J.R. and Henry: Quarterback merry-go-round
Casey Dick. Robert Johnson. Mitch Mustain. One of these three athletes will start at quarterback in the Arkansas Razorbacks’ season opening game against Southern Cal in Fayetteville on Sept. 2. And the No. 1 question of the fall remains who among the three will take that first snap.
Before Casey Dick’s persistent back problems kept him out for the last four practices and Saturday’s scrimmage, it’s fairly apparent that Houston Nutt had made the decision to keep Dick in the starting role he first took over before the South Carolina game last year. After the first day of practice, Houston announced that he would name the starting quarterback in a week and a half. But now, since Dick’s back injury continues to bother him significantly enough to miss extended practice time and undergo radiographic testing (which thankfully returned negative), Houston has put off that announcement and the starting quarterback job is apparently back open.
But is it really open to all three athletes? All summer long, on radio, tv, and in print, all we’ve heard are the reasons why Mitch Mustain shouldn’t start. “He’s a true freshman.” “It’s USC.” “There’s too much pressure.”
However, tellingly, what you don’t hear from anyone is the only legitimate reason why Mustain shouldn’t start. That is, he’s not the best quarterback and he doesn’t give Arkansas the best chance to win. In fact, most of the same people who don’t think Mustain should start concede that he has the most talent and will start sooner rather than later.
What they seem to recognize is that things have changed since the '60s and '70s. High school quarterbacks play year around football, especially highly regarded talents like Mustain. They go to camps all across the country and compete against the best players in the country. Are they still playing against high school players? Absolutely. But this isn’t a situation where Mustain is some green horn quarterback coming out of Podunk High who plays football in the fall, basketball and baseball the rest of the year, and has never played against big time talent. He is as polished as a freshman quarterback can be.
Sure, it would be great to sit Mustain for a year behind a seasoned junior or senior starter and let him learn and be ready in a year or two. But, again, that’s not the situation at Arkansas. Robert Johnson has started seven games, and was so ineffective that he was pulled in favor of a true freshman in Dick who had been earmarked for a redshirt. And Dick, while leading Arkansas to its miraculous, Nutt-job saving victory over Ole Miss, still only tallied wins against the Mississippi schools and has still has only played in four college games.
Where were the worries we’re hearing now about starting Mustain as a true freshman when Dick moved from running the scout team to starting against South Carolina in one week last year?
Just last week, we heard certain radio personalities in one breath aghast at the possibility of starting Mustain against Southern California while commenting in the very next breath that they thought he would be put in the USC game by the third series. What difference does that make? If you don’t think Mustain can handle the pressure of starting against USC, why do you think he can handle the pressure of coming in after two series?
In 2004, Tennessee was faced with a similar circumstance when highly regarded true freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge began fall practice behind an experienced but less talented C.J. Leak. Fulmer started Schaeffer the first snap of the first game, rotated Ainge in, and the true freshmen duo led Tennessee to the SEC East Championship. Fact is, if you’ve got that “it” that makes you great, you’ve got it as a freshman.
Unfortunately, not starting the best player, true freshman or not, has been a persistent problem for the Razorbacks under Nutt and likely cost Arkansas the Vanderbilt game last year when Nutt stubbornly played fifth-year senior running back D'Arrius Howard instead of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. While Howard no doubt appreciated it, it was at the expense of the team, and you can bet the upperclassmen at other positions who fought and lost to an inferior team would have preferred seeing the best players on the field.
When Alex Wood was in town last month he stated that all three quarterbacks would have a shot when practice began in August. He further stated that if Mustain was the best quarterback, he would be the starter. If he wasn’t, then Mustain would redshirt, leaving the emergency quarterback duties to former LR Central quarterback Clark Irwin.
That’s the way it should be. It’s past time that this coaching staff recognized that the old rules about starting freshmen have changed because the truths on which those rules were based have changed. Instead, it looks like Nutt will continue to hold onto the prehistoric notion that true freshmen shouldn’t start simply because they’re true freshmen, and Arkansas will run another two- or three-quarterback system that has worked so ineffectively in the past.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column on Little Rock twice a week.