When Keon Howard announced last week that he was leaving the Southern Miss football program, the quarterback depth chart thinned somewhat for offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
Even with one player no longer in the hunt, it will still be a crowded meeting room for the Golden Eagle quarterbacks entering fall camp.
Returning senior starter Kwadra Griggs will be joined by redshirt sophomore transfer Jack Abraham, redshirt freshman Marcelo Rodriguez and freshman Tate Whatley as the options headed into the 2018 campaign.
Players will report for fall camp on Aug. 2 and begin practice the next day.
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With Howard set to transfer elsewhere, Dawson believes the Golden Eagles are still in good shape at quarterback.
“I don’t think it will impact us much,” Dawson said. “We’re going to play with the guys we have regardless. People make decisions for what they think is the best for them. I love Keon to death and I told him that. He felt like his best chance to play was for him to go somewhere else. I wanted him to stay obviously, but I understand why he didn’t.”
While Dawson wished Howard had stayed put, his job became a little simpler this fall camp with the junior’s departure.
“It will be easier to spread reps out,” he said
There has been plenty of speculation on social media as to why Howard decided to transfer so late in the summer, but Dawson said that it was a decision made exclusively by the junior from Laurel. There was no request from the staff for a position change or anything along those lines.
“He made a decision based on the competition in the room,” Dawson said. “He felt like there will be less competition at other places. He’s probably right. We have a talented quarterback room and there’s no doubt about it. That’s why I said I understand the decision he was making. I’ll help him and support him however I can. I want the kid to go be successful. Sometimes a change of scenery helps.”
What can a healthy Griggs do?
While Griggs sat out the spring as he recovered from heel surgery, Howard looked good in practice and had the best scrimmage by a quarterback during the spring game.
Abraham, a former Louisiana Tech player who spent last year at Northwest Mississippi Community College, showed promise during the spring, but he has ground to make up to compete with Griggs, who has been learning under Dawson since the spring of 2016.
Griggs was academically ineligible during the 2016 campaign and battled through injuries to have a productive 2017 season, helping lead the Eagles to an 8-5 finish. In 10 games, he completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,879 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran 93 times for 268 yards and three scores.
When asked how high of a ceiling a healthy Griggs has at quarterback, Dawson admitted to not being sure.
“I’ve never had the kid as a healthy player,” he said. “He had the Achilles injury, broke his (left) hand before the Kentucky game and broke it again during the North Texas game.
“He is a very talented guy. He’s played a pretty good bit of football. Last year was a question mark because he had taken so much time off. I expected a little bit of rust, but I was surprised by how he protected the ball. He knows he’s got to come back and win the job. He missed the whole spring, but we expect him to come in and run with it. But you never know. We have an extremely talented group of quarterbacks.”
Also in the hunt
As for Abraham, it’s simply a matter of spending more time in the system and getting the reps he needs this fall.
“In the spring, he picked up on things fairly fast,” Dawson said. “He had a really good spring and I think he has worked hard this summer. He’s been doing all the extra stuff he has to do to play quarterback. Everything we’re talking about comes with reps. As time goes on, he’s only going to get better and better.”
Rodriguez has been a favorite of fans since he signed with USM in 2017. His high school highlight reel showed promise and he features a nice spiral.
Dawson challenged Rodriguez during the middle of the spring to do a better job of working through his progressions in the pocket and was encouraged by the response.
“I think it did click,” Dawson said. “I thought later on the spring, he was playing his best football.
“The biggest deal with Marcelo is understanding how to play quarterback in our system. The quarterback controls everything — communication, the flow of the game, the tempo of the game. He’s learning how to be the central part of the offense. He became more comfortable in that role.”
Whatley will have the tallest hill to climb to get on the field this season. The 6-foot-2, 191-pound freshman was limited during the spring after suffering a knee injury during his senior year of high school in Lakeland, Florida.
“It’ll be interesting to see what his learning curve is,” Dawson said. “He’s extremely athletic, a big kid. Throwing the football won’t be a problem. If you watch his high school tape, he was accurate his whole career.”
Breaking down the four
Each of the quarterbacks are generally from a similar mold — athletic with a good arm.
There are some minor differences between the players and Dawson provided a brief breakdown on each of the four quarterbacks:
Abraham — “Jack is a lot like (former USM QB Nick Mullens), but he runs a little bit better than Nick. He’s a real accurate passer. His ball is not going to be off by much.”
Griggs — “His overall throwing mechanics are unbelievable. He can throw a football. He is a lot more elusive in ground game than people give him credit for. On top of that, he’s a big kid (6-3, 225).”
Rodriguez — “Marcelo has unbelievable arm talent. The mental part of the game is what he’s got to work on. He’s just got to play quarterback more. He’s got a big up side.”
Whatley — “He is the most athletic of the bunch. I’m curious to see what he can do in fall camp.”
USM will open the season at 6 p.m. Sept. 1 with a home game against Jackson State.