Glance down the list of Mountain West Media Days attendees, and the difference a year makes becomes immediately clear.
Last year around this time, Fresno State senior quarterback Derek Carr strode through the halls of the Cosmopolitan Hotel & Casino, fresh off a year in which he was named the Mountain West’s offensive player of the year. Reporters laid siege to his interview table, jabbing digital recorders toward the quarterback and standing in a mob two or three layers deep.
David Fales was new on the scene, carrying San Jose State from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West with a big arm and a toothy grin. Sitting side by side during interviews, Spartan linebacker Keith Smith joked about his quarterback’s newfound celebrity and said that instead of a nickname, everyone on the team simply called him “Mr. David Fales.”
And of course, there was Brett Smith. The former conference freshman of the year was quiet, unassuming — the best quarterback no one really talked about. He took his turn under the Las Vegas lights, as did Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton and Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo.
A year later, old programs are in search of new leaders. Carr is gone, as are Fales and Smith. They are replaced by competent, yet less established, players. How exactly does one go about replacing the face of a program?
You throw the next crop into the fire, and see who makes it out alive.
“I think fall camp is good. They’ll be tested more,” San Jose State coach Ron Caragher said of the two quarterbacks vying for his starting job, Blake Jurich and Joe Gray. “We’ll be trying to crank up the heat with blitz drills, third-down drills, two-minute offenses, red zone.
“We’ll make it a pressure cooker situation and see how they come out.”
One thing is certain: they won’t be David Fales. In his two-year career at San Jose State, Fales passed for 8,382 yards and 66 touchdowns. Jurich and Gray, on the other hand, have combined for 115 passing yards and one collegiate touchdown.
Caragher said that the team’s next starting quarterback doesn’t need to match Fales’ production, but he does have to command the same respect of his team.
“In meetings, we talk through it. I like to pull the guys in and just talk about leadership and what’s important when you’re a leader,” Caragher said. “When you’re a quarterback, that’s a natural leadership position. Body language goes a long way, and how you react when adversity hits. Interceptions happen, and how do you respond? The team can very easily follow that leadership.
“If you drop your head, the guys can follow that. If you learn from it and bounce back, that’s big, too.”
Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, like Caragher, stresses realistic goals. He doesn’t seek the 5,082 passing yards and 50 touchdown passes that Carr dished out in his prolific senior season.
Instead of success, he wants to see how his two quarterback competitors — junior Brian Burrell and fifth-year senior Duke transfer Brandon Connette — respond to failure.
“To me, that’s the critical deal,” DeRuyter said. “We talk to our guys constantly about body language. Everything they project has to be confidence. Adversity is going to happen, but it has to wash off of you like water off a duck.
“It has to be part of the game.”
Inevitably, the team’s other quarterbacks aren’t the only ones affected by the loss of high-profile gunslingers. Receivers work for years, little by little, to establish chemistry and trust.
When their quarterback leaves, it’s like the sudden end of a marriage. Relationships take time, and that rapport can’t be bought or faked.
“After every play it’s like, ‘OK, what’d you like on this play? What’d you like on that play?’ We’re trying to get an understanding of how to feed off of each other,” Fresno State receiver Josh Harper said of working with his new quarterbacks.
“It’s just a communication thing that we’ve got and a mutual understanding of each other’s skills.”
Wyoming’s situation is no different, as Smith’s departure has yielded a six-man quarterback competition this fall. And while it’s pointless to look back, the new face of the conference is hard to recognize in the Mountain West Media Days interview rooms.
This time around, Las Vegas is missing a few of its stars.