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June 27, 2010

New QBs could make or break contenders

Breaking in a new quarterback isn't always fun.

There are growing pains and a learning curve.

Still, a team can win big with a first-year starter. Greg McElroy started at Alabama for the first time as a junior last season and guided the Tide to the national title.

He obviously had a ton of help. His offensive line was one of the best in the nation, he handed off to the eventual Heisman winner and he had a talented receiving corps. And we haven't even mentioned Alabama's top-flight defense or special teams.

Still, McElroy did what he had to do; he certainly wasn't a hindrance as a first-year starter.

Forget winning the national title for a second. There are more than a few teams who are looking to win league crowns with a new starter, so let's take a closer look at those schools and what they have on offense around their new quarterback.

ACC

No ACC team with a new starting quarterback has a legit shot at the league title.


Big East

Cincinnati
Gone is Tony Pike, who threw for 2,520 yards and 29 touchdowns. So, too, is coach Brian Kelly, and his departure, frankly, is much bigger than Pike's.

Kelly coaxed excellent play from seemingly every quarterback he had at Cincinnati. The new starter is junior Zach Collaros, who was 3-0 in his starts for Kelly last season. He is a better runner than Pike, and that should make things interesting for new coach Butch Jones, who had a tremendous dual-threat quarterback (Dan LeFevour) when he was at Central Michigan. Collaros doesn't have ideal size (he's 6 feet and 209 pounds), but his mobility should mean he won't be sitting in the pocket all that much.

He will have a big-time receiving crew. Armon Binns has 100-catch potential, and D.J. Woods and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton are able complements. Hazelton is a physical presence who should blossom in this offense. Tight end Ben Guidugli should be one of the best at his position in the Big East.

Running back Isaiah Pead often seemed like a forgotten man last season, but he still was productive, running for 806 yards and nine TDs and averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Depth is OK, but should Pead be lost to injury, his absence would be big.

The biggest question is the line. The two best linemen have departed, though guard Jason Kelce has all-league potential. At least all five projected starters are upperclassmen.

The verdict: The receiving corps is the best in the league, Pead is a 1,000-yard rusher if he gets enough carries and the line should be good enough. That leaves the new quarterback. It will be interesting to see how Collaros fits in what is sure to be at least a slightly tweaked offense. His running ability is a plus. Still, this program is going to miss Kelly's offensive acumen, and the Bearcats will not be as productive as they were last season. A second-place finish looks like Cincinnati's ceiling this season, and a fifth-place finish in the Big East is possible.

Pittsburgh
Tino Sunseri, whose dad, Sal, is a former Pitt linebacker and currently is an assistant at Alabama, is the new starting quarterback. Sunseri, a sophomore, has 17 career pass attempts, but the coaches like his savvy and potential to play mistake-free football.

Tailback Dion Lewis is a Heisman candidate after his 1,799-yard, 17-touchdown performance as a true freshman last season. He is tough and has breakaway speed; he's also a solid receiver. Fullback Henry Hynoski is a road grader in front of Lewis. Depth at tailback is good, too.

Just as Lewis is one of the nation's best backs, Jonathan Baldwin is one of the nation's best receivers. He averaged 19.5 yards on his 57 catches last season, with eight going for scores. But there is a concern about tight end (Pitt lost its top two) and the identity of the No. 2 receiver -- as in, who is it? Virginia transfer Andrew Devlin could win the tight end job. The receivers vying to be the guy opposite Baldwin are Mike Shanahan, Greg Cross and Aaron Smith.

The line is strong at tackle with Jason Pinkston and Lucas Nix; Pinkston should contend for first-team All-America honors. The starters in the interior, though, are going to be all new, and that is a bit worrisome for a team that likes to run it right up the gut at opponents.

The verdict: Pitt will win the Big East as long as Sunseri proves to be a competent game manager; he doesn't need to be a star, just a guy who makes few mistakes. Lewis and Baldwin are among the nation's best at their positions, and while the interior of the line has some questions, the line will be fine. That puts a ton of pressure on Sunseri, and the thought here is that he will do enough to lead Pitt to the league title.

West Virginia
Sophomore Geno Smith is the new starting quarterback; he's more of a passer than a runner, so expect WVU to further tweak its offense. Smith was limited during spring drills because he was recovering from a broken foot; in his stead, Coley White -- the brother of former WVU star Patrick White -- made major strides.

The biggest plus for Smith is that senior tailback Noel Devine will be in the same backfield. Devine is a game-breaker and one of the most exciting players in the nation.

Slot receivers Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin are slippery types who are good fits for the offense. Wide receiver Bradley Starks and tight end Tyler Urban need to play bigger roles this season; with Smith at quarterback and -- you would presume -- a bigger emphasis on the pass, they should be able to do so.

Four starters return on the line, led by guards Josh Jenkins -- a top All-Big East candidate -- and Eric Jobe. All five reserves return, too, so depth looks good. But the line wasn't as physical as usual last season, and that needs to change. While WVU ran for 186.4 yards per game last season, that was the Mountaineers' lowest average since 2001, which had been the last time they averaged fewer than 200 rushing yards per game.

The verdict: West Virginia has slid a bit in the past two seasons, but the Mountaineers should be strongly in the mix for the league title this season -- as long as Smith plays well. Expect WVU coaches to try to take advantage of his passing skills, which are quite good. But it's doubtful his running ability is going to scare any foes. Devine is going to have a big season, and Sanders poses all sorts of matchup problems. Ultimately, though, Smith and WVU are going to fall short and finish third or fourth in the league.


Big Ten

Penn State
The Nittany Lions are going to miss Daryll Clark, and it's extremely doubtful the quarterback play this season will be anything close to what it was last season.

Sophomore Kevin Newsome was underwhelming during spring drills, and he goes into the summer knowing he'll have to beat out former walk-on Matt McGloin for the starting job. True freshman Paul Jones enrolled in time for spring drills, but given coach Joe Paterno's long-held disdain about playing true freshmen, you have to figure Jones has no shot at real playing time unless Newsome and McGloin are disasters.

Evan Royster is a productive running back and has legit All-Big Ten aspirations. Backup Stephfon Green should be productive when he gets opportunities.

The receiving corps looks good, too. Derek Moye and Graham Zug combined for 13 touchdowns last season and are vying to be the No. 1 receiver. Depth looks good -- really good -- and sophomores Justin Brown and Curtis Drake have all sorts of potential.

The line is good in the middle, especially guard Stefen Wisniewski. But both tackles are new, and that's a potential trouble spot.

The verdict: The running game is going to be fine, even though the line has some issues. But the rushing attack will not be as productive as last season because it's hard to imagine any opponent respecting the Nittany Lions' passing game enough. Quite simply, foes are going to stack the line and almost invite Penn State to pass. While the receivers are good, the quarterbacks have a ton to prove. If Penn State finishes in the top three in the Big Ten with these quarterbacks, it will have been a great season.


Big 12

Texas
Colt McCoy's departure is huge, though replacement Garrett Gilbert got a taste of the big time when he replaced an injured McCoy in the BCS national championship game.

Gilbert, a sophomore, is a gifted passer, but he does not possess McCoy's running ability, which means Texas coaches -- who relied too heavily on McCoy the past two seasons -- have to make sure the rushing attack is upgraded.

The talent appears to be on hand at running back. There are four returnees who will see time in Tre Newton, Vondrell McGee, Foswhitt Whittaker and Cody Johnson, and redshirt freshman Chris Whaley also could get in the mix. Those guys must produce this season.

The receiving corps looks good, even with the departure of leading receiver Jordan Shipley. Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll are the leading candidates to be the go-to guy, with John Chiles, Marquise Goodwin and true freshmen Mike Davis and Darius White also expected to be in the rotation. Coaches are high on sophomore H-back Barrett Matthews, whose speed will cause problems for linebackers and strong safeties.

The line might be the biggest concern. This group has not been all that physical of late, and that has to change. A plus might be that Texas isn't likely to use the zone read much at all this season, and instead will rely on straight-ahead power blocking. Just two starters return, but four projected starters are seniors, so this will be an experienced group. Tackle Kyle Hix is the leader, and depth looks good.

The verdict: Expect a much bigger emphasis on the run, which will help the passing game; for the first time in a few seasons, good opponents will have to respect the Longhorns' rushing attack. The line's lack of toughness should be solved, though its performance against Nebraska and Oklahoma bears watching. Gilbert is going to have a good season; expect 25 or so TD passes, and he should flirt with 3,000 yards. Ultimately, the running backs are going to determine whether Texas wins the Big 12 South, much less the Big 12 as a whole.


Pac-10

Oregon
With a proven star at quarterback such as Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon would've been the easy preseason pick to win the league. But Masoli's dismissal has muddled things.

The likely starter now is senior Nate Costa; he was set to be the starter in 2008 before getting injured in August, and Masoli took over. Costa can't provide the same running threat as Masoli, but he is a better passer. And it's not as if Costa won't run; he just won't be as explosive as Masoli. Backup Darron Thomas is a big-time athlete who is a better runner and should see time.

The running backs look good. Sophomore LaMichael James is an All-Pac-10 candidate, and he could blossom into an All-America candidate, too. Backup Kenjon Barner is a burner, and true freshman Lache Seastrunk arrives amid a ton of hype.

The receiving corps has something to prove -- and with Costa throwing the ball, they likely will get more chances. Jeff Maehl is one of the better receivers on the West Coast, but who's the No. 2 receiver? Returnees D.J. Davis and Lavasier Tuinei are the candidates. Big things are expected from redshirt freshman Diante Jackson. Tight end David Paulson has big shoes to fill with Ed Dickson's departure.

The line is not an issue. All five starters are back, and they helped the Ducks rank sixth in the nation in rushing last season. They also allowed just 13 sacks. Tackles C.E. Kaiser and Bo Thran have a chance to be the nation's best tackle tandem. Depth is excellent, meaning this could be the nation's best line.

The verdict: If Costa remains healthy, Oregon is going to win the Pac-10. The rushing attack should be lethal; the Ducks have a physical and experienced line and some top-notch backs. Plus, Costa's passing ability should open up the running game because he's a better thrower than Masoli.

Oregon State
Sean Canfield led the Pac-10 in passing last season and was the only league quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards. His replacement will be sophomore Ryan Katz, who threw 27 passes in four games last season. One positive for the Beavers is that the coaching staff always seems to get the most from its quarterbacks.

Katz will have one of the best running backs in the nation behind him in Jacquizz Rodgers, who ran for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. There is unproven depth. Rodgers also is one of the best receiving backs in the nation; he had 78 receptions last season.

Jacquizz's brother, James, is the Beavers' leading receiver, and James also is a threat on sweeps. There is no proven No. 2 receiver, though tight end Joe Halahuni has 40-catch potential.

The line will be a good one, with four returning starters. Sophomore tackle Michael Philipp is a big-timer, and center Alex Linnenkohl is another who should get all-league mention.

The verdict: Both Oregon schools are breaking in new quarterbacks, but the the Beavers are going to need Katz to do more than Costa. The Rodgers brothers are a huge plus, and the line is solid. But Katz's inexperience is going to cost the Beavers a win or two; if Oregon State gets to nine victories, this will have been a great season.


SEC

Florida
The Gators are going to have a new quarterback and a philosophical change of sorts. Former starting quarterback Tim Tebow was the Gators' most important runner the past three seasons, but there's no way UF coaches will subject John Brantley to the same type of punishment. Brantley is much more of a dropback passer, which means vastly fewer called runs for the quarterback.

One huge positive for Brantley is that he will be playing behind what could be the best line in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. The tackle tandem of senior Marcus Gilbert and sophomore Xavier Nixon could develop into the best in the SEC. Center Mike Pouncey, whose twin Maurkice was the starting center last season, is expected to vie for All-America honors. Guard Carl Johnson is a road-grader of the highest order. The other guard spot is unsettled, but there is talent on hand.

The running backs look good, too. Jeff Demps won the NCAA 100-meter title, and while he obviously can get around the corner, he's a solid between-the-tackles runner, too. Emmanuel Moody, Mike Gillislee and maybe freshman Mack Brown should provide important carries, as well.

The receiving corps is another matter, as just one of the top five receivers returns. The Gators have recruited well at the position, but there is no established go-to guy. Junior Deonte Thompson is the leading returning receiver, but he had just 24 catches last season and has only 42 in his career. Senior Carl Moore missed last season with back problems, and the other projected starter is junior Chris Rainey, a backup running back last season. There are high hopes for sophomore Omarius Hines and redshirt freshman Andre Debose, but Hines played sparingly last season and Debose missed '09 after hamstring surgery.

The verdict: Brantley can really wing it -- a 3,000-yard season is a lock -- and is good enough to lead the Gators to the SEC East crown. The line should be extremely strong. It will be interesting to see how coaches divvy up the carries that used to go to Tebow. And will UF use the read-option play at all anymore? Florida has a nice group of backs, and Demps should become a bigger part of the offense. Still, the big question for Florida is the receivers. If Thompson elevates his game and becomes a 50-plus-receptions guy, the Gators should be fine. But if he can't become the clear-cut No. 1 receiver, this offense is going to have some issues throwing the ball.

Georgia
The new quarterback is redshirt freshman Aaron Murray. He was a highly productive quarterback in high school, has excellent mobility and a strong arm. He also hasn't taken a snap in a college game.

His receiving corps is a good one. Wide receiver A.J. Green is the best at his position in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. Who will be the No. 2 guy? There are numerous candidates, including Tavarres King, Rantavious Wooten, Kris Durham and Marlon Brown. Tight end Orson Charles, a senior-year teammate of Murray in high school, had 23 catches as a true freshman this season; he's not a "traditional" tight end (the Bulldogs have Bruce Figgins to block), but he can get deep.

The running backs have potential. Sophomore Washaun Ealey and junior Caleb King should make for a nice duo, and if they didn't share time, each would be a legit candidate to run for 1,000 yards. As it is, they easily could combine for 1,800 this season.

The line, though, has to make Murray really smile. All five starters are back and this is an experienced group headed by tackle Clint Boling, one of three seniors projected to start. Guards Cordy Glenn and Chris Davis and center Ben Jones also should be all-league candidates. Keep an eye on junior tackle Trinton Sturdivant, a backup who has missed almost all of the past two seasons with knee injuries; in 2007, he looked like a sure-fire future All-America pick.

The verdict: There is a ton of pressure on Murray because all the other elements for a powerful offense are in place. The line should be as good as it has been in a long while. The backs are talented, and unlike last season, there appears to be a clear-cut pecking order as the season begins. The receivers are good, too; Green could have a monster season -- assuming Murray does his job. Murray is the only quarterback on this list never to have played in a college game, and he doesn't have much of a learning curve, as Game 2 is against South Carolina and Game 3 against Arkansas. There's also the matter of the Georgia defense, which was a sieve at times last season. The Bulldogs have changed to a 3-4 set, and a better defense obviously would take some pressure off Murray and the offense. Murray is talented and looks to be a great fit for this offense. Still, it seems like a long-shot that a redshirt freshman quarterback who has taken no college snaps can lead a team to a division title in the SEC. A second-place finish in the SEC East beckons for the Bulldogs.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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