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Thursday, August 21, 2008
GRIDIRON Air Force 1

By Jon Mahoney

Seven of the nation's best high school quarterbacks descended upon Southern California in May for the invite-only Steve Clarkson Super Seven QB Retreat.

As the two top recruits in the ESPNU 150, seniors Matt Barkley of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) and Russell Shepard of Cypress Ridge (Houston, Texas) headlined the event. Even though Barkley and Shepard had never met, they became fast friends who talked about everything from football recruiting to school. Basically, the two signal callers discovered they had a lot more in common than being the nation's most sought-after football players.

Off the field, that is.

On the gridiron, Barkley and Shepard represent two opposite schools of quarterback. Barkley reps the classic, drop-back signal caller, while Shepard symbolizes the new-school dual-threat weapon who can make plays with his arm and feet.

"You look at me and Matt and it's night and day," says Shepard, who's bound for LSU. "Matt is like the old type of pro-style QB and I'm the new one trying to walk in the door."

While Shepard is doing his best to change the game, the reality is drop-back quarterbacks have historically ruled the football landscape. Of the last 15 Super Bowl winners, only John Elway, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger were considered legitimate dual threats. And even Elway and Young - not to mention other dual threats like Donovan McNabb and Randall Cunningham - became known more as passers later in their careers.

Dual threats have, however, thrived in college, where the defenses aren't consistently as fast. Vince Young's feet, for instance, led Texas to the 2006 NCAA championship when he rushed for 200 yards - including 8 on a fantastic game-winning touchdown - in the Longhorns' instant-classic Rose Bowl win over USC. But Young has failed to repeat that magic in the NFL, where he's had two unremarkable seasons with the Tennessee Titans.

"I think that what will always stand the test of time is that the drop-back quarterback is like the cockroach," says Steve Clarkson, who was a prototypical quarterback at San Jose State before becoming a QB instructor. "No matter what you do to try and extinguish it, it keeps coming back. There are opportunities to be cute with the position, but to really play it well you have to have attributes of pro-style."

Barkley is a prototypical pro-style QB. Bound for USC, he has started since his freshman year at Mater Dei, a quarterback factory that produced Heisman Trophy winners Matt Leinart and John Huarte as well as NCAA record-setter Colt Brennan. As a junior last year, Barkley completed 214 of 340 passes for 3,576 yards, 35 touchdowns and just nine interceptions to become the first non-senior to earn Gatorade National Football Player of the Year honors.

"He's a hell of a quarterback," Shepard admits. "He's going to be so successful. I wouldn't be surprised if he started as a freshman." At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Barkley is strong enough to take a pounding even if he's not fast enough to blow past many defensive backs. He's also proficient in his mechanics, elusive in the pocket and quick with his release, which, as basic as they sound, are three keys to being a successful quarterback in the NFL with or without world-class speed.

While Tom Brady wouldn't be able to beat Young in a 40-yard dash with a 20-yard head start, he's the best in the NFL at avoiding the rush in the pocket, giving him time to make all the correct reads without forcing an interception.

Young, meanwhile, has yet to become the NFL star many predicted in large part because he tends to run before making all his reads. That may have worked in college with his speed (just ask USC), but in the NFL some of the defensive ends are just as fast as Young, meaning he no longer enjoys the running room he did in college.

Boston College offensive coordinator Steve Logan has worked with both kinds of quarterbacks. In 2007, he taught pro-style quarterback Matt Ryan how to move more in the pocket like Tom Brady. That lesson helped Ryan become the No. 1 quarterback selected in the 2008 NFL Draft.

And as the head coach at East Carolina, Logan helped future NFL signal callers Jeff Blake and David Garrard become passers first and runners second by teaching them to throw on the run rather than run to throw. The lessons taught them to keep their eyes up and look down field to make plays with their arms. Only if all the passing checks were unavailable could they burn the defenses with their feet.

"If they've created for themselves a comfort zone of pulling down the football and running, you've got some issues you want to resolve if you want to go to the NFL," says Logan. "Vince Young will never be able to do what he did in the Rose Bowl. Running is not going to be the ticket. You've got to show people in the NFL that you can operate in the pocket - then show them that bonus."

That's exactly what Garrard did last year. He threw for 2,509 yards, 18 touchdowns and just three picks for Jacksonville while always keeping that secret weapon in his back pocket. Garrard ran only five times in last year's NFL playoff game against Pittsburgh, but one just happened to be a crucial 32-yard scramble on 4th-and-2 that kept Jacksonville's game-winning drive alive.

"The run has to be the last option," says ESPN Scouts Inc. national recruiting director Tom Luginbill, who played quarterback at Georgia Tech and Eastern Kentucky. "If it's not, defenses are going to key on that. It's like chum in the water for sharks."

If anything, Shepard doesn't need to improve his running - the kid could outmaneuver an opponent in a phone booth. When he takes off, Shepard shows the vision and cutback skills of a tailback. In the open field, defenders are at the mercy of his wicked jukes and stop-on-adime lateral quickness.

"I think he's the most athletic quarterback in his class," says Blake, who threw 134 touchdown passes during his NFL career and now works on passing with Shepard. "I can guarantee the kid from California can't do a third of the things Russell can do in terms of athleticism." Shepard, who checks in at 6-1 and 195 pounds, passed for only 794 yards and seven scores as a junior but was dominant with his legs, running for 1,525 yards and 18 touchdowns.

"The game is moving toward speed," he says. "I'm going to be part of changing the way the position is played."

In college, Shepard might be able to excel with his running because of the evolution of the spread offense. But if he wants to achieve his dream of playing QB in the NFL, Shepard must improve his passing game.

To his credit, Shepard doesn't want to be considered a running back who just happens to play quarterback. That's why he spends six days a week just throwing the football - keeping running at the back of his mind.

"Sometimes when you're an athlete playing the quarterback position, it can work against you," says Shepard. "I need to get better as a pocket passer. I want to be known as a quarterback who's athletic (rather) than an athlete playing quarterback."

Right now that's not necessarily the case. Shepard enters the season rated the No. 1 athlete but No. 2 overall recruit in the ESPNU 150. Barkley, meanwhile, is rated the nation's top recruit and quarterback.

If playing quarterback doesn't work out for Shepard, he has options. Shepard was slated to start at wide receiver as a sophomore but switched to quarterback after the projected starter got injured.

But before even thinking about making a position change, Shepard wants the chance prove he can play QB at the next level and show he and Barkley can be as similar on the field as they are off of it.