NCF Nation: Brian Athey

We continue our look at team position rankings with quarterback. This is a position of strength for the league with so many starters returning, and the addition of two very high-powered offensive attacks. Should be quite fun to watch.

1. West Virginia. Geno Smith is about the closest to a Heisman candidate as the Big East has going into the season. He had a solid sophomore season, and now with the addition of Dana Holgorsen to the offense, should be the pre-eminent quarterback in the league. Three of Holgorsen's past six quarterbacks passed for 5,000 yards. Not many folks can throw that stat around. Depth is a bit of a concern. The current backup is invited walk-on Paul Millard, a true freshman. True freshman Brian Athey is listed No. 3.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Mark Zerof/US PresswireCincinnati's Zach Collaros is part of a strong group of returning quarterbacks in the Big East.
2. Cincinnati. It is really close between Zach Collaros and Smith. Collaros is the defending first-team Big East quarterback and certainly has what it takes to throw for 3,000 yards this season. He has tremendous wide receivers with a lot of talent as well. The offensive line has to step up to give him some more time to throw. But either way, Collaros is in line to have another great season. The backup spot also is uncertain here, with the departure of Chazz Anderson. Munchie Legaux and Jordan Luallen will battle in the fall.

3. Pittsburgh. I know Tino Sunseri has taken his share of lumps, but he has the potential to have his best season yet with the new offense coach Todd Graham plans to install. Yes, there are questions about Sunseri and whether he can throw the deep ball, but look for him to be asked to make more high-percentage passes than chucking 70-yard bombs. There also is uncertainty here with the suspension of Anthony Gonzalez. Both he and Mark Myers are redshirt freshmen and were competing for the backup job.

4. USF. B.J. Daniels was inconsistent and banged up last season, but closed the year with a nice game against Clemson. Will that translate into a season that knocks people's socks off in 2011? What should help is the fact that he is going into the season with the same offensive coordinator as the previous one. There is continuity there for him. There are questions at receiver and on the offensive line, but Daniels could have his best season. Backup Bobby Eveld has experience -- and was the hero of that big win against Miami.

5. Rutgers. The next three spots in the rankings are a bit murky for me. You could make an argument for each team to be in either the 5-6-7 spot. I chose Chas Dodd here because I think he has the potential for a good season. The Scarlet Knights have a clear vision on offense, and they also have some of the most talented receivers in the league. Going back to a more pro-style attack should help, and Dodd made some serious strides in the spring. Depth is an issue, with true freshmen Gary Nova and Mike Bimonte expected to be in the mix for the backup job.

6. Syracuse. Ryan Nassib made some strides in his first season as a starter, and seems to be poised to take the next step. He has a solid receiving crew and a solid offensive line. His performance against Kansas State could serve as a launching point for him going into this season. But this is a team that has struggled to make big plays in the passing game, and that is going to have to change for Nassib to climb up this list.

7. Louisville. This ranking is a mere reflection of the uncertainty around the position. The Cardinals and Huskies are the only two teams with this position unsettled, hence the rankings. There is no denying the potential that Teddy Bridgewater brings. But he is a true freshmen, and true freshmen are simply wild cards. Will Stein is steady, but is he the man to guide this team to a league championship? Both will play, but who is going to step up and take charge?

8. UConn. The Huskies have no starter right now and have a four-man race between Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings, Johnny McEntee and Michael Box. Coach Paul Pasqualoni hopes to get this resolved as quickly as possible, but since this is the only team with major uncertainty, the Huskies land here.

Previous rankings
I had a chance to talk with West Virginia offensive coordinator/head-coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen on Wednesday afternoon, and highlights from our conversation will make their way to a blog post near you soon.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Mark Zerof/US PresswireThe Mountaineers hope QB Geno Smith's surgically repaired foot is healed in time for spring practice.
But I thought I'd share an advance snippet from that talk regarding arguably the most important issue surrounding the Mountaineers this spring: the availability of quarterback Geno Smith.

Smith had yet another surgery on his troublesome left foot in January. That's the same foot injury that held him out of live drills last spring. It didn't hurt him or the Mountaineers too much, as Smith still had an outstanding sophomore campaign in his first year of starting. But now the team is installing Holgorsen's new offense, and every bit of work Smith can get in the preseason will help.

Holgorsen said Smith is to be out of his walking boot in about a month. West Virginia will begin its spring practice on March 28, the day classes resume after spring break.

"That Monday morning, we'll test him and see how much he can actually do," Holgorsen said. "I think as spring goes on, he'll be able to do more and more, which is good."

But Holgorsen said the Mountaineers will exercise caution with their star quarterback.

"He's supposed to be back, but we're not going to rush it," Holgorsen said. "That's what happened last year -- he tried to come back too quickly, and it never healed."

Smith played through a stress fracture most of last season, a fact that wasn't revealed until the Champs Sports Bowl. For the second straight spring, West Virginia has almost no experience behind him. Coley White, who took snaps when Smith couldn't last spring, is still around, but might not be the best fit for Holgorsen's style. The Mountaineers also brought in two freshmen early enrollees in Brian Athey and Paul Millard, whom Holgorsen described as "two 6-foot-3, good-looking kids who've thrown the ball a bunch. But you never know how those guys are going to develop."

Holgorsen is trying to teach Smith his system now through meetings and film work in the limited time coaches can spend with players under NCAA rules. I asked him if that kind of work would do the job if Smith once again must spend most of spring contact work on the sidelines.

"Not as well as it be would be if he were actually doing the reps," he said. "Right now and over the next five weeks, it's all mental reps. Hopefully during the five weeks of spring, he'll be learning from actual trial and error."

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