Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said former Virginia quarterback Peter Lalich had been dismissed from the school. Lalich was suspended from the football program and chose to transfer.

Backups Move to the Forefront

Mark Verica took over as Virginia's starting quarterback after Peter Lalich was dismissed from school.
Mark Verica took over as Virginia's starting quarterback after Peter Lalich was dismissed from school. (By Bob Child -- Associated Press)
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By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Neither Virginia quarterback Marc Verica nor North Carolina counterpart Cameron Sexton was supposed to start Saturday's meeting between the Cavaliers and No. 18 Tar Heels. Both were buried on their respective depth charts when the season opened, yet both had inner confidence that their chances would arrive.

And arrive they did: Virginia's starter, Peter Lalich, was dismissed from school, and North Carolina's T.J. Yates suffered a broken bone in his left ankle. Overall, nine of the 12 ACC teams have used at least two quarterbacks this season.

"What it tells you," North Carolina Coach Butch Davis said, "is one quarterback is not enough."

The reasons for change have varied. Clemson recently replaced Cullen Harper with Willy Korn to inject life into the offense. Virginia Tech determined that Tyrod Taylor is more effective with the Hokies' current personnel than Sean Glennon.

"You would like to have three, but you better have two" quarterbacks, Virginia Tech quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain said. "I've been through very few years in my 31 years of coaching where you haven't needed a backup quarterback."

This season has shown that a reliable No. 2 quarterback almost is as essential as a starter, but backups come from different backgrounds. Verica was a relative unknown before the Cavaliers called on him to revive their season. Sexton, on the other hand, was underwhelming in an earlier stint as the full-time starter but has proven to be an adequate replacement this season.

Most programs recruit quarterbacks every season, and Davis and Virginia Coach Al Groh have said they recruit only players they feel can become standout starters. But forecasting which high school standouts will become college starters is an inexact science, particularly at this position.

"You still hope that one day he can be a starter," O'Cain said. "You look at him and you say: 'I don't know when they can, but he's smart, he can do all the things you want to get done. Whether he's the guy who can take you to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship or the national championship, I don't know, but I'd like to have him on this football team.' "

The question backup quarterbacks face is how long to wait. Groh said he receives the most transfer requests from quarterbacks and place kickers, positions in which playing time is typically not shared. Verica, who is a sophomore like Lalich, did not consider transferring, preferring to wait for his shot at Virginia.

"I just think you should never become content, whether you're playing behind a guy who's your year and has the same amount of eligibility left, or you're playing behind a senior," Verica said. "Your job as a backup is to be prepared if you're called on."

Sexton started for the Tar Heels as a redshirt freshman in 2006. Yates became the starter last season. North Carolina also has Mike Paulus, another high-profile recruit. Sexton said he briefly considered transferring during the offseason before electing to remain with the Tar Heels.

"I never wanted to leave. I never planned on leaving, but I wasn't stupid," Sexton said. "You've got to have confidence. That's where it all starts. You can't be afraid of competition."

But the reality is that a chance sometimes never arrives. Virginia senior Scott Deke arrived in Charlottesville five seasons ago and has not started a game in his career. If Verica continues to produce, Deke likely will leave without ever seeing significant playing time.

Sexton said all a quarterback wants when signing with a school is the opportunity to compete for the job. But whenever a touted player arrives on a campus, such as Korn at Clemson, outsiders clamor for his entrance into the lineup.

"I really think it's unbelievable the fans and the media jump on the bandwagon of a new huge recruit or if he struggles a little bit, they're right onto the new guy," Sexton said. "People don't have patience to see things through."

Both Verica and Sexton acknowledged that quarterbacks cannot escape attention. Whether they entered the lineup by choice or chance seldom matters. The backups quickly assume the onus of the starter.

"If you can just focus on your own individual performance and not get caught up in all the hype of if you're starting or not, things will come together," Verica said. "Who knows? Maybe these new faces will be the two- and three-year starters down the road."

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