Big Three QB’s are learning

Published 4:51 pm Thursday, September 21, 2006

The state of Mississippi has quite a quarterback quandary.

With new starters — or renewed starters — Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Miss have been flailing and thriving as their quarterbacks struggle to learn on the job.

This particular learning curve features blitzing linebackers and lightning-fast safeties in zone coverage, and there is little time to prove you belong on the field.

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That’s something Tray Rutland found out at Mississippi State when coach Sylvester Croom pulled him following a rough start against Tulane last Saturday. Omarr Conner is the team’s new starter, the third of the season for the Bulldogs.

“I mean it was very glaring — just experience versus inexperience,” Croom said.

Conner, a senior, entered the Tulane game with 17 previous starts at quarterback — by far the most of any Division I-A quarterback in the state. The Bulldogs’ original starter this season, Michael Henig, had just four starts on his resume before going down with a broken collarbone in the opener against South Carolina.

Ole Miss starter Brent Schaeffer now has six career starts — three while a true freshman at Tennessee and three for the Rebels to go along with his year in junior college. And Southern Miss’ Jeremy Young has started his first three games this season, winning two.

Here’s a look at their progress:

Mississippi State (0-3): Croom moved Conner back to wide receiver last year after settling on Henig as his starter of the future. But when the sophomore was injured, Conner was named the backup to Rutland.

Rutland struggled against Auburn in his first start. And when he completed 2-of-6 passes for 6 yards and lined up the team in the wrong formation occasionally against Tulane, Croom didn’t hesitate to turn to Conner again.

Conner responded by passing for 241 yards, rushing for 71 more and scoring touchdown late that gave the Bulldogs a chance to win. He played the position like never before and like he had always dreamed.

“This is the first time I felt real good,” Conner said. “I think me losing weight for receiver last year, coming in with less weight on my body at 211 pounds, that kind of helped me get around good, get my drops, get the ball to the right receiver, and make plays with my legs like I did in high school.”

Plays are something the Bulldogs desperately need on offense as they prepare to play Saturday at Alabama-Birmingham (1-2).

Conner said experience — and lessons learned while struggling — have put him in a position to make plays. He knows the offense better now. And he’s also discovered the benefits of long hours in front of the television studying film.

But no matter how hard he works before game day, if he’s not producing by the time Henig returns in three to four weeks, he knows he’ll be on the receiving end again.

“Coach is going to do what’s best for the team,” Conner said. “If I’m on a hot streak at quarterback, playing real good, coach is going to stay with the hot person. If I’m slumping or the team’s still slumping, coach is going to go with a different quarterback.”

Southern Miss (2-1): Jeremy Young had never started a game before this season, but he’s had something the state’s other starters haven’t — stability.

Young spent three years in the Golden Eagles’ system, learning, throwing practice passes and working on fundamentals, before making his first start.

He had a tough beginning, throwing three interceptions in a 34-7 loss at Florida. But by Game 3 of his career, all that time learning the offense began paying off as he led Southern Miss to a 37-17 win over North Carolina State.

Other than overthrowing a wide open receiver by 5 yards in the N.C. State game, it was hard to find fault with his performance, though coach Jeff Bower usually will.

“There were a few negatives that you wouldn’t see,” Bower said. “We forget to put a guy in motion to make a play and I don’t know how that happens. (But) he did really well.”

Young, whose Eagles face Central Florida (1-2) in a Conference USA game on Tuesday, hasn’t thrown an interception since opening with the three at Florida. He’s shown a knack for scrambling out of trouble and occasionally hurt N.C. State with the quarterback draw. He has completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 416 yards and gains confidence every time he drops back to pass.

He’s living a dream he’s had since he began his football career — as water boy helping his dad, who coached a high school team.

“It’s as much as I envisioned and even more,” Young said. “It’s a blessing that you get a chance to go out and fulfill your dreams playing football, especially at the big-time college level.”

Ole Miss (1-2): Imagine being asked to memorize a playbook that is inches thick — roughly the size of a geology textbook — in three weeks. That was the task Brent Schaeffer faced when he arrived at Ole Miss a little more than a month ago.

“And for all the terminology, there are (hand) signals, too,” Schaeffer said. “So it’s like learning a new language and learning sign language.”

Schaeffer said he has learned the language, but it’s not second nature. That’s been showing in his play. After a fast start against Memphis, Schaeffer has struggled and coach Ed Orgeron is trying to figure out why as the team dropped its last two games.

“If we can do it in the first game, we can do it in the second and the third,” Orgeron said. “There is something going on there that we need to figure out.”

Schaeffer didn’t turn the ball over and scored a game-clinching rushing touchdown in a 28-25 victory over Memphis.

Since then the junior has thrown four interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two, as the team lost to Missouri and Kentucky. His completion percentage also has dropped to 46.5 on the season. He has thrown for 377 yards and three touchdowns.

But as the game with Wake Forest (3-0) on Saturday in Oxford approaches, Schaeffer said he’s not losing confidence. Time and repetition, he believes, will wipe away all his problems. Hopefully not too much time, though.

“I know we have seniors on this team that don’t have a next year,” Schaeffer said. “I’m trying to make sure they leave on a good note.”