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OVC teams pin hopes on mixed bag of experience at QB
Quarterback is arguably the highest-profile position on any football team, with fans and media seeming to focus on that spot more than any other.
Regarding that position around the Ohio Valley Conference, Tuesday's initial coaches teleconference revealed a mixed bag of veterans and first-time starters entering this week's season openers.
Four of the nine OVC teams -- including defending champion Eastern Illinois and preseason favorite Eastern Kentucky -- will have players behind center who started at least most of 2005.
Two other teams -- Jacksonville State and Southeast Missouri State -- will start quarterbacks who have seen limited action in their programs.
The remaining three squads -- Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech -- will feature signal callers who have never taken a snap for their programs.
First, the proven commodities.
Eastern Illinois is led by junior Mike Donato, who threw for 1,747 yards last season -- although he had just nine touchdowns against nine interceptions -- as the Panthers went undefeated in OVC play.
"He controls the offense, leadership. ... He's a proven commodity," said assistant head coach Mark Hutson, filling in for Bob Spoo as the head coach recovers from surgery that will sideline him for the first several weeks of the season.
Eastern Kentucky features junior Josh Greco, the reigning OVC player of the year after he threw for 2,861 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. He had 19 interceptions.
"It's the first time since I've been here that we've started the season off with a healthy, experienced and accomplished quarterback," said coach Danny Hope.
"He's improved," Hope added.
Samford has another prolific returning junior in Jefferson Adcock, who passed for 2,338 yards in 2005, with 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
"He did a tremendous job during fall camp," coach Bill Gray said.
Murray State's returning regular is less accomplished, as junior Ryne Salyer threw for 1,062 yards last year, with eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
"Ryne has done a great job through camp," coach Matt Griffin said.
Among the expected conference title contenders based on the league's preseason poll -- including No. 1 Eastern Kentucky, No. 2 Eastern Illinois and No. 4 Samford -- only No. 3 Jacksonville State will trot out a relatively raw quarterback, although the diminutive Matt Hardin has seen his share of action.
Hardin, a backup the past two years, has thrown for 779 yards, with six touchdowns and two interceptions. The 5-foot-8 junior's completion percentage is just 43.9, but he has been impressive in practice.
"There's not much mystery to Matt whether he can play," coach Jack Crowe said.
Southeast Missouri will turn to senior Kevin Ballatore, who suffered a season-ending injury during his only start last year. He threw for 403 yards overall in his first year with the program, completing 59.5 percent.
"He'll get some things done as far as leadership and work ethic," said coach Tony Samuel, who indicated that sophomore backup Markus Mosley will also likely play some in the early games after seeing limited action last year.
Among the starting quarterbacks competing for their teams for the first time, Tennessee State has the most experience.
Antonio Heffner, a sophomore transfer from South Carolina, played in seven games last year and started against Auburn. He completed 22 of 33 passes overall for 236 yards.
Heffner will try to ignite a Tennessee State offense that averaged league worsts of 12.4 points and 278 yards per game in 2005.
"He brings everything you want in a quarterback," coach James Webster said. "He brings leadership, discipline, intelligence. He's a guy that has been in a big arena, so he's been there before."
Tennessee Tech will turn to Louisville transfer Lee Sweeney, who redshirted as a freshman with the Cardinals last season.
Tennessee-Martin plans on using two newcomers to begin the season, as redshirt freshman Greg Preston and true freshman Dexter Anoka will split time until one of them perhaps emerges.
"We're not scared to play two because I think both those guys are talented players," coach Jason Simpson said. "I think they both deserve the opportunity to play at this time. "
"How they handle the game-day pressures and making good decisions and taking care of the football, that will be what separates them."