The message being broadcast from Tiger Central is one of overwhelming accord among the signal callers. Although LSU has to replace a fan favorite and undisputed team leader in Rohan Davey, the contenders for the job, as well as the head coach who will select a starting QB, report all is well through one week of spring practice.
Matt Mauck, a 23-year-old sophomore, is viewed as the most-likely replacement for Davey after taking over for an injured Davey in the Southeastern Conference Championship game and leading the Tigers to a 31-20 victory. In the process, Mauck earned Most Valuable Player honors.
Head coach Nick Saban won't tab Mauck as the starter ahead of sophomore Marcus Randall and redshirt freshman Rick Clausen. But then again, Saban isn't saying Mauck isn't the man to beat. He knows if he leans either way, he will chum the waters for those speculators eager to feed upon a debate.
"I'm sure the little bit of experience that (Mauck) gained in the Florida game and the SEC Championship game will help him," Saban said prior to the start of spring practice. "But Marcus Randall we still feel is a guy that has a lot of talent and ability, and we're going to work very hard to develop him to hopefully make a very competitive position because we'd rather have the problem of having two good quarterbacks instead of one."
Saban had a similar "problem" in his first year at LSU and was never forced to deal with a quarterback controversy due to injuries Davey suffered before and during the 2000 season. Josh Booty's experience warranted his playing time, and Saban had legitimate reasons for pulling him at a couple of crucial junctures in the season – against Tennessee and at halftime of the Peach Bowl.
But perhaps after learning second-hand how the Booty-Davey battle was one of the distracting factors in the Tigers' disappointing 1999 season, Saban is determined to avoid a similar scenario in 2002.
His water-smoothing method appears to be very similar to the overall team philosophy he's asked the Tigers to employ the past two seasons – focus on the process rather than the goal. Rather than worrying about becoming the starter, the Tigers' quarterbacks are only concerning themselves with getting the most out of each session of spring practice.
"(I'm) going out and competing hard every day in practice and in the scrimmages we're going to be having on Saturdays," said Randall. "I'm just going to leave the decision up to the coaches as to who is the first-team, second-team and third-team player."
"I know everybody wants to make it into a quarterback controversy," said Mauck, "but we get along so well. We all pull for each other. Obviously, everybody wants to play but there's no dissention (in the team). They're not pulling for one guy…or anything like that. That's what's kind of neat and good for this team."
Mauck and Randall face the unenviable task of replacing arguably the best quarterback in the LSU football history. Davey's single-season school and conference records from 2001 could stand for quite some time, and both signal callers are realistic about their chances of equaling or surpassing those marks.
At the same time, the Tigers cannot afford a substantial drop off in production from their quarterback. Even if LSU's balanced offense has to rely a little more on its running game, a solid passing game will be essential to the overall success of the team.
Davey and the Tigers were able to reach great heights last season because they had grown so comfortable executing the scheme of offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. Obviously, the goal for Mauck and Randall is to become equally at ease under center with the coach's guidance.
"Both of us have learned from coach Fisher the past two years and it's helped us out a lot," said Mauck. "Coach Fisher has such a good system in, it's really (easy) for a quarterback to succeed in once you learn it, once you get it down. I think we both feel real comfortable with the offense right now."
In addition to learning the intricacies of Fisher's offense, the quarterbacks must also assume a new level of team leadership. The position is a natural point for fan and team focus, and both players say they are learning what is expected from them in this capacity.
Mauck says he hasn't been overly concerned with gaining the approval of his teammates, believing a certain amount of respect already exists among all the players regardless of their position. He would rather just earn their trust out on the field, starting with how he performs in practice.
"I think all of our quarterbacks are real good guys and get respected by everybody," Mauck said. "It's kind of hard for me to judge because I don't go around asking everybody, ‘Hey, do you respect me or like me?'"
Randall had a catbird seat from which to gain perspective on Davey's role as a team leader in 2001. The two were roommates on road trips, allowing Randall to observe how Davey handled himself off the field as well as on it.
"I learned from Ro because he was a real competitor," said Randall. "He studied the game a lot. He taught me a lot on road trips. …I'm going to try and do all the things Ro did last year preparing for the games each week.
"He's one of the best leaders I've ever seen on the football field. I think guys are going to have to step up. Bradie James is one who's already stepped up…and there are going to have to be others who step up. I'm looking to be one of those guys."
Upon leaving behind his post, Davey had a bit of advice for Mauck and Randall.
"He said just go out there and have fun," Mauck recalled. "He said no matter what happens, good or bad, just make sure you have a good time."
For the first time since coming to LSU, Mauck and Randall find themselves getting the bulk of the snaps in practice. It has been a beneficial experience for both athletes after being in the shadow of Davey and Booty over the last two years, and since neither has a strong background as a true pocket passer.
Mauck's tale is well known among Tiger fans. He left behind a pro baseball career to walk on at LSU under Nick Saban, who had recruited him from Jasper, Ind., to sign with Michigan State.
Despite possessing an arm good enough to land him a spot at catcher and third base with the Chicago Cubs farm league affiliate in Lansing, Mich., Mauck admitted to being extremely rusty in the mechanics of throwing a football. His problems were evident when he started practicing at LSU in the spring of 2000, and he says it took him over a year to feel as though he could perform up to standard.
"I noticed a tremendous amount (of improvement) at the beginning of last fall," said Mauck. "Last spring, I really didn't feel comfortable throwing the ball - I was still kind of throwing the ball like a baseball.
"Even when I was in high school, I never really had to throw the ball that much," said Mauck. "I'm just now starting to get real comfortable throwing the football.
"When you go four years without throwing a football, it just takes a while to get back into it. It takes a little while to get you timing back and learn what the receivers are doing."
While Randall didn't play pro baseball, he did enjoy most of his success at Glen Oaks High School in Baton Rouge as an improvisational quarterback. Most of his yards with the Panthers came on the ground, and the LSU offense requires him to become equally efficient through the air.
Despite very limited playing time in two years at LSU, Randall says off-the-field preparation and the ongoing session of spring practice have helped him immensely in terms of getting into a groove with the rest of the offense.
"It's good to get out there and throw around with the guys who are coming back and seeing who we have left after the guys that left last year," said Randall. "We're getting new guys in and getting them the reps that they need. It's going to be a fun thing this spring."
EXPERIENCE NOT NECESSARY
While the two players vying for the LSU quarterback job appear to abound in talent and potential, they are obviously lacking in experience.
Even Mauck, the unofficial favorite for the starting job, thinks his playing time against Florida and in the SEC Championship shouldn't affect the way he prepares heading into the 2002 season.
"I try to keep everything the same," he said. "If you start thinking about it being different, you might start playing different. I'm just going into it trying not to worry about the outcome and just trying to get better, improving as a quarterback."
Randall is not letting Mauck's apparent advantage dissuade him from competing over the next three weeks. He feels performances in the month of April will go a long way toward determining who will get the nod in September.
"I knew I was going to have to come in and practice harder, player hard, each week during the spring," said Randall, "because that's really what I think determines who's going to get the starting job."
The first chance for each quarterback to gain ground - or lose it - comes this Saturday in the first scrimmage of spring practice. The Tigers scrimmage once more on April 20 before holding their spring game on Saturday, April 27.
The scrimmages are closed to the public, but tickets are currently on sale for the Spring Game slated for 1 p.m. at Tiger Stadium.