Starting QB Spots Still Open

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas closed spring practice April 16 without penciling in Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen or Cole Barthel as its choice to replace all-everything quarterback Matt Jones next season.

But the Razorbacks aren't the only Southeastern Conference team that will push their battle for the starting job into the preseason.

Four other conference teams, South Carolina, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee, didn't name a starting quarterback after spring practice. At least, publicly.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier declared the Gamecocks' race "wide open" between young candidates. In fact, sophomore Blake Mitchell is South Carolina's most experienced quarterback after throwing 22 passes in 2004.

Mitchell, redshirt freshman Antonio Heffner and walk-on Brett Nichols handled snaps this spring. Spurrier also will look at incoming freshmen Cade Thompson and Tommy Beecher before making his decision.

"We'd love to inherit an all-conference quarterback and plug him into our system here, but that didn't happen," Spurrier said.

"Obviously, about a week or so into preseason practice, you've got to make a decision. If you're trying to get four quarterbacks ready, you're probably not getting anybody ready."

New LSU coach Les Miles is keeping his eye on two sophomores -- JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn -- in the battle to replace Marcus Randall.

Russell gained experience last season, throwing for 1,053 yards with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 11 games, and was impressive in the spring game. He's the odds-on favorite to win the starting job next fall, but Miles didn't name the starter when spring drills closed earlier this month.

"Both are competing very evenly for the starting job," Miles said. "I think both showed the ability to be the leader. Both have natural abilities to do the job.

"I think this competition will go through the summer. We'll approach game day before we make any decisions."

Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron, who replaces fired coach David Cutcliffe, has three to choose from: senior Michael Spurlock, sophomore Robert Lane and junior Ethan Flatt. Lane missed the last two weeks of spring practice with a shoulder injury, while Spurlock and Flatt finished 1-2 on the depth chart.

Orgeron said Spurlock, who struggled as the heir apparent to Eli Manning last fall and was relegated to third-team duties, had a "fantastic spring." But Orgeron will wait to name his starter until preseason practices.

"I really think that Michael had some fundamental things to work on that got better as the spring went on," Orgeron said. "We've got to continue to have the competition open and let the best man win the job."

Finally, Tennessee's three-person battle, between Erik Ainge, Brent Schaeffer and Rick Clausen, was trimmed to two last week. Schaeffer, who was suspended after being arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault earlier this month, left the team after what coach Phil Fulmer described as a "mutual agreement."

That leaves Ainge, who played nine games before breaking his collarbone, and Clausen, who started the last three games of the season, as the candidates.

"Last year at this time, we were coming out of spring practice and we talked about 'I'm not sure who the quarterback is going to be,'" Fulmer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the spring game on April 16. "This year we are talking about, 'I'm not sure who it's going to be, but it's going to be a good one.'"

Banged Up Backfield
Alabama coach Mike Shula said the Crimson Tide got plenty accomplished during spring practice. But Alabama had to do so without its starting backfield of quarterback Brodie Croyle, tailback Kenneth Darby and fullback Tim Castille.

Croyle, who tore a knee ligament last September, was held out of contact drills as a precaution. So was Castille, who tore two knee ligaments against Tennessee. Darby, who pulled a stomach muscle last November, underwent surgery to repair what doctors called a "sports hernia" this spring.

Shula said Castille should be fully recovered by mid-June. Darby's rehab will extend longer, but Shula believes the tailback will be available for preseason practices.

"Whether that's mid-July, couple weeks before or right up to fall practice, I'm not sure," Shula said. "Everything seems to be pointing in that right direction, but it's still really early in his rehab. I guess I'll breathe a sigh of relief every day that I hear good news and that he's feeling good."

On The Mend
Second-year Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom had good news to report after the Bulldogs wrapped up spring practices April 9. There was only one person with a significant injury when spring practice ended: Croom.

"One of the things we're very fortunate about this spring, I was the major physical injury," he said.

Croom underwent partial knee replacement surgery April 15 and will be slowed the next two months. The former Alabama center said he put off the surgery for some time, but finally gave in when he started having trouble sleeping.

"I told the doctors if they explained in detail what they were going to do to me before I did it, I probably wouldn't have let them do it," Croom said. "I didn't know they were going to use saws and things like that on my knee, but they did.

"I'm in less pain now than I was before the surgery. It's still uncomfortable, but it's definitely better than prior to the surgery. I'm ahead of schedule as far as rehab."

First Round Success
The SEC led all conferences with 10 players -- including Jones -- selected in last weekend's 2005 NFL Draft. It also led all conferences with 20 first-day picks (Rounds 1 through 3) and 37 overall.

Auburn, in particular, had a banner day when running back Ronnie Brown (Miami, No. 2), running back Carnell Williams (Tampa Bay, No. 5), cornerback Carlos Rogers (Washington, No. 9) and quarterback Jason Campbell (Washington, No. 25) were pulled off the draft board in the first round.

All four veterans led the Tigers to a 13-0 season and the 2004 SEC Championship.

"Replacing those guys is impossible," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You can't replace, not just their athletic ability, their experience in playing the game and knowing how to play. (The draft) was fun to watch. It was fun to b around them.

"But now we've got to start over in that area. In your program, you hope to have enough starters and experience coming back in other areas."

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