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Searching for sleepers in weakest QB class in recent memory

Four days before Peyton Manning and Drew Brees duel at the Super Bowl, the sport's next wave of star quarterbacks will sign with their respective colleges.

Only one problem: There aren't any stars. At least not yet.

In most years, recruitniks elevate at least one or two blue-chip quarterbacks to savior-like status -- think Jimmy Clausen in 2007 and Terrelle Pryor in 2008, both of whom Rivals.com dubbed the top overall prospect in their class. This year, by contrast, the site doesn't rank a single quarterback among its top 50 prospects.

"I've been doing this since 1992, and I can't ever remember a weaker quarterback group," said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg. "If someone's looking for a guy to come in next year and be the savior, there just isn't anyone."

In other words, there is no Matt Barkley primed to start for a national power from Day 1, no Matthew Stafford carrying a "future No. 1 pick" tag, no Tim Tebow worthy of starring in an ESPN documentary before even stepping on campus.

And it showed earlier this month at both the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio and the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the defenses dominated. The most noteworthy passing performance in either game came from New York's Cole Marcoux, a two-star prospect who earned his U.S. Army invite through a reality-show contest and will be attending ... Dartmouth.

But just because this year's quarterbacks aren't receiving lavish praise doesn't mean stars won't emerge; it may just be a while before many of them see the field.

"There are kids in this class that are very skilled and have the tools to develop at this position but would really benefit from a redshirt year," said Scouts, Inc.'s national recruiting director, Tom Luginbill, himself a former college quarterback who worked with many of the class' top prospects at last summer's Elite 11 camp. "There are some good players that will be way better three, four years down the road."

The experts don't necessarily agree on who those players will be, though.

Rivals' highest-rated quarterback (No. 63 overall) is Jake Heaps, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound drop-back passer from suburban Seattle who has already enrolled at BYU. With the departure of three-year Cougars star Max Hall, Heaps, a consistent and accurate passer, will be one of four thus-far untested quarterbacks competing for BYU's starting job this spring.

"Heaps is probably the most ready to play in college," said Newberg, "but he needs to get bigger."

Others aren't so keen.

SuperPrep's Allen Wallace said Heaps is "a guy that's polished, but you wouldn't say he was stupendous." Luginbill, whose service doesn't rank Heaps on its ESPNU 150 list, calls him a great fit for BYU's controlled passing offense but questions his potential. "As we looked at [Heaps] and studied him, we felt like he was going to be same guy five years from now that he is today," he said.

Luginbill's top quarterback is Alabama commit Phillip Sims, who checks in at No. 32. The 6-1, 218-pound Chesapeake, Va., native enrolled in Tuscaloosa this month and will likely redshirt next fall, but could inherit the reins in 2011 once returning starter Greg McElroy graduates.

"Physically, [Sims] is the most gifted [quarterback] in the class," said Luginbill. "I also felt as I studied him more and more, his high school scheme, how he was coached, he was well groomed. He wasn't in a dink and dunk offense, he had to throw on the run, throw in the pocket. He's been very well prepared for the collegiate game."

Wallace, who places greater emphasis on quarterbacks than other services, ranks three between 13th and 16th nationally, still inordinately low by his standards. ("To have SuperPrep's top quarterback ranked 13th is shocking," he said.) They are: Sims, Texas commit Connor Wood (Houston) and Penn State commit Paul Jones (McKees Rocks, Pa.).

Wood and Jones also enrolled early and step into similarly low-pressure situations -- rising 'Horns sophomore Garrett Gilbert is expected to take over for Colt McCoy next season, and rising sophomore Kevin Newsome figures to get first crack at replacing Nittany Lions star Daryll Clark. (Another four-star quarterback recruit, Robert Bolden, is also joining Penn State.)

"I'm probably the only recruiting [analyst] that has Connor Wood No. 2 in the country, but I really liked how he looked in the [U.S. Army] All-American game," said Wallace. "He's mobile, and he can hurt you in more than one way."

Luginbill's top-rated quarterbacks behind Sims are USC commit Jesse Scroggins (Lakewood, Calif.) and Oklahoma commit Blake Bell (Wichita, Kan.). Scroggins, who at 6-2, 189 pounds could stand to hit the weight room, figures to spend at least two seasons behind Trojans star Barkley, while Bell, an impressive athlete still raw in his mechanics, will be looking up at returning starter Landry Jones.

Citing the cases of Clausen, Pryor and Barkley, who visibly struggled as true-freshman starters, Luginbill said the lower expectations surrounding this year's quarterbacks may work in their favor.

"Almost all of those kids have gotten themselves in situations where they can go in, no pressure, knowing they're going to redshirt," said Luginbill. "Two years from now, when they're competing for the starting quarterback job, it will make an absolute difference in how these kids play."

But not everyone will have that luxury.

Tennessee may have little choice but to hand the ball to recently enrolled freshman Tyler Bray (Kingsburg, Calif.), a 6-6, 187-pound pro-style quarterback who originally committed to San Diego State before landing an offer from former Vols coach Lane Kiffin. Opinions on Bray are all over the map -- Luginbill ranks him as the nation's No. 6 quarterback, while Scout.com ranks him 27th.

"I think Tennessee got a steal in Tyler Bray," said Luginbill. "Coming out of high school, he reminds me of a right-handed Matt Leinart, only a better athlete."

Meanwhile, Michigan fans are hopeful Devin Gardner, Rivals' No. 1 dual-threat quarterback, can provide an immediate spark -- but he may be even rawer than one of last year's Michigan freshman quarterbacks, Denard Robinson.

"After watching him in Orlando [during Under Armour practices], I think he needs a redshirt," said Newberg.

Of course, rankings don't always predict college success. The highest-rated high school quarterbacks sometimes fail to live up to their billing, while under-the-radar recruits can morph into the sport's biggest stars. For every Tebow (Rivals' No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2006), Stafford (No. 1 pro-style QB in '06) or Mark Sanchez (top-rated QB in the class of 2005), there is an accompanying bust like Rhett Bomar (Rivals' No. 4 overall prospect in 2004), Ryan Perrilloux (No. 2 quarterback behind Sanchez in '05) or Mitch Mustain (No. 2 behind Stafford in '06). Meanwhile, three recent Heisman finalists -- Texas' McCoy, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Missouri's Chase Daniel -- were largely uncelebrated three-star prospects.

The most likely 2010 sleeper, said Wallace, is Matt Brown, an undersized (6-0, 175 pounds) three-star passer from Allen, Texas, who recently switched his pledge from Arizona to TCU after Wildcats offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes took the head-coaching job at Louisiana Tech. Scout.com ranks Brown 59th at the position.

Wallace also noted three largely overlooked Californians: Peter Thomas, Sean Mannion and Chase Rettig. Thomas, who at 6-5, 218 pounds more closely resembles a tight end, switched from Arizona State to Colorado State; the similarly built Mannion (6-5, 205), who threw for a Northern California-record 581 yards in a sectional playoff game last fall, is headed to Oregon State; Rettig passed up overtures from Tennessee last summer to enroll this month at Boston College.

Luginbill's sleeper is Notre Dame early enrollee Tommy Rees, who's not even the highest-ranked quarterback expected to sign with the Irish. (That would be Cincinnati native Andrew Hendrix.) "Not enough people recruited him," Luginbill said of Rees. "He has a chance to be a really good player." Rees figures to get a lot of work this spring with anticipated starter Dayne Crist recovering from ACL surgery.

This article mentions 15 Class of 2010 quarterbacks -- but it's entirely possible someone else will become the class' biggest star. The various intangibles specific to quarterback play make it inherently difficult for analysts to project to the next level, and it becomes all the more difficult when there's no specimen like Pryor or Barkley jumping off the screen.

"I remember when I saw [current Arkansas QB] Ryan Mallett," said Wallace. "I thought to myself, 'Oh my god, what an incredible arm.' I didn't see any guy this year that looked like that. It just wasn't a good year for quarterbacks."

Here's hoping your team isn't depending on one of them this fall.

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