Backup college quarterbacks take on starring roles

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College football playoff contenders are discovering one elite quarterback isn't necessarily enough to compete for a national title.

A capable backup is essential.

"You're a shoelace away from that guy going in the game," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.

Florida State, Ohio State and UCLA were ranked seventh or higher in the preseason Top 25 mostly because of the presence of star quarterbacks, but each school has relied on its backup in at least one game. The trend may continue Thursday when No. 15 Arizona State (3-0) hosts No. 11 UCLA (3-0) in a potential matchup of backups.

UCLA coach Jim Mora isn't saying whether Brett Hundley is healthy enough to play after an elbow injury caused him to miss most of the Bruins' 20-17 victory against Texas on Sept. 13. Arizona State coach Todd Graham indicated junior Mike Bercovici will make his first career start because of a quarterback Taylor Kelly's foot injury.

"Everyone tells me to embrace the situation, and obviously I am," Bercovici said. "It's not distracting to me. I see it all as love. A lot of people are counting on me to win this game, for us to win this game. I appreciate everyone who has congratulated me, but ultimately nothing has been accomplished yet."

Bercovici can look to the opposite sideline for inspiration.

UCLA is still undefeated thanks to Jerry Neuheisel stepping in for Hundley and rallying his team at Texas. A week later, top-ranked Florida State overcame Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston's one-game suspension to edge Clemson 23-17 in overtime, with backup Sean Maguire throwing for 304 yards.

Other teams dependent on backups haven't stayed unbeaten.

No. 22 Ohio State's playoff hopes took a major hit in August when Braxton Miller injured his shoulder, knocking him out for the season and forcing redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett into the starting spot. Barrett threw three interceptions and was sacked seven times Sept. 6 in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech. He improved the next week, throwing six touchdown passes in a 66-0 rout of Kent State.

Concussion issues ended former Texas quarterback David Ash's career prematurely, prompting the Longhorns (1-2) to start Tyrone Swoopes in their last two games.

Arizona State is the latest contender to rest its hopes on a backup for at least a week.

The Sun Devils are 3-0 for the first time since 2007, but must play their next game without Kelly, a third-year starter who injured his right foot in a Sept. 13 victory over Colorado. That leaves the Sun Devils relying on Bercovici, a junior with 24 career pass attempts.

"If this happened to any other team I've had, it would be devastating," Graham said. "Obviously, Taylor (getting hurt) is not a good thing for sure, but to have a guy of Mike's caliber and leadership ability and intangibles - who's prepared every week like he's the starting quarterback - it's something that gives me a lot of confidence he can get it done."

Graham believes it's important to have a quality backup because the style of play makes quarterbacks more susceptible to injury.

"It's harder to stay healthy nowadays because of the physicality of the game and because of how the schemes have directed more toward quarterbacks being able to extend plays," Graham said.

Most recent national champions haven't had to use their backup quarterbacks much at all. LSU in 2007 was the last team that didn't have its first-team quarterback start every game. Ryan Perrilloux made two starts, including stepping in for injured Matt Flynn in an SEC championship game victory over Tennessee.

But it isn't all that uncommon for a national championship contender to rely on a backup at some point in the season.

Brook Berringer started seven games for Nebraska's 1994 championship team because Tommie Frazier had blood clots in his right leg. After projected Notre Dame starter Ron Powlus broke his collarbone before the 1993 season, Kevin McDougal took over and led the Irish to a final No. 2 ranking. Colorado earned a share of the 1990 national title after Charles Johnson replaced injured Darian Hagan during an Orange Bowl victory over Notre Dame.

A notable year for backup quarterbacks was 1985, when freshman Jamelle Holieway took over for injured Troy Aikman early in the season and led Oklahoma to a national championship. That same year, injury sidelined Tony Robinson at midseason and Tennessee turned to Daryl Dickey, who helped the Volunteers win the Sugar Bowl and earn a No. 4 ranking to close the season.

"Protect the football and protect the team and good things will happen," said Dickey, now the athletic director at Division II school West Georgia. "That was kind of my mantra. I wasn't a great talent, but I was a very good player because I stayed within myself. I used my team and relied on them to make plays, and I took coaching very well."

Almost three decades later, that message still rings true for more and more backup quarterbacks pressed into duty.