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August 5, 2008

Many position battles still worth watching

Less than four weeks before the season-opener, 20 percent of the teams in the preseason coaches' poll still don't know the identity of their starting quarterback.

The quarterback competitions taking place at Auburn, Virginia Tech, Penn State and Michigan symbolize the position battles taking place on campuses across the country. And even the reigning national champions aren't exempt.

LSU must decide on a starting quarterback and replace its starting cornerbacks from last season as it prepares for its Aug. 30 opener against defending Division I-AA national champ Appalachian State.

In fact, so many quarterback competitions are taking place that we couldn't narrow down our profile of the nation's top position battles to a single list. We instead broke it down into two lists. One features the top 10 quarterback competitions across the nation. The other is reserved for position battles that don't involve quarterbacks.

1. LSU: Andrew Hatch vs. Jarrett Lee.
Ryan Perrilloux's dismissal assures that the Tigers will open their title defense with an inexperienced quarterback. Hatch has the better back story as a Harvard transfer who tore his anterior cruciate ligament playing soccer on a Mormon mission, then resurfaced at LSU through his connections with offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Lee, a redshirt freshman, may have the better upside.
2. Auburn: Kodi Burns vs. Chris Todd
Burns looked like a perfect fit for new coordinator Tony Franklin's spread offense while scoring the winning touchdown in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But it's Todd who has more familiarity with this scheme after beginning his college career at Texas Tech. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said he wants to have a clear-cut starter by the beginning of the season.
3. Virginia Tech: Sean Glennon vs. Tyrod Taylor
Glennon held the starting job at the beginning of the 2007 season before getting benched in favor of Taylor. By the end of the season, Glennon and Taylor were splitting time while leading Virginia Tech to an ACC title. The Hokies want to settle on one quarterback this fall, but haven't ruled out rotating Glennon and Taylor again. Glennon is the more polished passer, but he lacks Taylor's mobility and upside.
4. Michigan: Justin Feagin vs. Nick Sheridan vs. Steven Threet
Who's going to get the first shot to run the spread offense that new coach Rich Rodriguez is bringing to Ann Arbor? Threet exited spring practice with an edge over Sheridan, but that doesn't mean this competition is over. Feagin also is eager to make his case now that he's arrived on campus from Delray Beach (Fla.) American Heritage, where he threw for 1,420 yards and rushed for 1,313 yards as a senior.
5. California: Nate Longshore vs. Kevin Riley
When Riley replaced Longshore and rallied California from a 21-point deficit in a 42-36 Armed Forces Bowl victory over Air Force, it put him into the mix for the starting job. Longshore has started 26 games over the past three seasons, but he also has thrown 13 interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Riley threw five touchdown passes with one interception as a backup in '07.
6. Penn State: Daryll Clark vs. Pat Devlin
Clark has the edge in experience and mobility, but Devlin may have greater potential. Clark rallied Penn State to a 24-17 Alamo Bowl victory over Texas A&M last season without attempting a pass - he came off the bench to rush for 50 yards and a touchdown on six carries. Clark has thrown 36 passes in his college career which is 35 more than Devlin. Devlin threw for 8,162 yards a Pennsylvania high school career record at Downington East High School.
7. Miami: Jacory Harris vs. Robert Marve vs. Cannon Smith
Miami must choose from among three freshmen. Marve redshirted last season after sustaining a hand injury he suffered in a car wreck before the 2007 season. He still must fight off challenges from Harris and Smith, true freshmen who arrived on campus in time for spring practice. Harris threw for 3,445 yards and 49 touchdowns last season while leading Miami Northwestern High to the Class 6A state championship. Smith played at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy last season and set a school record by throwing for 476 yards and four touchdowns in one game.
8. Oregon State: Sean Canfield vs. Lyle Moevao
Moevao is entering preseason camp as the Beavers' No. 1 quarterback, but he may have reason to look over his shoulder. Canfield started the first nine games of the 2007 season before hurting his shoulder, then returned in time to replace an injured Moevao in the Emerald Bowl. Canfield sat out spring practice while healing his shoulder, but he's back now to try to push Moevao, who has lost nearly 20 pounds since spring practice in an attempt to improve his quickness.
9. Boise State: Mike Coughlin vs. Bush Hamdan vs. Nick Lomax vs. Kellen Moore
The Broncos are breaking in a new starting quarterback for the third consecutive season. Hamdan is the only senior in the group, but he also has thrown just 16 career passes. Coughlin threw 14 passes, Lomax 13 passes and Hamdan six passes last season. Lomax's dad, Neil, was an NFL quarterback. Hamdan's brother, Gibran, played quarterback at Indiana and is on the Buffalo Bills' roster.
10. Maryland: Josh Portis vs. Jordan Steffy vs. Chris Turner
Steffy and Turner ended spring practice in a virtual dead heat, with Portis needing to play catch-up. Steffy started Maryland's first five games before a concussion knocked him out of the lineup. Turner started the last eight games, and threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns in a late-season victory over eventual ACC Atlantic Division champion Boston College.

1. USC tailback
Joe McKnight is earning some preseason attention as a sleeper contender for the Heisman Trophy, but he first must separate himself from a crowded field of contenders in the Trojans' backfield. Stafon Johnson had more carries and rushing yards than McKnight last season. C.J. Gable, Allen Bradford, Broderick Green and Marc Tyler also could work their way into the mix. This position battle might have no real winner, with multiple backs sharing the load throughout the season.
2. Rutgers tailback
How many backs does it take to replace Ray Rice? We're about to find out. The Scarlet Knights have plenty of guys ready to try to fill the void created by Rice's departure. Kordell Young has the most experience, but he missed most of the 2007 season with a knee injury. Mason Robinson showed promise as a freshman kick returner last year. Converted defensive back Joe Martinek is the leading rusher in New Jersey high school history, while Jourdan Brooks could contribute as a redshirt freshman after performing on the scout team last season.
3. Virginia Tech wide receiver
The departures of Eddie Royal, Justin Harper and Josh Morgan leave the Hokies without three players who combined to catch 120 passes for 1,683 yards last year. Virginia Tech's lack of depth at receiver grew into even more of a concern this summer when likely starter Brandon Dillard ruptured his Achilles tendon (he'll miss the season). Tech now must spend the next month deciding on its top two receivers. Candidates include former quarterback Ike Whitaker, Zach Luckett, Ervin Garner, Patrick Terry, Danny Coale and Cory Holt.
4. LSU cornerback
The defending national champions have to break in two first-year starters at cornerback now that Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon have departed. Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene exited spring practice as the favorites to win the job, but this competition is far from over. Redshirt freshman Phelon Jones and true freshman Patrick Peterson, formerly known as Patrick Johnson, are still vying for starting spots. Peterson, the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, changed his name from Johnson after his mother got married; Johnson is his mother's maiden name.
5. Florida defensive tackle
The Gators' competition for playing time at tailback probably will garner more attention, but this position battle likely will mean more to Florida's conference and national title hopes. Javier Estopinan returns at one tackle spot, but he's coming off an ACL injury and may not be ready. The candidates are sophomores Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders and Torrey Davis, junior college transfer Troy Epps, redshirt freshman John Brown and true freshmen Omar Hunter and Matt Patchan. This position is enough of a concern that coaches moved Patchan an early enrollee to defense (his preferred position) this spring after he was signed as an offensive tackle.
6. Oklahoma offensive tackle
The Sooners have no questions on the left side, where Phil Loadholt enters his senior season as a legitimate All-America candidate. The right side is a different story. Senior Branndon Braxton started seven games and junior Trent Williams made six starts at right tackle last season. Either could earn the starting assignment for Oklahoma's Aug. 30 season opener against Division I-AA Chattanooga.
7. West Virginia offensive tackle
Selvish Capers, a converted tight end, started six games last season but saw limited action in the Fiesta Bowl because of a sprained ankle. Capers' injury opened the door for Stephen Maw, who made his first career start in the Fiesta Bowl and performed well enough to compete for additional playing time. Both have a shot at the starting spot.
8. Kentucky tailback
Kentucky must replace the departed Rafael Little, but a lack of talent isn't the problem. The Wildcats instead have so many candidates to replace Little that they could have a tough time choosing the best guy for the job. Derrick Locke rushed for 536 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman reserve last season. Alfonso Smith gained 7.1 yards per carry last season despite missing three games with a sprained ankle, while senior Tony Dixon has 958 career rushing yards in three seasons.
9. UCLA offensive tackle
The Bruins have endured so many injury problems at quarterback over the past 12 months that they need an outstanding right tackle to protect the left-handed Ben Olson's blind side. Sophomore Sean Sheller exited spring practice as the first-team right tackle, but he's out for the season after suffering a knee injury this summer. UCLA now will rely on former guard Nick Ekbatani, converted tight end Nate Chandler or redshirt freshman Mike Harris to man the right side.
10. Texas safety
The Longhorns need to find some answers at both safety spots. Although junior Ishie Oduegwu made three starts last year, the Longhorns otherwise lack experience back there. The uncertainty could create plenty of opportunities for redshirt freshmen Christian Scott, Earl Thomas and Ben Wells. All three arrived at Texas as four-star prospects.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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