For Southern Miss fans, the name "Brett Favre" hovers over the program like a benign yet omnipresent ghost, rarely making any trouble but occasionally changing the channel and always showing up in the background of photos. Last year, though, the specter of Old Man Fun-Out-There was invoked in an unfamiliar context: As the guy whose longstanding school passing records were being smashed on a weekly basis by a former walk-on, Austin Davis. By the time he was finished, Davis had easily vanquished soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer from the top of school charts for passing yards, touchdown passes, completion percentage and total yards in both a career and a single season, and he did it in fewer career starts.
Oh: And Davis was also the best player on a team that won its first conference championship since 2003, set a school record for wins in a season and finished in the final polls for only the third time in the history of the program. You know, for the record.
Which brings us back to the first stage of the Quarterback Cycle, right where Davis started out four years ago – in a new system, under an entirely revamped coaching staff, without so much as a garbage time pass attempt to his name. Of the five candidates seriously vying to replace Davis this fall, three of them are freshmen, and the only one who has appeared in a college game (sophomore Arsenio Favor, 1-of-3 passing last year off the bench, for eight yards) has been set back by a knee injury. Neither redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd nor junior Chris Campbell has taken a real snap. The most intriguing talent, incoming freshman Anthony Alford, is not yet on campus.
"[The quarterback competition] is going to be the focus. Of all the issues we've got to address in the preseason you have to put that one at the front," first-year coach Ellis Johnson said Wednesday at Conference USA's media day. "As little practice time as we've got, we've got to find a way to get everyone repetitions with the best players around him to see who's going to win the job. … But how do you rep five kids with the first string? It's gonna be a magic trick."
It's also going to be a singular problem in a league in which every other team is beginning preseason drills with the quarterback question more or less settled. Marshall, Rice, Tulane, UAB and UTEP are all counting on returning starters; Houston's David Piland, a backup in 2011 to the prolific Case Keenum, got eight starts under his belt after Keenum blew out his knee in 2010. Memphis, SMU and Tulsa will all be leaning on much-anticipated transfers from, respectively, Texas Tech, Texas and Nebraska. (Two of that number, SMU's Garrett Gilbert and Tulsa's Cody Green, will be familiar as former starters in the Big 12.) Southern Miss' stiffest competition in the East Division, UCF, has its choice of both a returning starter (sophomore Blake Bortles) and a touted transfer (sophomore Tyler Gabbert, late of Missouri), as well as a third-stringer, Jeff Godfrey, who was voted C-USA Freshman of the Year after leading the Knights to the conference title two years ago. Besides USM, only East Carolina is planning on a new quarterback who didn't come from a more prestigious program, and at least the Pirates' projected starter, junior Rio Johnson, has set foot on the field.
If there was a clubhouse leader at the end of the spring, it was Campbell, who appeared to out-duel Lloyd in the spring game. By then, though, Ellis Johnson may have already tipped his hand by hiring Alford's high school coach, Steve Buckley, and promptly promoting him to offensive coordinator. Buckley and Johnson go back more than 20 years, to their first stints at Southern Miss under head coach Curley Hallman in 1988-89, and Buckley also coached under Hallman at LSU before settling into the high school ranks just a few minutes outside Hattiesburg. "When I decided I wanted this job, [Buckley] was one of the first people I wanted on my staff," Johnson said. "I thought he was one of the best recruiters I've ever worked with."
That quickly proved true in the case of Alford, a 6-foot, 210-pound All-American who would have almost certainly ended up in the SEC if not for doubts about his commitment to football over pro baseball, but Johnson doesn't expend much energy trying to paint the simultaneous arrival of his top recruiting target and said target's head coach as some kind of happy coincidence. ("I was recruiting Anthony Alford at South Carolina and I would recruit him anywhere I went," said Johnson, coming off four years as the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator. "But we didn't know if he was going to give up college football.") Ultimately, football won out over the possibility of a multimillion-dollar signing bonus from a major league team, and the Eagles' hopes were almost immediately pinned to the new hometown hero. Now, he just has to show up to school, begin digesting the playbook and convince his new coach he's worth the gamble in the span of a few days.
"You don't give an incoming freshman three weeks. They've gotta do something in the first week of practice to grab your attention to say, 'Hey, we've gotta give him some more time,' or you have to start moving the competition to someone else," Johnson said. But once Alford arrives? "I don't have any doubt that he's going to be in the mix."