CORAL GABLES — This is a long way from over, of course. Saturday’s scrimmage is the second of spring. The Hurricanes likely won’t decide on a starting quarterback until the second scrimmage of the fall, and one of the expected contenders isn’t on campus yet.
Still, we know a little more now than we did when spring ball began last month. Here’s where we stand in a highly intriguing, high-profile position battle, four months before someone wins:
1. Evan Shirreffs appears to be the leader
Coaches and teammates, as well as those who watched last Saturday’s (closed to the media) scrimmage, are saying good things about the 6-foot-5, 216-pound redshirt sophomore.
Thursday, offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said he liked seeing him “stand in the pocket and take some shots, and be able to take charge and be in command and be poised and not be rattled.” Mark Richt had similar comments when he spoke to reporters Tuesday. It’s worth noting Shirreffs took the first reps in the first scrimmage and in practices this week. Rosier began spring as the first man up.
One quarterback-focused scrimmage observer told The Post that Shirreffs “looks like the guy right now” — though that person, like everyone else at UM, wants to see what four-star recruit N’Kosi Perry brings to the table (more on him below). “The guy right now” won’t necessarily be the guy this fall.
Still, senior wide receiver Braxton Berrios was enthusiastic about Shirreffs, a lightly recruited prospect out of Jefferson, Ga. in 2015 who saw scant action as a redshirt freshman. He took three snaps late in the fourth quarter of last year’s season-opening, 70-3 win over Florida A&M and did not throw a pass.
“He has done a lot well,” Berrios said. “He has done a lot to impress, not just me, but I think everybody here. He has really stepping up taking a leadership role, especially when he gets in at QB. Everyday quarterback things. His timing, his rhythms seem to be better, his drops, I mean his accuracy. He is just really molding himself into a really good QB right now.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Shirreffs, 20, you’re not alone. In his senior year, he took official visits to Miami, Georgetown and Columbia, although only the latter school offered him a scholarship, according to 247Sports. On signing day, his only other offer was from Virginia Military Institute. UM offensive coordinator James Coley, in need of a quarterback after four-star Dwayne Lawson flipped to Virginia Tech, called to offer the day after signing day.
Lawson, by the way, left the Hokies for junior college amid reports of an impending drug suspension and is reportedly heading to Illinois.
2. Malik Rosier is right in it
Miami wants a quarterback who can lead, and Rosier, at least, has started a game (and won, against a good Duke team in 2015, on the road). He threw 61 passes in two seasons as Kaaya’s backup. Lost in the dramatics at Duke was his solid day (20-of-29 for 272 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception).
But it’s fair to wonder if Rosier is the type of quarterback Richt wants. He can run; he rushed twice for 65 yards last year, including a 19-yard touchdown, and Richt praised him for extending at least one play during the first scrimmage. But Rosier, a former UM baseball player, isn’t known for his ability to throw strikes. His legs may help Richt’s run-pass plays work better, but if he’s inaccurate, Richt will find another option.
“Malik did some really good things with the ball in his hands,” Brown said of his performance during the scrimmage. “Able to make some really good decisions and also move around the pocket well. But just being consistent every single day is going to be the key to that spot.” Berrios said Rosier is “taking more of a leadership role.” He said Shirreffs is doing the same.
3. N’Kosi Perry will be a factor
When discussing what Perry could be, Richt throws around a name like Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner he coached at Florida State. Others inside the building mention contemporary stars Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson.
Maybe Perry will develop into a Heisman finalist, or even win it. But what is he now?
“Great athlete,” said Berrios, who said he has watched footage of Perry. “He’ll have to be a great QB to win the QB battle. He’s a tremendous athlete. He can do a lot of things – a lot of different things than some of the guys that we have here. At the end of the day, we’re going to need a leader. We’re going to need someone who can help us in Week 1 win, and help us in Week 3 win, that big game.”
That big game, of course, is in Tallahassee, against Florida State.
Perry may be able to do a lot the current crop cannot. Judging by his film, he can escape trouble that finds him, and make Jackson-like plays on the fly. He has plenty of arm strength to chuck it downfield.
But the starting quarterback this fall will have to lead. He’ll have to hit receivers in stride. He’ll have to make quick decisions from the pocket against college defenses. If Perry can’t, can he be the guy in Week 1 — or in Week 3? Another question: if Perry is just that much better than Shirreffs, et al., can Richt make it work by tailoring the offense to his strengths?
4. Long game for Jack Allison, Cade Weldon
Getting this out of the way: those close to Allison say he’s not a transfer candidate if he doesn’t win the job this year. A four-star recruit in 2016, the redshirt freshman still has plenty of weight to put on; he is listed at (6-5 and) 200 pounds, but that’s generous. That will help him be a better pocket passer. In snippets of practice action the media gets to see, Allison is consistent with his throws. But he was running third behind Shirreffs and Rosier when he hurt his shoulder (and was concussed, according to a source) last Saturday. He returned Thursday after missing one practice, though he’s not yet full-go.
Weldon appears destined for a redshirt year, having not made an early impact in a crowded race. Richt said he plans to let Weldon play Saturday, after keeping him on the sideline last week because he “wasn’t ready.”
Apparently, the Hurricanes plan to run through another full-contact scrimmage on Saturday, with quarterbacks in the crosshairs of the defense. When he spoke to the media Tuesday, Richt went into detail about his decision to make his quarterbacks live in the last session.
Brown was more blunt.
“No,” he said, when asked if UM was concerned about more quarterback injuries Saturday. “I mean, it’s football. Stuff happens. Can’t coach scared and ask those guys to play scared.”
5. Richt’s favorite option probably isn’t here yet
And we’re not just talking about Perry.
Those inside UM’s football building say Richt is sky-high on 2018 commit Artur Sitkowski, a senior-to-be at Bradenton-IMG Academy. Sitkowski (6-5, 215) looks college-ready physically and according to highlight films, has a huge arm. He’s also a load to bring down when he runs. He is one of the centerpieces of the Hurricanes’ top-ranked recruiting class for next year, which includes running back Lorenzo Lingard, cornerback Josh Jobe and receivers Brian Hightower and Mark Pope. All those players are rated top-100 nationally according to 247Sports.
All this makes you wonder what the future of the position is. There can be only one starter at a time, of course. Including 2017, Rosier has two more seasons of eligibility, Shirreffs (and walk-on Vincent Testaverde) three, Allison four, Weldon (and Perry, when he arrives) five. Can someone win the job and settle in for a few years? What will that mean for everyone else?
We have a few answers, but not those. Not now, not for a while.