The last in a seven-part series previewing the Cougs' offensive and defensive units.
We saved the quarterbacks for last because we figured by now the coaches would have made a decision on who was going to start the opener against Stanford on Sept. 5. Instead, we're left to continue to speculate on a situation that needs to resolve itself pretty darn quick.
When it comes to which quarterback should start the season in the backfield, there are no easy answers. The coaching staff has said again and again that the guy who gives them the best chance to win will start, which would be great, except it's proven very difficult to figure out who that guy is. Both senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore Marshall Lobbestael each have distinctly different strengths and weaknesses, which can be difficult to quantify.
Lopina can be a remarkably accurate passer and is mobile enough to occasionally escape the rush and move the chains out of the pocket. However, his decision making can be questionable at times (one interception every 14 attempts in 2008) and his arm strength is questionable. Lobbestael, on the other hand, has the bigger arm and demonstrated an ability last year to make an array of throws that Lopina can only dream of. He's younger, and a more ideal fit for rebuilding, since the lumps he takes this year would presumably pay off in the future.
It would be a lot easier if either guy had played poorly in camp, but by all accounts, both guys have played well. Lopina seemed to pull ahead out of the gate as Lobbestael worked to shake off the rust from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last year, but Lobbestael has appeared to come on as camp is stretching into its fourth week. It's an odd quandary: Lopina probably would be a better quarterback behind a suspect line and seems to possess the leadership intangibles to make those around him better, but Lobbestael probably is the only one of the two able to lead a Pac-10 caliber passing attack.
My guess? The coaching staff goes with the intangibles of Lopina in the hopes that he can muster a competent passing game. But they won't be shy about turning to Lobbestael if Lopina falters, as they did with Lopina in replacing Gary Rogers three games into last season.
And we can't forget about true freshman Jeff Tuel, who has impressed coaches and observers alike with his cannon arm and athletic ability. He's scheduled to redshirt, but with the transfer of J.T. Levenseller -- brought on by the emergence of Tuel in camp -- he'll be the No. 3 QB heading into the opener. Injuries or extreme ineffectiveness by Lopina and Lobbestael could force him into the lineup.
Projected Depth Chart
|1st||Kevin Lopina (6-3, 234, #Sr.)|
|2nd||Marshall Lobbestael (6-3, 206, #So.)|
|3rd||Jeff Tuel (6-3, 207, Fr.)|
|4th||Dan Wagner (5-11, 217, #So.)|
Lobbestael. There's no doubt he possesses more potential than Lopina, and my guess is that the coaching staff would rather the job go to a guy who can use the experience for the next couple of years as they try to pull the program out of the abyss. But it's important that they show improvement this year, and perhaps even win a handful of games -- two demoralizing seasons in a row will make it real hard for players and recruits alike to continue to buy what Paul Wulff's selling. The best thing for the program would be if Lobbestael proves to be the better of the two quarterbacks, not just at looking good in the pocket but at actually helping the Cougs win.
Biggest Question Mark
Can either one of these guys be effective enough to lead this team anywhere? There stands the very real possibility that neither Lopina nor Lobbestael turns out to be a Pac-10 caliber quarterback, and the team starts to sink into the pit of despair it was in last year. Then what? Does the team take its lumps with them to allow Tuel to watch his first year from the sidelines? Or will the coaching staff, feeling the pressure from fans and administration, pull the redshirt off and throw him to the wolves? Quite simply, this team needs one of these guys to step up and be good enough.
Best Case Scenario
Lobbestael wins the job out of camp and runs with it. He's fully recovered from his knee injury and leads the Cougs to a season-opening upset over Stanford, thanks in large part to an offensive line that keeps him upright more often than not. Turns out, all Lobbestael needed all along was a little protection, and now that he's getting it, he looks like the kind of Cougar quarterback we've come to know and love over the past 30 years. He's not all-Pac-10 caliber -- yet -- but he's good enough that his arm is worth two wins to a team that already got three from its running game. He leads the Cougars from 2-11 to 5-7, and Wulff's rebuilding job is well underway. Everyone's healthy, and Tuel gets to keep his redshirt.
Worst Case Scenario
Both Lopina and Lobbestael stink, whether because of injuries or general ineffectiveness. Staring down the barrel of a winless season by the middle of October, Wulff and Co. are confronted with the decision of what to do with Tuel. Feeling their jobs might be at stake, they put Tuel in the lineup. He looks good in losing efforts in the first two games, only to suffer a catastrophic injury in his third. His redshirt burned with no possibility of a medical hardship, the Cougs limp to an 0-12 season.
Lopina starts the year as the quarterback. He's serviceable, but hardly overwhelming, as the Cougs lose to Stanford and narrowly beat Hawaii. The coaches insert Lobbestael for a couple of series in each of the first two games for experience, and he shows enough to compel them to make a change heading into the SMU game. Lobbestael starts, and even though Lopina plays a bit against the Mustangs, Ocho Rojo shows enough to hang onto the job. He isn't that much better than Lopina, but he's marginally better, and that's enough for the coaching staff to stick with the young guy. Lobbestael and Lopina get dinged up during the year, but the team narrowly averts needing to play Tuel. The talk of who will be the starter in 2010 starts in earnest on Nov. 29.