NCF Nation: Ben Roethlisberger


Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Coming into the season, the Big 12’s cast of returning quarterbacks matched any in the nation.

With Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy back, along with Todd Reesing, Zac Robinson and Robert Griffin, the conference had a stellar collection.

 
 Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
 Blaine Gabbert has gotten off to a scorching start, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
But after the first month of the season, the quarterback that has played the best in the conference wasn’t among that group. In fact, he hadn’t even made his first collegiate start until earlier this season.

Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert has been the key player in the Tigers’ 4-0 start, leading the conference in pass efficiency as he’s thrown for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“I really never thought it wouldn’t be like this,” Gabbert said. “We haven’t done anything that I didn’t expect we would be able to do. All of us worked hard and prepared to get ready for the season. What we’ve done is a result of all of that.”

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is just as enthralled with Gabbert’s mental makeup as he is with his prototypical 6-foot-5, 240-pound stature, his loping 4.51 speed in the 40-yard dash and his big passing arm that has NFL scouts drooling.

“One important thing for quarterbacks is to stay in a place where you can function, where you don't get caught up in the hype or the negative of what's going on and you kind of stay in the zone. Whether you get sacked, or throw a touchdown or an interception, you come right back in this zone,” Pinkel said. “I've been impressed with him, he's doing a good job of staying in that area.”

Gabbert will get a chance to renew his acquaintance with his old friends at Nebraska -- a school he almost attended -- when he visits Faurot Field Thursday night in a huge early North Division showdown.

“I’m looking forward to playing them like all of my games,” Gabbert said. “But the fact it’s Nebraska doesn’t make it any bigger or more important for me.”

The commitment with the Cornhuskers came after Gabbert’s family had forged a close relationship with former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan. But several weeks before Callahan was fired, Gabbert reneged on his commitment and instead picked Missouri.

In the process he became the first five-star quarterback to choose Missouri, bringing Pinkel’s staff a playmaker to build a program around.

“I made my original commitment about what I thought was right for me,” Gabbert said. “After I decided to come to Missouri, I never had any second thoughts or focused on that. We’re focusing on the present.”

It’s easy to understand why after Gabbert’s scintillating debut.

In his first college start, Gabbert completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards, three passing touchdowns and another rushing TD to key the Tigers’ 37-9 upset victory over Illinois in the season opener. That start had pundits tripping over themselves, comparing him to John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger after his first college game.

He built on that in his most recent game, a 31-21 win over Nevada. Gabbert threw for a career-best 414 yards, on 25-of-40 passing, with three more touchdowns.

The Gabbert family still has an association with Bo Pelini and his staff at Nebraska. His younger brother, Tyler, is currently a Cornhusker commitment.

But Blaine Gabbert has caught Pelini's attention during his preparation for Thursday’s game.

“He was recruited highly because he's a good player," Pelini said. "We have a lot of respect for him and their offense. He's a good player. And it's like anything else. If he plays good or doesn't play good it doesn't change anything.

"If he has a good game or he's mediocre or however people perceive him to be, this is only his fifth start too. It's not going to change it. Regardless of what happens, he's still a good player. And Blaine is just going to keep getting better with the more experience he gets."

Gabbert’s abilities have transformed the Missouri offense, according to his teammates. His deep passing touch -- his arm has a range up to 79 yards -- has provided this Missouri team with a noticeable vertical element.

“Just by him coming out and playing like he’s done has helped us,” wide receiver Danario Alexander said. “Obviously, we had a lot of success when Chase [Daniel] was our quarterback. But now, we are a totally different team.

“Blaine is a bigger, more physical player. He can run the ball and stretch the field. Chase is a great quarterback and helped us do a lot of stuff when he was here. But having Blaine as our quarterback has really opened our playbook up.”

Alexander said that Gabbert’s performance wasn’t a question for his teammates. As such, his quick start hasn’t been a surprise.

“Everybody was looking to see what kind of quarterback he would be for us,” Alexander said. “It’s pretty simple. He’s played well for us.”
 
  Photos by Getty Images and US PRESSWIRE
  Is quarterback Mark Sanchez ready to make an impact in the NFL?

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The last image many USC fans have of Mark Sanchez is the bizarre news conference in which Trojans coach Pete Carroll told reporters that Sanchez was wrong to enter the NFL draft a year early.

"The facts are so strong against this decision," Carroll said at the time. "After analyzing all the information, the truth is there -- he should've stayed for another year."

Carroll cited a 62-percent failure rate for quarterbacks who entered the NFL draft as underclassmen. He said that Sanchez would have made a lot more money in the 2010 draft.

He also said Sanchez was projected to go in the second round, which we all now strongly suspect isn't going to happen: Sanchez almost certainly will be picked in the top half of the first round and could even go in the top-five.

So is Sanchez ready to take the reins of an NFL offense? Is he more Ben Roethlisberger or Alex Smith, two quarterbacks of recent note -- and divergent success -- who declared for the draft after their junior seasons?

The Pac-10 blog enlisted the help of Scouts Inc., NFL draft guru Steve Muench to debate the subject.

1. How much of an impact should Mark Sanchez' experience have on the evaluation process?

Steve Muench: Experience is key when it comes to evaluating top-tier prospects such as Sanchez. Sound investments in the first round can be the difference between going to the playoffs or finishing in the bottom of your division. As a result, organizations want to compile as much information as possible in order to make the right decisions. The bigger body of work they have to break down, the better. USC head coach Pete Carroll made waves when he said he felt that Sanchez should stay in school, but the truth is Carroll offered his admittedly talented quarterback sound advice. After all, eight of the last 11 underclassmen quarterbacks taken in the first round are either failing to live up to expectations or are complete busts. Not an encouraging trend. Now obviously you can't base a decision solely on experience and Sanchez' natural ability as well as intangibles make him an early first-round value as far as I am concerned. That said, I think that Matt Stafford being a three-year starter gives him an edge over Sanchez.

Ted Miller: It should have a lot of impact -- impact in Sanchez's favor. No other quarterback in this draft has spent the past four years running a sophisticated pro-style offense playing against an NFL defense -- the unit Sanchez faced every day in practice. Let's recall that the Trojans' 2008 defense, one of the best collections of talent in the history of college football, lost three first-round picks and a fourth player taken in the second round the previous spring. Moreover, Sanchez has been in the spotlight since he was named Parade All-American Prep Player of the Year in 2004. He's shown poise and charisma under the brightest media glare in college sports and he's already demonstrated he can work a room full of reporters with the best of them. So when you talk about experience, it's not just about 16 starts. It's about the total package.

2. Where's the best fit for Sanchez -- a team that's going to give him a rookie-year test or a team that's going to let him sit the bench?

Miller: Hey, it's always great for a guy to get to be mentored for two years by a future Hall of Famer before ascending to the front of the huddle. But that's not the reality. Sanchez is an ambitious competitor. He'll want to play now. And he's up to the job. For one, Sanchez is smart. He'll know his place. He'll ingratiate himself with veterans and win their trust, knowing it doesn't happen during a single minicamp. He also takes instruction, see how he without complaint worked within the Trojans' conservative system in 2008 that leaned heavily on an impenetrable defense. Further, he's mentally and physically tough. Sanchez already has shown an ability to shake off mistakes and bounce back from poor performances, as well as an ability to play through injuries. If a coach holds up the keys to the offense and asks Sanchez if he's ready, let there be no doubt what his answer will be.

Muench: I think it's critical that Sanchez land on a team that doesn't need him to step into the starting role Day 1. He certainly has all the physical tools to contribute early on and he is a charismatic leader who I think can win the hearts and minds of the players in the huddle. But the NFL is bottom-line business. He'll have to win for his teammates to keep their faith in him and the NFL is a whole different animal when it comes to reading defenses. The speed and size of NFL defenders effectively shrinks the field and forces quarterbacks to throw into tighter spaces. Just as important, complicated blitz packages and coverages and quicker pass rushers will force him to get rid of the ball. He'll have to make sound decisions much quicker than he did at USC, even if the Trojan defense was arguably the most talented in the nation last year. He's going to need time to adjust. In addition, a team that drafts him with the intent of starting him his rookie year more than likely won't be able to put him in a position to succeed because they will have too many needs outside of quarterback.

3. In 2010, will Sanchez look back on this decision with any regrets? Would another solid year at USC have made him the No.1 overall pick in the draft regardless of what Texas' Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford did?

Muench: I can't seem to find my crystal ball here but I think that Sanchez will end up with the Seattle Seahawks and play behind Matt Hasselbeck for a year, possibly two. Giving him that time to get comfortable with his new offense/teammates/coaches and adjust to the speed of the NFL game will put him in position to succeed and I think he develops into an excellent NFL quarterback in that kind of environment. However, I think he struggles if he somehow ends up on the New York Jets' roster, which seems unlikely at this point but can't be ruled out. The Jets play in a big market, they play in a tough conference and they need a starter right away. If Sanchez struggles early, the media there will most likely skewer him. Remember a couple Jets' players were quick to place blame on future Hall of Famer Brett Favre for their demise last year. How is a former Parade All-American and star USC quarterback going to handle that kind of criticism, learn the offense on the fly and get his teammates to believe in him? Again, I think Sanchez has a bright future but that's a lot to ask of anyone, certainly someone who started just 16 games in college.

Miller: Maybe, but not going No. 1 this year means he doesn't have to go to Detroit, and how is that not a good thing? Look: It's impossible to look at a USC offense that welcomes back nine other starters and not wonder what that crew would look like with Sanchez running the show. It's conceivable that the Trojans' 2009 offense would approximate the Trojans' 2008 defense. And that could have buoyed his draft status ahead of every other quarterback. But another year at USC also would mean another year of not getting paid and another year in which
something terrible could happen that damages, shortens or ends a career. Sanchez's potential regrets probably hang more on where he ends up than over his decision not to return to USC for his senior year.

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