Preparing for life without the two-time reigning Big Sky Conference MVP is an unenviable task for any coach. For Beau Baldwin, the strain is accentuated by the fact that his Eastern Washington Eagles have to square off against the quarterback they are trying to replace.
The first full week of the college football season gets underway on Thursday night as Big Sky members Southern Utah (at Utah State), No. 11 Montana State (Fort Lewis) and UC Davis (at Nevada) kickoff the season. By Saturday, all 13 teams in the league will have opened their schedules, including the No. 6 Eagles.
EWU not only has the tallest task of any league squad — Eastern plays at Autzen Stadium in Eugene against FBS No. 7 Oregon, the 2014 national runners-up — but the Eagles must also do it with a new starter under center. That wasn’t supposed to be the case when EWU fell to Illinois State in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs last season. Vernon Adams was supposed to have one year left.
But the star quarterback, a fearless gunslinger who threw 110 touchdowns in three seasons for the Eagles, took his formidable talents to the West Coast. In a much-chronicled, much-scrutinized saga, Adams transferred to Oregon during the off-season. Last week, he was named the starting quarterback for the Ducks’ opener against his former team.
“The last thing I would have wanted was for him to not be able to suit up,” EWU seventh-year head coach Beau Baldwin said on Wednesday morning. “It was exciting. The other side of the emotion was, and this is an absolute compliment to Vernon, because you know how darn good he is. It put us in the state of mind to prepare for one of the best in the nation.
“I’ve never seen him not make a lot of plays in any single game in his career so you know he’s going to make plays. You have to just try to do the best you can to put him in situations to make those plays a little tougher and make him earn everything he gets.”
Eastern Washington’s Jordan West, a 6-foot-4 junior with a rocket arm, will make his fifth career start in Eugene. He threw nine touchdowns in relief of Adams, who won his second Big Sky Offensive MVP despite missing four games with a broken foot last season.
Eastern Washington isn’t the only team in the Big Sky replacing its quarterback. Actually, it is far from the case. Only MSU, Southern Utah, Cal Poly and UC Davis return a signal caller who started at least six games in 2014. Only Montana State junior Dakota Prukop (11 starts) and Cal Poly senior Chris Brown (12 starts) were the slated starters from start to finish and even Prukop missed two games with a knee injury.
Not coincidentally, Cal Poly and MSU are the expected favorites to contend with EWU, a team that’s claimed four of the last five Big Sky crowns.
Prukop earned the preseason All-Big Sky nod at quarterback after a breakout sophomore season in 2014. Last fall, Prukop threw for more than 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 more scores. He missed starts against Idaho State and Montana but returned for MSU’s first-round playoff loss to South Dakota State. Despite his successful debut season, he did not rest.
“I’m really impressed that Dakota has worked this summer because he knew he was going to be the starter. He knew he could be a good player and he could’ve rested on his laurels but he didn’t do that at all,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said following the first day of fall camp. “He worked even harder this summer than last summer when he knew he had to win the job. It’s amazing.”
Brown is perhaps the most important player in the league. The senior is a master of operating Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option. Last season, Brown rushed for a Big Sky quarterback record 1,285 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on the ground as Cal Poly set an all-time rushing record with 4,221 yards as a team.
“He’s almost 6-2, he’s almost 207 or 208 pounds, he’s fast, he’s tough, he’s smart, he loves playing the position and carrying the football and he loves the offense we run,” said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who’s team opens Saturday night against No. 13 Montana. “I think that makes him a pretty imposing figure to have to defend.”
Outside of Adams, the most important and perhaps the most difficult player to replace is Justin Arias at Idaho State. Last season, Arias earned first-team All-America honors and finished third in the Walter Payton Award voting behind Villanova quarterback John Robertson and Adams by throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns. No. 22 Idaho State led the country in passing offense and total offense in 2014.
In the off-season, ISU fifth-year head coach Mike Kramer lost his longtime offensive coordinator Don Bailey to Hawaii. He promoted Sheldon Cross and has spent time coaching the position himself. The Bengals signed junior college transfer Michael Sanders, a 6-foot-3, 210-pounder who threw for 3,827 yards and 38 touchdowns at Scottsdale Community College last season. He’ll be the third ISU quarterback — Kevin Yost and Arias — to come from the JC ranks and start for Kramer.
“He’s a taller, lankier dog who can spin it,” said Kramer, whose team hosts Division II Black Hills State on Saturday afternoon. “His delivery is a little long for us. We keep working on his mechanics. I like his temperament. His temperament is very similar to what both Kevin and Justin were for us in terms trying to understand the nuances of playing quarterback in our system. I’m impressed with him but he has a lot of work ahead of him.”
In Missoula, Bob Stitt already has seen Brady Gustafson handle the pressure of being a first-time starter under a first-year head coach. In Montana’s opener, the 6-foot-7 Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns as the No. 13 Griz defeated the top-ranked and four-time defending national champions of North Dakota State, 38-35.
In 2013, Southern Utah earned its first-ever berth in the FCS playoffs thanks in large part to a physical defense and an offense that controlled the ball with Aaron Cantu at the helm. Last season, offensive coordinator Steve Clark left for Weber State and Gary Crowton took over, installing more of a spread offense look. SUU waffled between Cantu and BYU transfer Ammon Olsen for the first five weeks of the season. When Olsen finally did take over, he performed well, throwing for 3,049 yards and 21 touchdowns to earn the league’s Newcomer of the Year award. Now he’s the entrenched starter and things in Cedar City seem to be flowing much more smoothly.
“It’s made a tremendous different to have a clear No. 1 quarterback,” Lamb said. “Ammon having a whole off-season to prepare and expecting to be a first-team quarterback, he’s been able to allow some of his leadership to come out. He’s been excellent in that role and as coaches, we’ve been able to prepare for his strengths.”
In Davis, Ron Gould replaced senior London Lacy five games into the season with upstart sophomore Ben Scott. Although the Aggies only won two games, the 6-foot-3 Scott showed flashes of his potential. He threw for at least 298 yards three times, including for 379 yards and four touchdowns in his debut against Montana State, a 77-37 loss. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors by throwing for 1,734 yards and 19 touchdowns in six starts.
“The young man is really a natural leader and he’s a young man who really put the team on his back last year,” Gould said in May. “To see the maturation over the second half of the season gave our team something to look forward to.”
In Jay Hill’s second season at Weber State, junior Jadrian Clark is a returning starter of sorts. He started the final five game of the season after Hill benched previous starter Billy Green, a BYU transfer, after halftime of WSU’s 23-13 loss at Montana State. Down the stretch, the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder threw for 902 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 179 yards and two more scores. He threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-12 win at North Dakota and 251 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-21 win over Northern Colorado, WSU’s only two wins last season.
“I really believe that he’s taken that momentum he gave us late in the season and built on it,” said Hill, whose team opens at Oregon State on Friday night. “The players trust him. He’s tough, he’s hard-nosed and he competes. That’s what I love about Jadrian.”
In North Dakota’s 35-17 loss at Southern Utah, Joe Mollberg suffered a season-ending Achilles injury and Ryan Bartels suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The next week, UND head coach Bubba Schweigert had to jerk Keaton Studsrud’s redshirt and throw the true freshman into the fire.
“You find out about individuals when you throw them in the fire and Keeton was thrown into a tough situation,” Schweigert said. “The first week, it was almost unfair. Here’s a guy who as running your scout team when you leave on a Friday. You call him in on Sunday and say, ‘Hey, we are pulling your shirt.’ He started running the offense and he showed some composure even though it was a struggle.”
In his first career start at Eastern Washington, Studsrud completed just 5-of-19 passes for 37 yards and threw three interceptions as UND fell, 54-3. Against Weber State, he completed 12-of-33 passes for 115 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He completed just four passes for 61 yards against NAU but UND beat the No. 22 Lumberacks, 30-28. He completed just five passes for 63 yards and a touchdown against Northern Colorado, but UND won 33-14 behind four Reid Taubenheim field goals and two Jer Garman rushing touchdowns.
Schweigert opened up the competition during spring and fall camp. Studsrud emerged the victor despite the fact that Bartels and Mollberg have each spent time as the starter since their freshman seasons in 2013.
“Coming out of spring, we said if we had to play a game, he’d be our No. 1 guy,” Schweigert said. “Going into summer and fall camp, we treated it as an open competition but we always did say if we played today, he’d be the guy. I think it’s just the total package. He gives us some mobility that we like. He has some good leadership qualities. He works very hard on the mental part of the game.”
Northern Arizona, Portland State and Sacramento State all had heated quarterback competitions, each with somewhat surprising results. At NAU, Jerome Souers promoted former wide receivers coach Tim Plough to offensive coordinator. The Lumberjacks spent the off-season installing a more spread out offensive attack.
“When you look at the kind of guys we’ve been able to recruit the last two or three years with the emphasis at the skill positions, the traditional pro offense is tailback oriented and a little conservative and that wasn’t getting us the production we felt we needed,” Souers said. “We wanted to open the game up and utilize more weapons. We are similar in principle for what we want to do but we wanted to open the game up more.”
Northern Arizona landed a verbal commitment from former Texas and Arizona quarterback Jordan Brewer, but it never came to fruition. Brewer instead transferred to the University of Virginia. Kyren Poe, a senior that’s started 13 games over the last two seasons, and Jordan Perry, a senior who started two games last season, returned but Souers elected to bring in Case Cookus and open the competition.
After fall camp’s completion, Cookus, who grayshirted at Venture Junior College last season, won the job. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder is a true freshman in terms of eligibility. He’ll make his first career start Saturday afternoon in Nacogdoches, Texas as NAU takes on No. 24 Stephen F. Austin.
“He’s got all the skills,” Souers said. “He’s mobile, he’s got a strong arm, accurate thrower, good decisions. He’s a young guy but he doesn’t act like it on the field.”
At Portland State, first-year head coach Bruce Barnum takes over for Nigel Burton with three different players who started for him over the last five years Barnum has spent as PSU’s offensive coordinator. Senior Kieran McDonagh started 20 straight games to begin his career before falling out of favor. Junior Paris Penn has shown flashes of his athleticism — he rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries in PSU’s 29-14 loss at Oregon State last season — but he’s been unable to stay healthy. Sophomore Josh Kraght averaged 311 yards of total offense in two starts last season but has since been moved to slot receiver.
None of the three will start. Instead, Barnum will go with Alex Kuresa, a transfer from Snow (Utah) Junior College by way of BYU. Kuresa caught four passes for 51 yards as a redshirt freshman wide receiver at BYU in 2013. He transferred to Snow and began playing quarterback again, a position he eared Utah Gatorade Player of the Year honors at as a senior at Mountain Crest High in 2010. At Snow, Kuresa threw for 2,374 yards an 25 touchdowns and rushed for 592 yards and eight more scores.
“We were actually watching somebody else and we turned the video on and I had just taken over the job and we were making our reports for recruiting and all of a sudden, this kid gets on and we start watching his highlight tape,” said Barnum, whose team opens at Washington State on Saturday afternoon. “It went on and on and on and on and on, the longest highlight tape I’ve ever seen in my life. I asked who the heck this kid was? I said, ‘He needs to be on our football team.’ I didn’t think we had a chance at him.”
At Sacramento State, Jody Sears is searching for a replacement for record-setting quarterback Garrett Safron, a second-team All-Big Sky selection each of the last two seasons. As a senior, Safron led the FCS with 353 yards of total offense a game. He threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns his final season, finishing his career with 9,713 passing yards, 86 passing touchdowns, 1,906 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns.
Sears brought in sophomore SMU transfer Kolney Cassel and redshirt freshman Baylor transfer Alexis Robinson to compete with sophomore quarterback Daniel Kniffin. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound incumbent prevailed and will make his first start against NAIA Eastern Oregon on Saturday night in Sacramento.
“Daniel had the upper hand because he’s been in the system for two solid years,” Sears said. “He knows the system. We brought Kolney in and Alexis in and we have a couple of other young guys. Just Daniel knowing and understanding the offense gave him the leg up.”
It remains a mystery who will start at quarterback for Northern Colorado. The Bears are attempting to replace Sean Rubalcaba, a two-year starter who abruptly left the during the off-season. Rubalcaba threw for 1,935 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
UNC head coach Earnest Collins Jr. opened up the competition between former Kansas and North Texas transfer Brock Berglund, a senior, former junior college transfer Jon Newsom, a senior, junior Kyle Sloter who played the last three seasons at Southern Miss and redshirt freshman Jacob Knipp. Berglund hurt his shoulder and is expected to miss the season, meaning the other three will wait until Saturday’s opener against Division II Western State to find out who will be the guy.
“We haven’t named one yet,” Collins said. “We will probably end up doing that sometime Thursday. If not, you guys will know when we walk out onto the field. The thing for us is we have a battle going on with these three young men and they are all doing pretty dang well. A lot of people say if you don’t have one, you don’t have any. But for us, it’s a good thing. They are competing and you see something new from them every day.”
Photos Courtesy of represented schools athletic departments. All Rights Reserved.