For the first time since 2013, the Southern Miss football team enters spring practice with a question mark at quarterback.
Former USM head coach Todd Monken gave the impression that Nick Mullens would be challenged for the top job by Tyler Matthews in 2015, but there was never really a doubt that Mullens would be the man during his junior season. Matthews served as the backup in 2015 and transferred to New Mexico State last year.
This spring, it's between two men – sophomore Keon Howard and redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs.
USM will finally hit the field to begin the spring on March 21. The spring game will be held on April 22, at a time to be determined, to accompany the home baseball series with Old Dominion.
Griggs, who transferred in from Itawamba Community College in February 2016, finished last spring as the favorite to be the backup for Mullens, but Griggs turned up academically ineligible in the fall.
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson has to hope that Griggs picked up a good feel for the offense last spring and watched Mullens closely during his senior campaign.
Even though Keon Howard started a pair of games this past season, Griggs can be considered the more experienced of the two. He played in 19 games at the junior college level. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,138 yards and 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
At 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, Griggs certainly looks the part. He has a quality arm and offers the ability to run with the football. He ran 44 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore at ICC.
Year 2 for Keon
Howard was thrust into duty last year when Mullens and his backup, redshirt junior Parker Adamson, both went down with injuries in a 38-27 loss to Charlotte in Hattiesburg on Nov. 5.
While Howard had moments that had to excite the USM staff, there were other play where he looked very much the freshman.
In all fairness to Howard, he was supposed to be redshirted last year. He wasn't ready to hit the field.
It will be up to Howard to show this spring that he can do a better job with ball security. With a strong arm and the ability to pick up big gainers on the ground, Howard offers everything USM could hope for at quarterback.
Adamson's decision to not return for his senior year simplified the quarterback battle this spring, but it also removed a decent backup plan if neither Howard or Griggs grab hold of the job.
Marcelo Rodriguez of Miami, Florida, and Steven Anderson of Live Oak, Florida, signed with USM last month and will join the fray in the fall. It will be difficult for either freshman to expect to compete for the top job this season, but it could happen if both Griggs and Howard struggle in the spring.
Whoever is behind center will have the security blanket of two talented senior running backs – Ito Smith and George Payne.
This spring will be a big one for plenty of players looking to earn playing time in 2017, including redshirt freshman defensive end Jacques Turner.
The former D'Iberville star checks in at 6-foot-1, 256 pounds headed into spring practice. He's one of the younger players who could see a significant role this season.
Too many of USM's defensive linemen last season didn't offer versatility. They were either pass rushers or run stuffers and not enough in between. Turner is a player who is athletic enough to get after the passer and big enough to stuff the run.
If Turner shows up strong in the spring, he could factor in heavily in the rotation at defensive end.