Until junior Jevan Snead arrived on campus, fans of Ole Miss football hadn't seen productive play under center in over four years.
Eli departed after the 2003 season, with the likes of Michael Spurlock, Robert Lane, Ethan Flatt, Seth Adams and Brent Schaeffer asked to replace him. Countless games with poor results followed, as none could shake the shadow left by Manning.
Depth was a faint afterthought. The Rebels could barely field a starter, let alone think of who might step in if the unforeseen occurred.
Fast forward to 2009, as Ole Miss is now in unfamiliar territory. While Snead is firmly entrenched as the team's starter, a fierce battle is brewing behind him between senior Billy Tapp and redshirt freshman Nathan Stanley.
While both have received significant reps this spring, head coach Houston Nutt said Saturday that Stanley is making a push for the job.
"I tell you what, I really like Nathan Stanley," Nutt said. "I think everything's in front of him and he's really improved. He's making a real push. Nathan's got a chance.
"Billy (Tapp) is very intelligent. I'm so glad he's on our team. I think he can get us out of any situation, would know the checks and would understand it. But overall, I'm glad to have the three we have."
Considering Tapp was the listed No. 2 when practices began, Stanley's rise has certainly been impressive.
The Tahlequah, Oklahoma native has displayed a strong arm with improving accuracy this spring and has better acquainted himself with OC Kent Austin's playbook.
Gaining more reps with the first team with each passing day, Stanley said Austin has thrown the proverbial book at him over the last few weeks.
"It's been kind of a crash course," he said. "I'm taking in as much as I can and trying to go with it. I'm getting a lot better as far as understanding my reads. Fundamentally, I'm improving."
Austin has noticed Stanley's improvement, and agreed the freshman is distancing himself in the race for backup duty.
"Nate's coming on," said Austin. "I didn't like the force at the end of (Saturday's) scrimmage, but overall I think he did very well. He's got some natural playmaking ability. But he's got to learn to not push the envelope too much. I'm proud of the way he played."
Adjusting to the college game is hard for any player, but arguably no position requires more fine-tuning than quarterback.
As one of the more decorated high school signal-callers in the country his senior year, Snead said the speed of the game is the toughest transition newcomers have to make.
"One of the hardest things is adjusting to the speed – the speed of the defense and speed of your players," he said. "The second thing is definitely the mental aspect. You have to get use to the offense and know what defenses are doing."
Facing the Rebels' first team defense this spring, Stanley has certainly gained valuable experience against a fast SEC squad.
Returning 8 of 11 starters from last season's 9-4 team, the Rebel D has flown around during spring drills. The group got better as 2009 wore on, including an inspired effort in Ole Miss' victory over Texas Tech in the 73rd Annual Cotton Bowl Classic.
Stanley said facing such a strong defense has helped raise his game.
"They're experienced," said Stanley. "They've got most of the guys back, so they know what the game is like. They're faster, big and strong. They're good at what they do. It's a challenge, but I needed it. I haven't been hit since I've been here. It's good to try and get me ready."
Being called upon with the first team has been a challenge for Stanley, but he said it's helped him grow as a quarterback.
"It's easier and harder," Stanley said of running with the first team. "The receivers are a little bit better, but it's harder because the defense is a lot better. As far as making the reads, it's a little bit faster paced. Other than that, it's been a good experience."
Sophomore wide receiver Andrew Harris, who entered the collegiate ranks with Stanley, sees a successful career for the youngster in the not-so-distant future.
"Nate's an incredible quarterback. He's come a long way since we first got here," he said. "I love catching the ball from Nate. He's got a strong arm and is a really good kid."
Often overlooked on football rosters, the role of backup quarterback isn't a glorious affair.
The reserve is rarely recognized by outsiders, unless they're required to step in for a starter due to injury or mop up duty. But Stanley has shown flashes of what he could one day become.
With Snead entering his junior year and becoming draft eligible next season, it's never too early to peer into the future for who might replace the emerging star once his years in Red and Blue are over.
But Stanley refuses to think that far ahead. He's only focused on improving everyday.
"I don't know (who the backup quarterback will be). That's up to the coaches," he said. "I'm taking it day by day and trying to get better. Whatever happens, the coaches know what's best."
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