Selecting a QB key to team harmony
Major Applewhite has been on both sides of the touchiest situation in team sports: a close quarterback competition.
He's been there as a player, when he battled Chris Simms for the starting job at Texas a decade ago. Now he's there as a coach, the co-offensive coordinator of the Longhorns who will give his input on whether Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy or another candidate calls signals first against Rice on Sept. 3.
The viewpoints are dramatically different.
"From a player's standpoint, so much of what you want is for yourself," Applewhite said. "You're 19, 20, 21. You're selfish. You want the job whether it's right for the team or not. That's part of being young and naive -- you look at things through your own glasses.
"As a coach, you're thinking about the other 84 guys."
For the sake of team tranquility, those divergent outlooks need to find common ground. Because when a quarterback competition escalates into a quarterback controversy, it's a major stress test for all involved.
Everyone will have an opinion, and many of them will be uninformed opinions. Locker rooms and fan bases can be divided. Media members can become obsessed with the topic.
When a QB competition crops up, all parties agree there is one key ingredient to keeping it from becoming a crippling controversy: honest, even-handed communication from coaches to quarterbacks.
"If you're going to say something to one guy, say it to all of them," Applewhite said. "Put all sets of ears in the same room so they're hearing the same message. Don't let them see one guy go into the head coach's office and then wonder, 'I wonder what they're telling him.'"
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has had his share of quarterback battles to referee in 19 years as a quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator at five schools. He's a believer in sending a consistent message.
"Always be up front," Fisher said. "Nothing behind the scenes. We put them all in the room and tell them the same things. We tell them we're going to do what's best for your football team."
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe likewise had some memorable quarterback decisions as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee and as head coach at Mississippi. He has always strived to provide his QBs with the straight skinny.
"If you beat around the bush, if you don't communicate on the front end, it's going to create issues," he said. "Talk to all of them as a group and make sure they know where they stand. I tell them, 'We are going to make a decision that we intend to be final.'"
That intent, however, does not always mesh with reality.
Coaches said one of the hardest things to do in evaluating quarterbacks is to project practice performance to game performance. They need to know who will perform best in full-speed, full-contact situations -- but you don't want to get them hurt. There is a fine line to walk between protecting your QBs in preseason practice and learning what they're made of in real football situations.
"You hear people saying, 'He had a great summer,'" Applewhite said. "Well, how do you know for sure? He's playing 7-on-7 or throwing against air. He didn't put on a pad or get hit all day."
Even scrimmages in which quarterbacks are "live" for hits from the defense might not tell the whole story. Game day is always a little bit different from anything you can simulate in practice.
A guy who has looked great in August occasionally will have to be replaced once the season starts. That's not necessarily because the coaching staff blew the decision; it might be because the quarterback regressed when the pressure was fully on.
"Sometimes something is exposed in a game environment that has not been previously exposed," Miami head coach Al Golden said. "You try to expose them to game tempos and being hit, but it's very difficult to duplicate that in practice."
And it's not just about seeing who can handle a loud stadium and being crunched by opposing defensive linemen. Scrimmage situations in practice often are scripted and controlled to the point that quarterbacks don't have to navigate the kind of breakdowns that can occur on game day.
"You've got to find out if they can fix a problem live," Applewhite said. "You've got 12 men in the huddle, can you fix it? A wide receiver lines up wrong, can you fix it? You've got the wrong play called for the defense you're seeing, can you fix it?"
Applewhite was a fix-it kind of quarterback -- smart and poised enough to make up for his uninspiring physical tools. He was 6-foot-1 at best, with an average arm, but his mind for the game helped make him the major-college coach he is today.
Contrast that with Applewhite's competition for playing time for three years at Texas, Simms. He was 6-4 and possessed an arm that helped him spend almost a decade in the NFL. He had pedigree (dad Phil was an NFL great) and was hyped as one of the top prospects in the nation when he arrived in Austin.
Applewhite remembers the talk in his freshman year, when he started most of the season and led the Longhorns to a 9-3 record in Mack Brown's first year as coach.
"I can't wait until Simms gets here," he heard fans say. "Then we'll have a real quarterback."
But Applewhite refused to simply surrender the position. He kept Simms on the bench for most of the next two seasons, primarily by using some advice he got from Peyton Manning.
The two are both from Louisiana -- Peyton from New Orleans and Applewhite from Baton Rouge. In the summers, he'd work out with the Manning family, in the early stages of the now-famous Manning Passing Academy, and he found out that Peyton was in a surprisingly similar situation as a freshman at Tennessee.
Manning was a celebrated recruit, but no more so than fellow freshman Branndon Stewart of Texas, who actually had a stronger arm. Manning's advice to Applewhite was to worry about the big picture, not a matchup of physical prowess.
"Understand that the coaches want someone who can simply move the ball," Manning told Applewhite. "Chris will come in with his big arm and throw a long pass for a touchdown in one play, and everyone will get excited. You're going to take five plays, but you're going to move the ball and the result will be the same -- a touchdown.
"Play your game, master the course and don't ever look at the scoreboard."
Manning might have added: "Don't ever look at the newspapers or message boards." When Applewhite was a senior, he finally was supplanted as the starter by Simms. By then, he'd become a fan favorite, and a significant portion of Texas' fan base was angered that the gritty overachiever had lost his job to a guy who hadn't yet lived up to the hype.
All of Texas seemingly had an opinion on that quarterback controversy. Applewhite blocked out most of it while spending most of the year on the bench, then performed heroically in relief of Simms in a Big 12 title game loss to Colorado and as the starter in a Holiday Bowl victory over Washington.
"Some people you listened to, and some people you just kind of nodded, smiled and walked away," Applewhite said. "I listened to [offensive coordinator] Greg Davis and Mack Brown because it was their decision. Even other coaches, I didn't listen to."
Applewhite clearly did not hold the decision against Brown, given that he works for him. Now he will help Brown make another close call involving a quartet of QBs who enter fall camp in competition.
There is incumbent starter Gilbert, who struggled mightily last season (10 touchdowns, 17 interceptions) after being billed as a future star. There is McCoy, who carries a golden name as the younger brother of former Texas hero Colt McCoy. And there are redshirt freshman Connor Wood and true freshman David Ash.
It will be a public battle but a private decision on who starts.
"Coaches who say they don't read what's in the media are, No. 1, liars," Applewhite said. "And if they're not lying, they're not very smart. It's important for us to know what our fans think. But it's not important for us as coaches to let our fans make decisions for us."
However the Texas quarterback decision is resolved, the winner and the three losers can heed the feedback of Major Applewhite. He's been there before.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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