The person on the other end of the line laughed. “That’s a problem?” he said.
This man is an offensive coordinator at a Power Five school. I had just asked him how he would handle his decision if he had to choose a starting quarterback from a group that included a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year, a sophomore who went 11-1 as a starter as a redshirt freshman and a junior who is 3-0 as a starter with wins in the Big Ten championship, the Sugar Bowl and the national title game. Most coaches outside Columbus, Ohio, wish they had this problem. Ohio State’s coaching staff actually does, and as pleasant a dilemma as it may be, a choice must still be made and two quarterbacks won’t win the job.
I asked several coaches who work with quarterbacks how they would handle such a situation. I granted them anonymity because some of them are managing quarterback competitions of their own, and they might have been less than frank if asked to assess someone else’s competition publicly. Their answers provided a fascinating window into the choice Urban Meyer and co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner must make and the machinations that might help them arrive at an answer.
We’re operating on the assumption that Braxton Miller will start camp as a quarterback. While Miller seemed open to the idea of a position switch in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch earlier this month, he also said this: “The first thing in mind is being a quarterback.” So, unless something has changed that hasn’t been revealed, we’ll surmise that the player who carried Meyer’s offense through 24 wins in 2012 and ’13 will get a shot to play quarterback and won’t be moved to another position before camp begins (though there is no doubt Miller can help the Buckeyes’ offense even if he doesn’t win the quarterback job).
So how do the Buckeyes manage Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones? “It’s like I’ve got Favre, Brady and Rodgers, and we’re going to have open competition,” the above offensive coordinator said. “Who’s my guy?” My panel agreed that the trio must be handled more carefully than the quarterbacks in a typical competition. “The hardest thing,” another Power Five coordinator said, “is to be fair with it.” These aren’t would-be first-time starters trying to win a job vacated by a departing veteran. These are three accomplished signal-callers who all played a part in Ohio State winning a national title. (That includes Miller. If he doesn’t set the table the previous two seasons, the Buckeyes might not have won last year.) So camp must be set up with an eye on giving each player an equal shot. “Where I’ve always had trouble is the quarterback looking at me and saying, ‘Well, that’s [messed] up. I didn’t get to go with the ones,’” one coordinator said. “You have to at least give them that opportunity because all three have made a name for themselves.”
Further complicating the competition is the health issue. “This is a unique situation because two of them are coming off major injuries,” a Power Five quarterbacks coach said. Miller lost last season to a shoulder surgery, and Barrett broke his ankle against Michigan last year. Jones got all the first-team reps during spring practice. But unlike spring, there are now three healthy competitors and only one first-team offense.
It is inevitable that competing quarterbacks will have to work with the second team in camp. And even when they work with the first team, key contributors could be resting injuries. That’s where documentation comes in. Ohio State’s support staff will have to carefully chart exactly who plays with whom so coaches can adjust for personnel when they review practice performance. That way, if Barrett draws receivers who catch everything and Jones draws receivers who drop perfect throws, coaches don’t mark down Jones for simple bad luck. Thorough charting also makes it easier to explain the decision once it gets made. “You’ve got to be very detailed in how you keep track of the reps,” the quarterback coach said. “That way, you’ve got your bases covered and you’re not BSing somebody.”
So how long can three quarterbacks compete once camp begins? Realistically, not very long. “You have 29 practices before the first game,” one coordinator said. “I’d try to eliminate one after about eight practices.” That’s why every rep one of the potential starters takes must matter. “You’ve got to be creative as a coach and put them in situations where they feel it’s like life or death in a way,” the same coordinator said. “They’ve got to treat every rep seriously.”
So after about a week of painstakingly charted high-intensity reps, it could be time to make the first tough decision. If Miller is lagging, this would be the time to switch positions. Show him video of how Meyer used Percy Harvin at Florida and hope he’s intrigued. If it’s Barrett, stress that he’ll have two more years to be the starter—and remind him that’s where Jones started camp in 2014. If it’s Jones, remind him of what happened last year.
One coordinator said the Buckeyes also might consider keeping a package in for the second or third quarterback to use as a change of pace. This probably involves Jones either as the starter or as the change-up because Miller and Barrett have similar skill sets. We know Meyer can pull off the arrangement. After all, he won a national title at Florida in 2006 with senior Chris Leak starting and freshman Tim Tebow playing periodically. “Do I package stuff for them?” the coordinator said. “Sometimes that turns into a headache.”
After paring the competition to two, the Buckeyes would face a more common situation. Then, Meyer and his coaches would have to decide whether to choose a starter by the end of camp or let the competition continue into the season. Most coaches would prefer to decide in camp, and preferably, before they begin gameweek preparation for the first opponent. “We’re kind of a week-and-a-half before our first game before we announce the starter,” one coordinator said. When they do choose, the coordinator said, they must banish sentimentality from the process. “It’s such a cutthroat business,” he said. “Your best one has got to play.”
In this case, the coaches will face another dynamic after choosing the starter. With one or two accomplished quarterbacks on the bench behind him, the coaches must ensure the starter they chose is confident enough to avoid looking over his shoulder. The coaches must make sure the quarterback knows he is their guy, and he won’t be pulled after the first interception he throws. “If you do win the competition, in the back of your head is ‘The hook could come really quick,’” one coordinator said. “I don’t want them to think ‘I’m going to pull your ass.’ Because then they play not to make mistakes.”
The good news for the Buckeyes is that none of the trio lacks for confidence. Also, last season proved that the team around the quarterback is so good that the quarterback doesn’t have to be Superman. That fact should keep whoever wins the job from straining to do too much.
The consensus of the coaches interviewed is that they would love to have Ohio State’s quarterback “problem.” Still, after trying to imagine themselves in the shoes of the Buckeyes’ coaches, they realize the choice could be a tricky one. Fortunately, one coordinator said, that choice is in accomplished hands. “If anybody can pull it off,” the coordinator said. “I’m sure those guys can.”
A random ranking
The sneaker wars between Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen (Adidas, Yeezy Boost 350) and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema (Nike, sparkly Air Force Ones) at last week’s SEC Media Days generated some discussion with the editors. Just who are the nation’s best-dressed coaches? It’s tough to tell because most of them wear a polo and pleated khakis on the sidelines, but I’ve covered enough of their off-season meetings to cobble together a top five.
1. Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
Even if Kingsbury didn’t look like he just left a Tom Ford show every time he wears a suit, he’d top this list for providing the best fashion-related quote that has ever run in one of my stories. “No pleats, man,” Kingsbury said. “Pleats are a tough look to pull off.”
2. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
The tie-under-pullover is a good sideline look that adds a touch of flair but isn’t as restrictive as a suit. When he is dressed up, though, Fleck joins Kingsbury in the select group of FBS head coaches who know how a suit should fit. Fleck gets extra points for his love of the spread collar.
3. Nick Saban, Alabama
You want to blow the sneakerheads’ minds, Dan Mullen and Bret Bielema? Fine. Saban will wear tassled loafers because that’s what he wears. The five-star recruits don’t seem to mind. Saban also occasionally wears a perfectly tailored pink sportcoat. (Maybe it’s such a light red that it registers as pink, but no matter, our editors seem to like to use photos of Saban in this particular garment.) Only the most secure men can wear a pink sportcoat. Four rings can create a lot of security.
4. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Think about how difficult it is to make a visor look cool.
5. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Anything can look good if rocked with pure confidence—even khakis that may or may not have been purchased at Wal-Mart.
1. The University of Tennessee is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after someone filed a complaint regarding the school’s handling of a report of sexual violence. The (Nashville) Tennessean reported that Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek acknowledged the investigation in an e-mail to faculty, staff and students.
The Tennessean also reported that six Tennessee football players who began the 2014 season on the roster were accused of sexual violence. The most prominent was linebacker A.J. Johnson, who, along with co-defendant Michael Williams, was dismissed from the team in November after they were accused of sexually assaulting a female student. Johnson and Williams have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Receiver Von Pearson was suspended indefinitely in April after he was accused of raping a female student. No charges have been filed against Pearson. He was not enrolled in either the June or July summer school sessions at Tennessee, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported. The only one of the players who returned to the team after a sexual violence accusation was tailback Marlin Lane, who was accused by another student in April 2013. The woman declined to pursue charges, and Lane was reinstated two months later.
2. Why didn’t that Tennessee news make as big of a splash as all of the recent Florida State news? The Volunteers haven’t been competing for national titles. One side effect of success is a microscopic examination of the program, and the Seminoles are trying to deal with a negative perception created by multiple incidents in the past few years. Since two players (recently dismissed quarterback De’Andre Johnson and currently suspended tailback Dalvin Cook) were charged with battery against women stemming from separate incidents in July, Florida State president John Thrasher has tried in recent weeks to alter that perception.
Last week, Thrasher spent an hour with the editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat. He outlined some of the steps the Seminoles plan to take to prevent bad off-the-field behavior before it happens. Thrasher told the paper he wants to require athletes to take a course in social responsibilities. He also wants to create a position within Florida State’s athletic compliance department that focuses on student-athlete development.
3. Ohio State’s Jones took a few minutes off from his preparation for the quarterback competition described above to watch the ESPYs. Jones was particularly impressed with MMA champ and professional breaker of arms Ronda Rousey, and he fired off some flirtatious tweets. Rousey saw those tweets and responded thusly:
4. Noted book clubber and Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell is now an author. The senior has self-published a children’s book called The Magician’s Hat. USA Today’s Dan Wolken chronicles how Mitchell’s book club experience inspired him to write.
6. Someone at SEC Media Days asked LSU tailback Leonard Fournette the following: If Georgia tailback Nick Chubb is a Lamborghini, what are you? Fournette’s answer? A Bugatti. Later, the same question was posed to LSU offensive tackle Vadal Alexander. “He’s a Bugatti. I’m more of an F-150,” Alexander said. “I haul a lot of weight. I’m reliable. He gets from Point A to Point B a lot faster.”
7. Texas A&M center Mike Matthews was the second of his siblings to represent the Aggies at SEC Media Days, but he said last week the best blocker of the brood sired by NFL Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews might be the one still in high school. Luke Matthews, younger brother of Mike, the Carolina Panthers’ Kevin and the Atlanta Falcons’ Jake, is a 6’4”, 320-pound tackle for Elkins High in Missouri City, Texas. He’s about to start his sophomore year. “He’s going to be a monster,” Mike said last week. “He’s definitely going to be the biggest one of us all.”
9. Adidas unveiled Miami’s new uniforms Saturday night. They feature the same odd pattern as the UCLA uniforms the company debuted last week. It’s not as bad as the cummerbunds the poor basketball teams had to wear this past March, but it’s not good, either.
10. This week in Jim Harbaugh…
What's eating Andy?
If a college football coach really wants to get the hot sneaker takes flowing, he'll show up at a media day session wearing these beauties from the early '90s. My Al Bundy phase lasted from 1995-96, and I'm quite certain I didn't get through a single shift at Champs Sports without someone coming in and asking if we carried the tennis ball Airwalks.
What's Andy eating?
Some of the more important business of college football got done in a back booth at Salem’s Diner. There’s nothing fancy about the little spot in Homewood, Ala. The booth seats are hard and straight and ensure proper posture. The décor, as in so many other places in the state, relies heavily on Paul Bryant’s mid-career period. But critical college football decisions were contemplated—or at least ruminated upon—over coffee and biscuits in that back booth.
That’s where former SEC commissioner Mike Slive spends many of his mornings, and before his retirement, that’s where Slive occasionally convened meetings of his advisors. Slive does not come to Salem’s for the ambience, though. He comes to see Wayne.
“Commish, you want your usual?” Wayne Salem boomed from behind the counter last week. We had a server, but Wayne tends to cut out the middleperson thanks to a foghorn voice coated with Birmingham twang. The great-grandson of Lebanese immigrants chats with every customer—commissioner of a Power Five conference or not—and for him the menu is but a list of suggestions. Anything that can be created with the ingredients of the items on the page is in play.
Wayne has been serving customers his entire life. His father, Ed, was an All-America halfback and safety at Alabama who achieved statewide acclaim by throwing for three touchdowns, running for another, kicking seven extra points and playing safety in a 55–0 win against Auburn as a sophomore in 1948. The year is critical because it was the first time the teams had played since 1907. They’ve played every year since. Ed played pro football briefly, but he made his bones with restaurants, bowling alleys and a service that shuttled Alabamians to Atlantic City for gambling junkets.
A lifetime working in the family business has taught Wayne the value of customer service. That’s why he’ll occasionally serve something that isn’t on that menu. Last week, Wayne pulled out a Mason jar full of locally produced honey to drizzle on the diner’s soft, flaky biscuits. “My buddy brings me this stuff,” Wayne said. “He’s also a moonshiner.” Wayne wouldn’t violate Alabama’s liquor laws by serving the more potent concoction that fills those Mason jars, but he doesn’t need to. He keeps even more intoxicating substances behind the counter.
When I first visited Salem’s last year, I ordered the Trash Can with a lid. This monster packs in hash browns, sausage, cheese and veggies. The “lid” refers to the two egges sitting on top. It’s the perfect breakfast for someone who doesn’t want to eat—or walk—again for the remainder of the day. Slive does not order the Trash Can. He’s more of an English muffin and sliced tomatoes guy. It was perfect for me, though. But after I’d nearly cleared the Trash Can from my plate, Wayne brought a basket of biscuits and a cup of his mother’s homemade fig jam. Don’t tell the Alabama ABC Board, but four biscuits later, I was addicted.
I resolved that on this visit I would not fill up on the Trash Can. While it is delicious, I had to leave space in case Wayne had something else behind the counter. (I also had to work the rest of the day, and SI probably doesn’t have the budget to hire someone to push me around in a wheelbarrow.) So I ordered two bacon biscuits and hoped. Then Wayne brought out the honey. That would have been enough, but he had more behind that magical counter. Yes, 84-year-old Ann Salem had made more fig jam. She also made pear jam. Baskets of biscuits appeared alongside cups of the thick, dark, sweet, spreadable elixirs. I might have consumed two baskets full myself, but I had to discern whether the ultrasweet fig or the slightly tart pear worked better in concert with the buttery biscuit. This was a critical evaluation, but unfortunately I couldn’t formulate an answer. I’m simply going to have to try again on my next trip to Birmingham.
New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey probably won’t be conducting much business at Salem’s. But newly minted consultant Slive will continue to tank up with coffee and conversation before accumulating any billable hours. Meanwhile, Wayne will keep chatting up anyone who comes through the door. He’ll explain the story behind each Alabama football poster on the wall, and he’ll offer to show diners the clip of late night host Craig Ferguson calling the Philly cheesesteak at Salem’s the best he’s eaten anywhere—including Philadelphia. And if those diners are lucky, maybe—just maybe—Wayne will have a little something behind the counter that they can spread on their biscuits.