For two years, Nutt wasn't concerned about Arkansas' ability to get in and out of the huddle, snap the ball before the 25-second clock expired and check out of a bad play at the line of scrimmage. Nutt said his offense was safe as long as quarterback Clint Stoerner was on the field.
But Nutt said it was a different story when he looked around in 2000 and couldn't find Stoerner.
"He was the generator, the general, the guy that you're trusting," Nutt said. "You're putting your team basically in that guy's hands. You have to start over. You have to expect growing pains and we went through some."
So Nutt knows what Ole Miss and coach David Cutcliffe is experiencing.
The post-Eli Manning era began at Ole Miss following its 31-28 win against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. Manning, who rewrote the Ole Miss record books during his career, guided the Rebels to their first 10-win season since 1971 and his absence left a gaping hole in the offense.
For every legend like Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, Southern Cal's Carson Palmer, Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Florida State's Charlie Ward, there's a Doug Johnson, Matt Leinart, Tee Martin and Danny Kannell waiting in the wings. Some are successful. Some aren't. But the success rate depends on how coaches adjust to the departure, teammates' rally around the new guy and the next quarterback handles the enormous expectations.
In Ole Miss' case, it definitely hasn't been the smoothest of rides.
"It's very hard," said junior quarterback Michael Spurlock, who was pegged as the next in line after making two appearances in blowout wins last year. "We knew coming in people weren't going to let us live it down. Eli was here and they're going to match up what we do with everything he did.
"Unfortunately we got the short end of the stick early in the year."
Confidence a Key
The Ole Miss faithful realized that when the Rebels struggled to execute in the early-going, lacked an identity on offense and scored 20 points in back-to-back losses to Memphis (20-13) and Alabama (28-7). Spurlock completed 16 of 46 (34.8 percent) for 236 yards in two starts, but was replaced by sophomore Ethan Flatt in the third quarter against the Crimson Tide.
Ole Miss combined for 432 yards during the first two games. The Rebels averaged 433.2 yards last season.
"If you can get on a roll early, if you can have success early, get some wins under your belt, play well two or three games in a row, the level of performances of that new guy can take a great jump," said Arkansas quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke. "It can get him through maybe some tougher games in your schedule later on in the year. But if there's a struggle early, it's really hard to get a rhythm going and it's really hard for that guy to develop some real confidence.
"Along with that, it's really hard for everyone around to develop confidence."
Cutcliffe said Ole Miss' slow start "hit everybody in the face," but the Rebels have gradually improved since Flatt stepped into the starting lineup. Ole Miss now operates under a three-quarterback system, playing Flatt, Spurlock and redshirt freshman Robert Lane in each of the past three games.
"(Manning) was a great player and when you have a great player at quarterback, it makes you a better football team," Cutcliffe said. "We certainly were more capable offensively a year ago than we've been this year. But I don't think it's because of the attention he got or overshadowing the program.
"I think physically, we haven't been as good as we were a year ago at that position."
The Hogs were plagued by the same dilemma after Stoerner departed.
Quarterbacks like Gary Brashears, Robby Hampton, Jared McBride, Zak Clark and Ryan Sorahan couldn't come close to Stoerner's success. Nutt's offense took a conservative approach, relying on the running game and defense to ease the burden for inexperienced quarterbacks. Arkansas' total yards dipped from 4,067 yards in 1999 to 3,569 in 2000.
"You'd like to think that you can just keep producing and keep popping guys out like that, but it's rare that it happens," Wittke said. "You may have two real good ones, but when you talk about a great one, especially like Eli Manning, to have another guy like that back-to-back ..."
That's why coaches say a larger load falls on returning players after a legendary quarterback leaves.
Cutcliffe has watched it work before when he was coach Phil Fulmer's offensive coordinator at Tennessee. The Vols were coming off four successful seasons under Peyton Manning, but still were searching for Southeastern Conference and national championships.
Tennessee accomplished both in 1998 when little-known quarterback Tee Martin replaced Manning. Martin didn't put up gaudy numbers like Manning, but the Volunteers succeeded with a strong supporting cast.
"The team rallied around Tee and said, 'Regardless of what happens, we're not going to let him fail,'" Fulmer said.
Arkansas will rely on that philosophy next season, when Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen or Landon Leach take over for quarterback Matt Jones. Instead of counting on the quarterbacks, Wittke said the Hogs will lean on the offensive line, tailbacks, receivers and the defense to relieve some of the burden.
The Hogs also might fine-tune their system, tailoring the offense around the strengths of the new quarterbacks.
Rollouts, bootlegs and option plays that have been successful with Jones could be replaced by other ideas. It might take time to adapt to the differences, but Wittke said it's better than holding onto ideas that don't fit a quarterback.
Georgia coach Mark Richt felt the consequences at Florida State in 1994, the year after Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy and guided the Seminoles to a national title. The next in line, Danny Kannell, was talented, but struggled early on in an offense better suited for Ward.
"We were running the very same offense that Charlie was running, but it looked a whole lot different when Danny ran it because he just didn't have the same style and athletic ability," Richt said. "It was very difficult for Danny to be the guy to follow that legend. He struggled."
Richt said Kannell might've lost his job if not for a signature performance against Florida, when he helped the Seminoles rally from a 31-3 deficit to tie the Gators 31-31.
"I think that just has to happen somewhere along the line," Richt said. "I don't think you can manufacture it. I don't think you can convince anybody that this guy is the guy until he does something special in a ballgame. That's what happened for Danny and it really happened in the nick of time."
It helped that Kannell gained significant experience during Ward's senior season, throwing for 341 yards and five touchdowns in place of the injured starter during a 49-20 win against Maryland. Spurlock made two insignificant appearances for Ole Miss in mop-up roles last season, completing 7 of 8 passes for 118 yards and 2 touchdowns.
"It's definitely helpful when that player can get some playing time before he steps into a starting role," Cutcliffe said. "You hope it's because of your choice and not an injury situation, but, regardless, it's good to break the ice and let them get a feel for an actual game."
Wittke said quarterbacks must take it upon themselves to observe how legendary players handle different situations. Johnson and Mortensen continually prepare as if they're the starter, a situation that was intensified three weeks ago because of Jones' groin injury.
Johnson, who has played in three games, got first-team repetitions during practice and played the final two series against Georgia. He also handled interview requests all week, another experience Wittke believes will prove invaluable when the spotlight is on him next season.
As Spurlock, Flatt and the Rebels discovered, there will be plenty of questions about a legend's departure.
"I've never seen anything like it, just the hype and the pressure that was put on (Spurlock) before even playing our first game," Flatt said. "Our team struggled our first two games and he took a lot of the heat for that. We've done our best. We've played hard and hopefully we'll continue to improve and maybe one day be a player like (Manning)."
Fulmer said it's important that a quarterback establishes his own identity and personality above all else.
"He's there to help this particular football team win games," Fulmer said. "And that can be a tremendous burden if you let it. You work at keeping those pressures off of him. But the bottom line of it is they've got to mentally accept the fact that replacing them is just what you're doing. You're replacing them. You're not trying to be them."
Replacing A Legend
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