the quarterback that we cannot hide him when he comes in. He remains the centerpiece of the offense."


Illinois may not be breeding backups, but the Illini do seem to be adding a new statistical category for their second-in-command. Eddie McGee has recorded the equivalent of two saves this season, stepping in each of the last two weeks to finish what an injured Juice Williams started.


Against Wisconsin, the redshirt freshman was effectively called in with the bases loaded and two outs, on a third-and-one play from the Wisconsin 30 with a very tight 24-19 lead against a team known for fourth-quarter comebacks. Proving that he is more than a capable backup, McGee drove the team downfield and scored on a five-yard keeper to give the Illini the 31-19 lead in what proved to be Illinois' final score in their second-straight win over a ranked team.


"That's what a backup quarterback does," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "Eddie's worked himself to the point where it's 1-a and 1-b in my mind, in terms of not having to change what we do offensively."


In a season where the Heisman is anyone's for the taking and upsets are as plentiful as Brennan's yard-per-game average, the nation's backups have suddenly become headliners. Coaches beware - the player most likely to take you out of your game this week may be the man behind the man behind center.


Just ask Pete Carroll.