Risk vs. Reward

At any given time in this Saturday's game against Rutgers, West Virginia's offense could have all three of its active quarterbacks on the field.

West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart subscribes to the same theory as just about every other football coach under the sun when it comes to personnel: find a way to get your best 11 players on the field in some way, shape, or form.

Here in Morgantown, that can sometimes mean getting players practice reps and even game time at spots other than their natural positions. And on West Virginia's roster, perhaps no position offers up more natural talent than the most important spot on the field: quarterback.

Not counting true freshman Coley White, who is redshirting this season, the Mountaineers have three signal callers at their disposal.

Of course it all starts with senior Pat White, arguably the greatest player in school history, who looks to be on his way to yet another record-setting year. More often than not, White will be the quarterback, with a traditional arsenal of weapons around him such as Noel Devine, Alric Arnett, Will Johnson, etc.

Redshirt freshman Bradley Starks, WVU's third-string quarterback, began repping at wideout during spring drills, and has seen plenty of playing time at that position through the season's first four games.

The newest – and most publicized – wrinkle was the insertion of junior backup quarterback Jarrett Brown at slot receiver and running back against Marshall. Brown helped solve WVU's short yardage woes with his 225-pound battering ram of a body, picking up 73 yards on eight carries in West Virginia's win over the Thundering Herd.

At times during the game, White even split out wide while Brown took the snap.

So with White being White, Starks becoming more familiar with the offense at receiver, and Brown willing and able to do whatever it takes to get on the field and help the Mountaineers win, there are scenarios in which there could be three quarterbacks on the field for WVU at any given time.

As with anything else, there are positives and negatives to this approach.

First, the positives. White, Brown, and Starks are all talented enough to play. So, why keep two of them on the bench? Though they aren't playing a whole lot of quarterback in this new package, they are at least in the game. Any player will tell you that there are certain things you can only learn while you're in the game, namely the speed at which it is played.

Another positive, obviously, is that in Brown's case, it made the team better in an area of weakness.

The chief negative, of course, is injury. Losing one player at the most important position on the field is tough enough, but increased exposure to the game for backups also means increased risk.

So, how do West Virginia's coaches toe this fine line?

"You can't," said first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. "You just have to play."

"I don't worry (about an injury)," echoed Brown. "When you (worry), that is when the injury occurs."

In West Virginia's case, the increased injury risk has hit a little bit closer to home. Throughout the Big East, quarterbacks going down with major injuries have been an all-too-familiar storyline so far in 2008.

At Connecticut, starter Tyler Lorenzen could miss the rest of the season after breaking his foot last Friday night in the Huskies' win over Louisville. At Cincinnati, starter Dustin Grutza went down a few weeks back with a broken leg. His backup, Tony Pike, left Saturday's game against Akron with a broken arm. Both Bearcats are expected to miss several weeks at the least.

Minor injuries hampered both White and Louisville's Hunter Cantwell in games this past weekend, though both players are expected to be fully recovered if they aren't already.

Mullen and the rest of West Virginia's coaches are certainly aware of the risks associated with extended playing time for their trio of signal-callers. If it takes a roll of the dice such as this to improve the product on the field, though, then the risk is well worth it, Mullen says.

"I think so. You just have to get your players out there and let them play," he said.

"We've got Bradley Starks playing wide receiver, Jarrett Brown playing in the slot some. I'm holding my breath every time they do it. And of course, every time Pat White takes a snap (we hold our breath). We're holding our breath for all of those kids.

"(Injuries) just happen," he added. "You have to knock on wood, pray for the best. The quarterback is a big part of your football team and ours is no different."

Some armchair observers may view the unconventional role of West Virginia's quarterbacks as an unnecessary risk. If or when Brown, Starks or White leave a game with an injury sustained while playing at a position other than quarterback, there will undoubtedly be a host of Monday morning quarterbacks questioning the sanity of West Virginia's coaching staff, adding an "I told you so" with their criticisms.

Yet when Brown gallops downfield for a first down or Starks hauls in an important completion, many others will laud the innovative approach taken by Stewart, Mullen and the staff to get the most out of the talent they have at their disposal.

For now, the debate will wage on. Is the risk worth the reward? WVU categorically believes that it is.


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