Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson has about five weeks to settle on his starting quarterback for the Sept. 2 season opener against Kentucky.
It will likely one of two men – redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs or sophomore Keon Howard.
Beginning fall camp without a starting quarterback is usually cause for heartburn for a coordinator/quarterbacks coach, but Dawson isn't concerned with the predicament.
“I'm fired up about it,” he said Wednesday following the first practice of fall camp. “I don't know if I've ever had two guys of that caliber competing in the same year. I can't remember that. That's only going to make it that much better.”
USM head coach Jay Hopson is also encouraged by his situation at quarterback and also had some praise Wednesday for Marcelo Rodriguez, a freshman quarterback from Miami.
“You saw Marcelo today. He's got a really good arm. He can throw it around too,” Hopson said. “We're deeper at that position now. (Former starter) Nick Mullens is playing for the San Francisco 49ers now. Last year, we just prayed that Nick didn't get hurt. This year, we have more depth at the position so we feel better about that. I think (Howard and Griggs) can complement each other. I was encouraged by what Marcelo did today too. He threw the ball nicely.”
While addressing his quarterbacks before the start of fall camp, Dawson made it clear that he needs a player who can make the offense go while also limiting mistakes.
“Both (Howard and Griggs) are so close athletically,” he said. “The one that manages the unit the best will win the job. We don't want people to think we're going to go out and play conservative by any stretch, but our job at quarterback is to distribute the ball and get positive yards. Negative plays and turnovers get you beat.”
Dawson pointed out neither Griggs or Howard committed turnovers during Wednesday's session.
As Hopson pointed out, Rodriguez did look sharp throwing the football on the first day. He connected with Biloxi's Tim Jones, a freshman receiver, on several nice passing plays.
One player who was missing during Wednesday's practice was redshirt senior running back George Payne, who suffered a hip injury during the spring.
“George is doing good,” Hopson said. “We expect to get him back. It will be another week or so before we get him moving real good. He's been doing stuff with (trainer Todd McCall). We're trying to get him ready. His injury is not career ending. We've just got to get him back to full speed.”
Payne ran 103 times for 496 yards and two touchdowns last season as the backup to Ito Smith.
If Payne isn't ready to go for the opener against Kentucky in Hattiesburg, redshirt junior Tez Parks will play an increased role after running 34 times for 155 yards last season.
Hopson praised the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Parks following Wednesday's practice.
“I'm so proud of him,” Hopson said. “He's not only a great player, but he understands his role. Tez is one of those guys that's a real team guy. He knows how valuable he is to our football team.
“Tez is another one of those guys with breakaway speed. He's got size, the frame.”
One group that will be watched closely during fall camp will be the offensive line, which returns only two starters – redshirt senior guard Devin Farrior and redshirt sophomore right tackle Ty Pollard.
“We're young up front,” Hopson said. “I really like the guys up there. They're really good athletes that are tough and physical. This is a big month for those guys. Some guys will be playing their first snap of college football.”
Farrior worked at center Wednesday with redshirt senior Tyler Stutzman sitting out the first day with an illness. Redshirt sophomore Drake Dorbeck saw time at left tackle while Jerry Harris worked at both guard spots after playing left tackle in the spring.
One young player who Hopson pointed out Wednesday was redshirt freshman guard Arvin Fletcher.
“Arvin traveled every week last year,” Hopson said. “I think he's going to be a great, great football player.”
True freshman Woodlyson Alcius was among the young players who worked with the second-string offensive line Wednesday.