The Southern Miss football team is an enviable position with two quarterbacks returning who combined to start every game last season, but that's no guarantee that either of those two quarterbacks will be under center to start the 2018 campaign.
A wide open battle to decide the next starter began with the start of spring practice on March 20 and last year's starters, Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard, are part of one of the more crowded quarterback battles in the country.
Southern Miss offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson didn't skip a beat when asked last week if he's ever had a quarterback room as cramped as the one as he has at the moment — “No, absolutely not.”
The football roster is stacked with nine quarterbacks. Only five of those players can be considered legit contenders to play this season while another, redshirt freshman Steven Anderson, has made the smooth transition to running back this spring.
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Griggs, a redshirt senior, saw the most time behind center last year, but he's been held out of practice this spring while he recovers from an injury that requires a walking boot. He likely won't return until sometime late in the summer.
Dawson's main emphasis last season was ball security. Griggs delivered in that area, throwing only two interceptions along with 16 touchdowns.
This spring, Dawson has a different overarching message for his quarterbacks.
“The guy that wins the job is the guy that puts the ball in play the most,” Dawson said. “The only place we really struggled was putting the ball in play in the passing game. We completed a little over 50 percent (56.0) of our passes. We need to be in the 65-70 percent range. All that is just processing, accuracy and getting the right people the ball. The person that can do that the best is the one that starts. There's no doubt about that. That's the No. 1 focus in that room.”
While Griggs had games last season where he hit his marks consistently, he completed just 55.8 percent of his passes overall. Howard, a junior, was at 56.5.
The three players joining the mix at quarterback are sophomore transfer Jack Abraham, redshirt freshman Marcelo Rodriguez and freshman Tate Whatley.
Whatley is still working his way back from a knee injury he suffered during his senior year of high school, leaving the majority of snaps this spring to Abraham, Howard and Rodriguez.
'A great leader'
While Abraham is in his first semester at USM, this isn't his first time taking part in spring practice on the FBS level. He spent a year at Louisiana Tech before he transferred closer to his Oxford home at Northwest Mississippi Community College for the 2017 campaign. The sophomore had a strong season for the Rangers, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 2,949 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The 6-foot, 204-pound Abraham knew he was entering a crowded situation at quarterback, but he's never been one to shy away from competition. Even as an 8-year-old, he played on a football team with players 3 or 4 years older than him.
“My dad started a little league team in Oxford and it was all 11- and 12-year-olds,” Abraham said. “He threw me out there to the wolves and I went out there and tried to play.”
His father, Michael, cringes a bit at the suggestion that his young son was “thrown to the wolves.”
“That was the only age group that year,” he said. “He practiced a lot and played in games sparingly. There was a big age difference. In a playoff game, we were out there playing a team that had (former Ole Miss star defensive back) Tony Conner. We had to get Jack off the field.”
Jack Abraham may have looked like a runt among his much older teammates, but it was quickly obvious that he had the qualities necessary to be a leader.
“Jack is comfortable in his skin and he always has been,” Michael Abraham said. “As a little guy, he was a great leader. He's confident and liked being around groups of people.
“The first day his mom dropped him off at school, she calls me crying. I asked, 'Oh, was he upset?' She said, 'Oh no, he just took off.' He was one of those kids.”
Ahead of the curve
While he admits he has yet to fully grasp the system, Abraham is off to a strong start this spring.
Dawson believes Abraham's time at Louisiana Tech has helped him early on.
“You still see the wheels turning as far as communication and learning our system,” he said. “That's true with any quarterback. It's like learning a new language. It has to be second nature before you can go out and play instinctively. I can see it slowing down for him for a minute, but it still isn't 100 percent smooth.”
While Jack Abraham didn't quite mesh at Louisiana Tech, his father believes USM is a good fit.
“The way it's installed and taught and the way Shannon takes him through things, it's very good stuff,” Michael Abraham said. “It's more favorable to Jack and the way he learns.”
Abraham, Howard and Rodriguez will show fans how far they've come on April 21 during the spring game at M.M. Roberts Stadium.
Rodriguez, who only had the one USM offer leaving Miami's Columbus High School, is anxious to prove himself after sitting out last season with a redshirt.
“He's about where I thought he'd be,” Dawson said. “He's been here a year so he understands the terminology, understands the language. He's an extremely talented kid. He's got a couple of things he specifically needs to work on and I went over that with him after practice. He's no different than everyone else. Everybody has got something to work on. As far as the first five days of practice, he's been playing well.”
Rodriguez acknowledged that one thing he needs to work on is to avoid predetermining where the ball is headed prior to the snap.
“We're all trying to make each other better, competing every single day,” Rodriguez said of the quarterback competition. “I make a good throw, Keon makes a good throw. It's back to back. It's a battle.”