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VOL. 132 | NO. 199 | Friday, October 6, 2017

Life of a Quarterback

Basking in glory, taking the blame

By Don Wade

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Senior Austin Allen watched his older brother Brandon live the highs and the lows of the thrill ride that is being a starting quarterback for Arkansas in the SEC.

Now, Austin Allen is in his second season in the saddle. He figured out last year that the 25 touchdown passes he threw belonged to him less his than the 15 interceptions he threw. The overall 7-6 record? That was his as much as it was coach Bret Bielema’s.

“You know when you sign on to be a quarterback that if things don’t go well, you’re to blame,” Allen said. “It might not always be on you, but you can’t deflect blame on anyone else. You’ve got to own up to things.”

University of Memphis senior quarterback Riley Ferguson enjoyed a record-setting 2016 season. He is on a bunch of watch lists for national recognition this year, including for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Manning Award.

University of Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson is rolling with the ups and downs that come with the position as he constantly tries to improve his performance. (Daily News File/Matthew Smith)

But no one cares about your name being mentioned in the same breath as Manning and Unitas when you throw three picks and lose a fumble in a 40-13 loss to Central Florida as Ferguson did on Sept. 30.

“It’s water under the bridge now,” Ferguson said ahead of the Tigers playing at Connecticut on Oct. 7. “I have to come out and play better, I know that. The interceptions and the turnovers, that can’t happen. That’s all on me. I have to give our offense and the team a better chance.”

All on him. That’s what the quarterback is supposed to say. It’s what his teammates want to hear, what fans need to hear, and what a coach has to hear.

“Riley came up to me right after the game,” said Tigers coach Mike Norvell. “He was not happy with his performance. I believe in that kid and he wants to (succeed) so bad. He understands that this team relies on him just like any team relies on any quarterback.”

So here’s a question: Is it really fair to judge college quarterbacks by wins and losses?

Alabama’s Jalen Hurts is regarded as a positive force for the undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the country. Yet through Alabama’s first five games his 747 passing yards ranked just 11th in the SEC.

But to be fair, Alabama has been winning by such large margins Hurts doesn’t have to throw the ball that much or always play the whole game.

Hurts also brings the much-coveted threat of being able to run whenever a play breaks down or as part of a designed play-call. He’s rushed for more than 100 yards three times in the season’s first five games. And most important in Nick Saban’s world: While Hurts only had thrown six touchdown passes he also had not been intercepted a single time.

“When you look at what we do, as coaches, we’re just about wins and losses,” said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. “Quarterbacks are no different – extension of the head coach. They have to be able to play on the big stage.”

Ferguson handled the big stage that was a nationally televised game against then-No. 25 UCLA. He outplayed the Bruins’ Josh Rosen, who some think will be the first quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Now, Ferguson is choosing to put his poor performance against UCF in the same place as his six TD passes and 398 yards against UCLA: in the past.

“It’s a long season ahead of us,” he said. “Anything that’s behind us, UCLA – win – the loss just now, we can’t be worried about that.”

Hear that, the “we?”

A quarterback might live on an island at times – the adoration others don’t get, the criticism others would never want – but he’s also still just 1/11th of the offense. That’s why Jalen Hurts is perfect at Alabama, where Saban surrounds the quarterback with top-rated linemen and skill players and always provides an elite defense that can lessen the pressure on the quarterback.

“It’s not about just the quarterback, or just the running back, or just the line,” said senior Bama offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman. “It’s about the whole unit. It’s about the whole machine.”

But if the machine breaks down, it’s not a center or a wide receiver at the controls. It’s the quarterback.

“You gotta be calm and confident,” said junior Missouri QB Drew Lock, ranked third in the SEC with 1,115 passing yards. “You gotta know your job cold. If you don’t know your job cold, there’s no way you’ll be successful. Freshman year, I didn’t know my job cold. Sophomore year, started to know it cold – that’s why the numbers came, but also why the wins didn’t come. This year, I know it inside and out.”

He said that before the season started. So the wins may or may not come and the final tally will determine his perceived value as a quarterback.

The mental/emotional side of the game is huge for a quarterback. So is “arm talent,” to use the cliché of the day. Suffice to say, it’s good to be able to make the off-balance throw; it’s also crucial to keep an even keel.

“I just try to stay true to myself,” said Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur, who had thrown 11 TD passes to just one interception while taking just three sacks through the Commodores’ first five games. “I’m a realist. I know where I make mistakes and where I do things well.”

Which isn’t to discount the physical nature of the job.

“Having a 300-pounder run full-speed at you and hit you under the chin isn’t a lot of fun,” Allen said.

But provided the quarterback gets up and is still in one piece, it’s still better than throwing that interception that turns victory into defeat and says in neon lights that it’s all your fault.

Likewise, when the football is sailing through the air and reaching its intended destination in stride – often to receiver Anthony Miller in Ferguson’s case – the life of a quarterback is pretty sweet.

“If we’re hitting on all cylinders, it’s hard to stop us,” Ferguson said. “But when I’m turning the ball over, it can be a long season.”

In other words, the political football stops at the quarterback.

“That’s the nature of the position,” Shurmur said. “Being the center of attention, sometimes you do get too much blame, too much credit.

“But that’s the beauty of it.”

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