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September 29, 2006

Mailbag: All eyes on the quarterback

Quarterbacks, it is said, always get too much glory in victory and too much blame in defeat.

That appears to be true one-third of the way through this season. Michigan fans are wondering if Chad Henne can lead the Wolverines to the national championship and Florida fans wonder if Chris Leak can win the Heisman Trophy.

On the other side of the coin, Penn State fans wonder if Anthony Morelli will excel against a highly ranked opponent.

But why wonder? Just read on:

Olin's Mailbag
How far do you think Michigan's defense and the (Chad) Henne-to-(Mario) Manningham combination can take them?

-- Nathan in Canada

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Maybe all the way to the Fiesta Bowl.

Michigan's defense has been spectacular under Ron English, who just happens to be this week's Rivals.com Coordinator of the Week. The Wolverines rank fifth nationally in total defense, sixth with 11 turnovers forced and sixth in sacks, and that's while playing against some decent offenses.

Henne was productive as a freshman and sophomore and is continuing that trend. Manningham has developed into one of the nation's best deep threats, averaging more than 20 yards a catch and scoring six touchdowns.

The Wolverines definitely have been boosted by having running back Mike Hart healthy, too. However, the main reason for the optimism in Ann Arbor is the play of the offensive line, which was the biggest area of concern entering the season. Michigan is averaging more than 4 yards per rush and has allowed six sacks, a respectable but not great number.

There are still some strong opponents remaining Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa and, of course, Ohio State. But if the pass protection improves and the defense stays status quo, the Wolverines have as good a shot at the national championship as anybody.

With the recent struggles of (Notre Dame quarterback) Brady Quinn, where on the Heisman watch is Chris Leak? Where is Leak projected in the NFL?

-- Christian in Gainesville, Fla.

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In my most recent Heisman Trophy rankings I put Leak fifth at this time, and those standings can change from week to week. His chances at the Heisman will most likely be determined in the next four weeks when Florida faces Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia consecutively.

All those teams boast defenses that rank among the nation's top 29, and LSU and Georgia are among the top eight. If Leak plays well against that caliber of competition he'll demand serious consideration.

As it is, he's been consistently efficient. He ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency and has thrown for 1,066 yards and a nation-leading 12 touchdown passes.

At 6-feet, 195-pounds, he's small by NFL quarterback standards, so that might scare some teams.

I'm not a draft expert, but if Leak continues to play as well as he has I'd guess he could move into the third round, maybe even the second.

Where does LSU stand? Why are they so overlooked - or are they?

--Steve in Midland, Tex.

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Well, right now they stand No. 8 in the Associated Press poll. After witnessing that 7-3 loss at No. 2 Auburn which easily could have gone the other way if not for several disputed calls the Tigers could be ranked too low.

Glenn Dorsey is the best defensive lineman I've seen, the linebackers are active and the secondary is as good as any. JaMarcus Russell is a solid quarterback, he has several talented receivers and the running backs appear to finally be healthy. Justin Vincent is expected to start at tailback against Mississippi State on Saturday.

The Tigers aren't overlooked. Overlooked teams aren't included among the top 10.

Is Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli ever going to get on track and start playing well in pressure situations?

-- Zach in State College, Pa.

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Don't give up on your quarterback, yet. Obviously, he did not play well against Ohio State, but that was the No. 1 team in the nation and in a driving rainstorm.

That's not meant to seem as if excuses are being made, but a lot of quarterbacks have issues in their first season as starters especially when playing highly ranked teams on the road early in the season. That was the scenario in losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Morelli doesn't have the athletic ability of Michael Robinson, but he has a strong arm. Give him a little more time to establish himself.

Now, if he continues to struggle against Northwestern this week and Minnesota on Oct. 7, then it's time to get worried.

Given how fast Miami has fallen from grace -- from No. 1 to unranked in four or five years can anything other than winning the ACC save (coach) Larry Coker's job. How badly does Miami need to perform before you believe firing Coker is necessary? Considering the Canes final five games are against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Virginia and Boston College they could easily finish the season with five or six losses. What kind of record do you think the Canes are likely to finish with and is it possible for Coker to survive a five-loss season?

--Ed in Orlando

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A couple of weeks ago Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee said Coker's job was not in danger, which usually means a firing is imminent. I remember covering Texas A&M four years ago when the university president gave R.C. Slocum a similar vote of confidence. A month later Slocum, the winningest coach in school history and who had never had a losing season, got canned.

Personally, I think every coach deserves a mulligan and by that I mean a break-even or losing season. I'm not sure going 9-3 warrants losing your job, but that's just me.

However, my support for Coker waned a little bit on Sept. 16 and not just because Louisville (without injured Michael Bush) clobbered Miami, 31-7.

Nice-guy Coker was at least changing Miami's renegade image, but then the Hurricanes were a spectacle by jumping up and down on the Cardinal logo on the field. At least in past years the Hurricanes backed it up after they demonstrated poor sportsmanship.

That said, if Miami rebounds for nine wins I'd retain Coker. However, I am realistic and I know that nine victories aren't enough to satisfy Miami fans and boosters. A six-win season is definitely unacceptable.

If the Hurricanes finish poorly I'd anticipate a coaching change.

What can UCLA do to be more effective rushing the ball in the red zone? This is where the (Washington) game was lost, in my opinion.

-- Roy in California

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Looks like Karl Dorrell agrees with you, Roy. The Bruins ran on 19 of 24 first down plays in last week's 29-19 loss to Washington, and Dorrell this week called for more imaginative play calling on first down.

The Bruins' five advances into the Washington red zone resulted in one touchdown, three field goals and an interception. Every first-down play in the red zone was a running play.

Unless UCLA has an overpowering offensive line, which it obviously does not, the Bruins should perhaps mix in play-action passes and roll outs. At least that would keep the defense guessing.

Who should be Nebraska's starting running back? And how should Nebraska work that rotation?

--Brandon in Hanover, Kan.

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Based on last week's performance, Marlon Lucky should be the starter after rushing for 156 yards on 10 carries and scoring touchdowns on successive runs of 34, 45 and 51 yards. What else do you have to do to be the starter?

Of course, Kenny Wilson is a talented back, too. Wilson has rushed for 278 yards so far, and Cody Glenn and Brandon Jackson aren't bad, either.

Now it seems every team except Oklahoma uses at least two tailbacks, which reduces the threat of injury and keeps fresh legs on the field.

Nebraska shouldn't take a different approach. Lucky should start, but Wilson should get his share of carries, too. If one appears to be running better on a given day then keep giving him the ball, just as a basketball team would keep going to the hot shooter.

Olin Buchanan is the senior national college football writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Friday Mailbag, click here.



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