Wanted: A Starting Quarterback

HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama's Mike Shula was the first coach to step up to the podium, look out on the large gathering of reporters and address his quarterback situation.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson went next. He couldn't go more than a few minutes without being asked a question about having to replace quarterback Jay Cutler.

By the time Georgia coach Mark Richt spoke less than an hour later, it was obvious what everyone at the first day of the Southeastern Conference media days wanted to talk about.

"I don't think I can multiply the amount of times I've been asked about the (quarterback) situation," Georgia defensive end Quentin Moses said, sitting in a banquet room inside the Wynfrey Hotel. "... People are going to be curious about it. I'm even curious about it."

So is everyone else, the other SEC coaches included.

As Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt prepare to open their fall practices in the next few weeks, it remains to be seen how well they will handle life without with their star quarterbacks from last season.

Cutler, the SEC's offensive player of the year in 2005, is no longer taking snaps at Vanderbilt. Alabama's Brodie Croyle is gone, as well. And Georgia has four unproven quarterbacks who will compete in practice to replace D.J. Shockley as the starter.

It's certainly not the ideal situation, and some of the teams appear more prepared than others to deal with the changes at quarterback.

Sort of.

"Any time you have a young quarterback, you'll probably be a little more nervous," Shula said. "... Is there a concern? Yeah. You'd be lying if you said it wasn't a concern."

Fortunately for Shula, he knows exactly who will be his starting quarterback when the team reports for fall practices on Aug. 7. It will be the same guy that has been dubbed the starter since the end of last season.

John Parker Wilson entered the spring atop the Crimson Tide's depth chart, and the sophomore has continued to impress coaches with his strong arm, accurate passes and limited mobility.

"He's not a Vince Young or anything like that, but we think he can make and create plays when he needs to," Shula said.

Wilson appears to have already won over his teammates, as well. He, like Croyle, is not afraid to joke around — though his sense of comedy seems to be more physical than Croyle's.

"We love the guy," Alabama running back Kenneth Darby said of Wilson. "We embraced him because we know he's going to help us win a lot of ball games."

Cutler did just that at Vanderbilt. He became the face of the program with his scruffy hair and strong arm. He broke most of the school's passing records, and he helped draw national attention to the school while becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick by the Denver Broncos in April.

The challenge for Vanderbilt will be to replace a quarterback of that magnitude in time for the season opener at Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 2.

"Our guys have a lot of confidence in the quarterbacks we've got available to play for us," Johnson said. "Are they going to be different from Jay? They're not going to be the same as he was right when he was playing in the Tennessee game (last year).

"As coaches, we got to be aware of that. We got to be conscious of it."

Sophomore Chris Nickson, who had spent the last two seasons watching Cutler from the sidelines, enters the fall as the favorite to be the starter because of his strong arm, incredible work ethic and elusiveness in the pocket.

"He could probably return kicks for us if we would even dare touchdown that," Johnson said of Nickson. "Obviously, we're not if he's going to be the quarterback. He's quite an athlete. We're going to have to use his abilities, tweak the offense a little bit, use his legs some."

Unlike Vanderbilt and Alabama, Georgia's quarterback situation is a complete mystery — even to some of the team's own players.

"We were on the plane trying to get some extra information from Coach Richt on the way over here," Moses said. "He was basically giving us the same answer that everybody is given. It's pretty much wide open right now."

Perhaps too wide open.

The Bulldogs have an abundance of quarterbacks but no proven replacement for Shockley. Four quarterbacks — senior Joe Tereshinski III, sophomore Blake Barnes, redshirt freshman Joe Cox and true freshman Matthew Stafford — will compete in the fall for the starting job.

But not even Richt seems to know will ultimately end up with it.

"Will it be Joe, Blake, Joe Cox, Stafford? I don't know," Richt said. "A lot of people are trying to make it a two-horse race between Joe T and Stafford, but there's more involved in that race than those two."

At least it will be interesting this fall.

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