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The Process of Elimination

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John Thomas Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi were facing opposite end zones yet sharing the same general area after Thursday's practice, with Shepherd firing shallow ins to Patrick Randolph and Fanuzzi skinny posts to Corbin Smiter. Owls OC Ed Zaunbrecher was stationed in between, intently studying the footwork and throwing motions of the two quarterbacks who survived the 30-practice gauntlet that was once a three-man race to replace Chase Clement.

Twelve practices and two walk-throughs remain before the Owls take the field at UAB, and if David Bailiff and Zaunbrecher haven't decided on a starter by then, perhaps this standoff should be settled by penalty kicks. At this exhausting stage, that option seems appealing.

With confidence and conviction, Bailiff announced that Shepherd and Fanuzzi will share first-team reps through the final eight workouts of camp and even extending into UAB prep. The odds appear favorable that whoever is not named the starter against the Blazers will see game action anyway, a temporary solution to a quarterback competition that's too close to call.

"Those two after spring training and after 14 opportunities (in fall camp) statistically lead the race right now," Bailiff said. "And there's not enough separation between them to say, 'Right now, this is the guy.' The good news is they're both really talented, too.

"We've got 14 days, and if one of them were to separate in those 14 days he could be the guy. We really think going into the first game you're going to see them both. It's what Houston did two years ago (with Blake Joseph and Case Keenum), and it's something we'll have to do."

Bailiff and Zaunbrecher seem to have developed an outline for utilizing Shepherd and Fanuzzi, with Bailiff noting that the quarterbacks will not alternate series against UAB. The plan is amendable if one quarterback catches fire, but the idea going forward is to play both in the early stages of the season with the aim of blending what makes each quarterback special.

For Shepherd, that is his knowledge and moxie. Given his experience and three seasons in the system, Shepherd is the least likely to flinch under duress. His elusiveness has been on display throughout camp, and his leadership skills make him a sound choice to be behind center when the Owls open the season against their most difficult stretch of their schedule.

For Fanuzzi, his arm strength is the key. Where Shepherd is more apt to lead the Owls on a methodical march, Fanuzzi supplies the big-play capability the Owls long to exploit. He has been more hesitant to scramble out of the pocket and erratic at completing certain routes, but his innate ability to stretch the field certainly enhances the Owls' designs on running the ball. 

"He (Shepherd) makes tremendous plays with his feet, and he's very familiar and comfortable in the offense," Bailiff said. "Nick makes a lot of plays with his arm, and he's still learning this offense but he gets better every day. Really what they do is they complement each other, and that makes it even harder."

Though they took the extension of their competition in stride, Shepherd and Fanuzzi made it obvious that they still have designs on claiming the job outright. Presenting both quarterbacks with the opportunity to play out of the gate is justifiable, but in the same vein the decision stifles the chemistry that must be established between one signal caller and the skill players.

Shepherd has already showcased the ability to lead; Fanuzzi longs to do so. At some point, in the near or distant future, one must be given room to lead without peering over his shoulder.

"I've been through a lot here, and obviously being a competitive person, I was hoping that they'd name me the guy. That didn't happen," said Shepherd, who seemed to bristle at the 'experienced guy' tag. "I'm not going to let that get me down. Things have happened before that haven't really been the ideal situation. I'm just going to keep playing. That's all I can do."

Said Fanuzzi: "That's what's good about narrowing things down is you get more reps and it gives you a chance to be the leader, not just alternating. You know that you're the guy taking your troops out to battle. And that's what I want to happen so that way, when Week 1 comes, (I can say), 'Hey, I'm your guy that's going to lead you to this victory. I'm going to take you down, we're going to score.' I'm excited about that, and reps will definitely help that happen."

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3 Comments

Not the best situation but the comparison to UH with Joseph and Keenum is a good one and if I remember Joseph seemed to be the leader going into the season but after a few games Keenum took over.

What I don't want to happen is for us to become predictable depending who is under center. Beating UAB is a must and the QB duel is less of a concern to me against Tech and OSU.

Have either Bailiff or Coach Z handled a rotating quarterback situation before? It would be interesting to know how it worked out. I'm not thrilled with the dual quarterback situation. If the team wins no one will really care, but when things aren't going well it becomes an unnecessary distraction.

Owl-88: That's a good question that no one asked. I imagine that the platoon will be over by the time the Owls return for their home opener against Vanderbilt. - MK

With two QB's that are playing at similar levels, it would seem to me you go with the one that has the most room to grow.

At Ease: If I had to take a stab, I'd guess they don't want Fanuzzi to fall flat on his face before the meat of the conference schedule. It doesn't matter who starts at Tech and Okie State - the Owls are going to lose that games anyway. Why not ensure that Fanuzzi gets reps yet keeps his confidence in order for more winnable games down the road. And, perhaps Fanuzzi learns a thing or two watching JT Shepherd. - MK

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