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September 2, 2009

Quarterbacks could be the difference between Tide, Tech

Tyrod Taylor remembers his first collegiate pass attempt, when he came on to the field against LSU, dropped back … and threw the ball right into the ground.

Yeah, that wasn't exactly the way he had envisioned it.

"That was just nerves," Taylor said. "Didn't expect to go into that game, it was just a wild situation for me to be in, I was nervous. But after that first play, that first hit, I was fine the rest of the game."

If there's one overriding theme to Saturday evening, when the University of Alabama opens the 2009-10 college football season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome, it's first impressions. Granted, that's a given with every season and new players, but it's especially true for quarterbacks.

After serving three years as understudy, junior Greg McElroy will make his long-awaited debut as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback, while Taylor finally enters a season finally knowing that the Hokies are his to lead. It's an obvious turning point for both players and programs, which are facing off in a top-10 matchup on national television.

"As far as being patient, obviously everybody would like to play early, but that's not the situation for a lot of people," McElroy said. "At most great universities they establish a line, veteran players playing late. I think that's what they're beginning to do here."

For his collegiate career, McElroy has played in eight games while John Parker Wilson never missed a start. He's completed 16 of 20 passes (80 percent) for 196 yards and two touchdowns - that's it.

Nevertheless, his transition from backup to starter has gone about as smoothly as possible. McElroy won the job in the spring and backed it up with a strong summer and fall camp.

"We have every confidence in him as a quarterback," Coach Nick Saban said. "My concern would be, are the players around him going to play well enough to allow him to do what he needs to do to be a good player? I've said this quite often, quarterback is a difficult position to play if you don't have people around you playing well, because you always have the ball."

Alabama also has new starters at running back, wide receiver, tight end and three offensive lineman, including left tackle. Nevertheless, of them the one person teammates may have the least concern about is McElroy.

"He's great in the huddle," said junior center William Vlachos, one of McElroy's roommates who will also make his first start Saturday. "Very confident. He's going to get on you if you don't do right. He's a strong voice in the huddle and everyone listens to him."

"Very precise with the ball, makes good decisions, spreads the ball around enough to all the receivers," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said. "He puts the ball where it needs to be."

Making this initial test more difficult is Tech's renowned defense, which last year finished seventh nationally in total defense (279.43), ninth in scoring defense (16.71), 14th in rushing defense (104.43). and 16th in passing defense (175.0).

Despite that, in one way this is nothing new to McElroy. At national power Southlake Carroll High School in Texas, he took over as a starter in his senior season after playing behind Chase Daniel, who went on to have a stellar career at Missouri. McElroy passed for 4,687 yards and 56 touchdowns with only nine interceptions during that one season.

"Some of things I remember about that (first game) is just that 'It's finally here. I'm finally on the stage.' I feel lot of similarity," McElroy said. "I'm looking forward to taking advantage of it and enjoying every second of it because it will go fast and you can never get it back."

Meanwhile, Taylor entered the 2007 season as the Hokies' No. 2 quarterback and after entering the LSU game led Tech's lone touchdown drive during the 48-7 defeat. He played in five games that season, and 10 last year after opening the season as a redshirt - a decision that was quickly overturned.

As a sophomore Taylor completed 99 of 173 passes for 1,036 yards, with two touchdowns and seven interceptions, but the number that jumped out was 738. Those were his rushing yards on 147 carries, which led all Atlantic Coast Conference quarterbacks, and that part of his game statistically compares to Michael Vick.

"He's a very dangerous guy," Arenas said. "He can reap a lot of havoc on the secondary. Typically you cover a guy four or five seconds, six at the most. A guy like that, you could possibly be covering a guy 11 seconds, 12 seconds."

"We're just going to have to contain him," senior end Lorenzo Washington said. "He's an incredibly athletic quarterback. We've watched the film and he's made many opposing defenses look silly."

Consequently, the pass rush will be key, especially when factoring the Tide's success against the run. Alabama, which returned eight defensive starters, finished second in the nation in rushing defense last year (74.1), while Virginia Tech's best running back, sophomore Darren Evans, is already out for the season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament.

The Hokies will select a starter (and not tell anyone) between sophomore Josh Oglesby, redshirt freshman Ryan Williams and true freshman David Wilson on Thursday, but all three are expected to take handoffs.

While Tech would obviously like to take the pressure off the running game, Taylor has just 1,923 passing yards in 23 career games. Last year's 103.5 pass-efficiency rating would have barely squeaked into the Southeastern Conference's top 10 (where Wilson had a middle-of-the-road 122.3 rating and 2,273 yards).

Virginia Tech also rarely sees the 3-4 defense in the ACC, with Virginia being a regular exception.

"When they drop into coverage, there's more people underneath," Taylor said. "It's just a different look, different blitzes in different ways. But we've been preparing for this for a long time and we're ready for it."

Getting Taylor more comfortable with the offense was a top offseason priority, in part so he doesn't take so many hard hits when improvising. For example, against No. 25 Florida State last season he sustained an ankle injury on the first play missed the rest of the 30-20 loss.

"A big thing was I had to trust in my guys and trust that they're going to make the blocks," he said. "Sometimes I ran because I felt like I had to, but I wasn't really focusing on the blocking assignments and who they're going to pick up.

"I've been studying the offense and I know the offense like the back of my hand now."


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