September 26, 2006
RALEIGH -- The decision to change starting quarterbacks after N.C. State's 37-17 loss at Southern Mississippi was an extremely complicated one, yet a very simple one.
Coach Chuck Amato and coordinator Marc Trestman ultimately came to the decision to go with redshirt sophomore Daniel Evans, sending junior Marcus Stone to the bench, and it paid quick dividends in the form of a 17-15, last-minute, upset win over Boston College.
The issue was never whether to stick with Stone. He came on last year in relief of Jay Davis when a similar QB change was made six games into the season, and Stone did just enough right to help State salvage a 7-5 record and a bowl victory.
But Stone wasn't a playmaker, he wasn't a good fit for the West Coast offense that Trestman believes in, and the best thing anyone could say about him was that he was winning ugly. When the winning ugly turned into losing uglier, and when all the life was zapped out of the team during the blowout in Hattiesburg, some kind of move was mandatory.
Had State stayed with Stone and stunk it up in home losses to BC and Florida State to fall to 1-4, Amato might not have been on the hot seat with the NCSU administration, but he would have drawn more wrath from disgruntled fans than ever. And he would have had the task at that point of having to pull another rabbit out of his hat to salvage this season, with far fewer weapons than he had when adversity hit last year.
The question was, what to do in place of Stone, and how to go about it?
Before the fourth quarter rolled around in Hattiesburg, Evans was a good kid and a very smart, cerebral player who understood the offense. He was listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, but he probably was not that high up in the long-range plans, and certainly not the team's anointed "quarterback of the future."
Trestman personally had recruited true freshman Justin Burke. While Trestman would never say so on the record, he projected Burke as the long-term answer.
The quandary that developed as it became clear to all that Stone was not a playmaker, was not a good fit, and was not likely to take this team anywhere: Give Evans the next shot, or cut to the chase and go with Burke at the expense of some growing pains and perhaps take another step backward for a while.
Evans made the decision an easy one. He played well in the final quarter against Southern Miss, completing eight of 11 passing attempts with a touchdown. Granted, it was all at mop-up time. But the poise and field generalship he showed was strikingly different than anything Stone ever showed, and it provided a glimmer of hope. As Amato said in announcing the change, Evans played well enough to earn a chance to show what else he could do.
Had Evans flopped during mop-up time against Southern Miss, it's possible that State would have turned to Burke quickly. But it would have cost Burke a potential redshirt year, and it would have thrown him into a hot fire with his first two games against Top 25 opponents (BC, FSU) on national television.
There was another element to the discussion. There also was a line of thinking that if State went to Evans and he couldn't get the job done, it would be possible to go back to Stone and give him the ultimatum: This is your last chance.
Amato cited an example from his Florida State days, when Charlie Ward was benched in favor of Danny Kanell, and Ward used the time on the bench to re-group and ultimately come back stronger. That might be the only time you'll ever hear a link between Stone and Ward, but the point was that sometimes quarterbacks benefit from getting yanked and identifying exactly what they need to do to get the job back.
After Evans' performance in the upset win over BC, though, it appears that the only way Stone will get the job back is for Evans to get hurt late in the season, when it would be useless to make Burke burn a redshirt. Evans has done enough in just five quarters to merit the keys to the car for a while, and maybe for a long while.
His last-minute heroics against BC not only allowed State to even its record at 2-2, they brought hope back to the fan base and the rest of the team. And they provided the magic and positive reinforcement that will stick with this team when more adversity hits later, as it most certainly will.
EVANS FITS TRESTMAN'S OFFENSE
The move to Evans likely did several other things for the program.
Even if Evans doesn't play well and pull out last-minute wins every week, he has far more command of the situation offensively than Stone ever had. That ultimately could lead to fewer boneheaded, careless plays by everyone on offense. There will be false starts and holding calls from time to time, because that's part of football, but the chances that the offense will be more attentive and crisper increased significantly in one week.
Further, Evans is better suited for what Trestman really wants to do in a true West Coast offense. Evans already is hitting the dump passes to the backs that Stone couldn't complete consistently. He already is forming some chemistry with his wide receivers, particularly John Dunlap, who caught Evans' touchdown pass at Southern Miss and then made two big catches, including the game-winner, on the final drive against BC. Dunlap and Stone never seemed to be on the same wavelength.
Further, this has to energize Trestman and his play-calling. Trestman came to State intent on implementing the West Coast offense, but he inherited Davis and Stone. He had to scrap his original blueprints midway through last season, adjust on the fly and come up with something -- anything -- that worked.
For a long-time NFL coach coming back to the college game, it had to be extremely frustrating, realizing that you have to make do with what is there until you can get your recruits and teach them your system. One has to believe there will be more energy in all of the offensive meetings again now, although only the players and coaches know what really goes on there.
Further, it reminds all of the players that accountability is the key, and that the coaching staff will make any change at any time in an effort to improve the team. That's what keeps players going, even when the fans have their doubts. It makes every second-stringer work harder, and that makes starters work harder, and that makes practices go better. That's why even moves that seem desperate are more than just pushing a panic button.
One more thing: One has to believe that even if Evans doesn't direct John Elway-type comebacks every week, he'll continue to get better and more confident as he gets more experience. Stone wasn't getting better, at least based on what was happening on Saturdays.
Burke, meanwhile, will get to learn the ropes more and not be forced to burn a year of eligibility. Unless Evans takes this job and runs with it and is exceptional -- which is premature to expect -- then Burke will have every chance to compete for the starting job next year. If Evans does take the job and run with it, it's mission accomplished for Amato, Trestman and everyone else, and Burke's time will just have to come later in his career.
What really matters most is that Amato and Trestman found a way to re-energize the team and rekindle hope for this season. It's interesting that changing quarterbacks helped them turn the trick last year, and it definitely did the same against Boston College.