QBs, like jockeys, want spotlight now

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks warms up Saturday, April 6, 2019, before the start of the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks warms up Saturday, April 6, 2019, before the start of the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

LITTLE ROCK — Pursuit of immediate success was motivation enough to influence the choice of destination for a group of 20-somethings and a 53-year-old who are in the spotlight in their sport.

Other than the fact that all involved had several options, some of the circumstances differ as much as the ages of the athletes and the sports of those doing the choosing.

In one corner are a slew of quarterbacks with wide-ranging resumes, all of whom got the message that they would not be the starter this fall. For them, a new school is a final chance to play college football.

That group includes Nick Starkel, Ben Hicks, Shane Buechele, Ty Storey, Kelly Bryant, Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts.

In the other corner is Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith whose situation is more complex, involving his best opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby next week vs. the possibility that the most famous thoroughbred trainer in the U.S. will hold the decision against him in the long run.

More on Smith’s perceived dilemma after a reminder about the football transfers:

• Starkel played in 11 games at Texas A&M the past two years and threw 227 passes. But, he was limited to four games and 22 pass attempts last year while playing behind Kellen Mond who has two more years of eligibility. At Arkansas, Starkel is expected to compete with Hicks for the vacant starting job.

• Hicks started 33 games in three years at SMU, including two seasons under Arkansas’ second-year coach Chad Morris. But the new regime decided to go in a different direction and Texas transfer Buechele might be the answer at SMU. In three years at Texas, Buechele’s number of pass attempts dwindled from 391 as a freshman to 213 as a sophomore, to 44 as a junior. Texas starter Sam Ehlinger, who has two more years of eligibility, threw 25 TD passes vs. 5 interceptions last year.

• Storey started nine games for the Razorbacks last fall and totaled 530 snaps, but realized Morris was looking elsewhere for somebody to run his go-fast offense. After Storey signed on with Western Kentucky, Hilltoppers coach Tyson Helton cited his experience as a starter in the SEC as a big plus.

• Bryant, Hurts and Fields are the most intriguing transfers. Bryant was a winner at Clemson, as was Hurts at Alabama, and Fields was the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in his recruiting class. Rather than playing behind Trevor Lawrence at Clemson or Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama or Jake Fromm at Georgia, they opted for Missouri, Oklahoma and Ohio State. As part of the trickle down, Ohio State quarterback Matthew Baldwin announced last week he would transfer.

The choices by Fields and Hurts are among the reasons the Buckeyes and the Sooners are mentioned prominently as possible participants in the College Football Playoff, and Bryant’s presence elevates Missouri beyond the rebuilding label.

By the same token, as soon as Smith chose Omaha Beach, Derby analysts concluded his decision would result in the Arkansas Derby winner being the betting favorite in the field of 20. Recent history has nothing to do with the 2019 result, but the favorite has won the Derby every year since Orb in 2013.

Unlike many of the quarterbacks, Smith is versatile, winning on front-running thoroughbreds, come-from-behind horses, and everything in between. Contrast that with the quarterbacks who transferred to schools where the offense meshed with their skills.

Before Smith made his decision, there was a popular theory that Bob Baffert might hold a grudge if Smith chose the Arkansas Derby winner over the Baffert-trained Roadster. Baffert is smarter than that, is well aware that Smith is in great demand, and understands the business.

Smith, a member of the Racing Hall of Fame since 2003, did say choosing between Omaha Beach and Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster was the most difficult decision of his career.

For one thing, Omaha Beach trainer Richard Mandella has started only six in the Derby — none since 2004 — and not one finished on the board.

On the other hand, Baffert has run more than two-dozen horses in the Derby and won five times, including Justify last year with Smith aboard. This year, he has three of the top 11 qualifiers —2-year-old champion Game Winner, Roadster and Arkansas Derby runner-up Improbable.

Personally, Omaha Beach’s record carries more weight than Smith choosing to climb aboard.

Since moving from grass to dirt in his third start, Omaha Beach has won 3 of 4, including a division of the Rebel at Oaklawn Park in March and the Arkansas Derby April 13. In the Rebel, he beat Game Winner; a month later, he defeated Improbable.

Smith’s decision could be open to second-guessing after slightly more than two minutes late on the afternoon of May 4; a verdict on Starkel, Hicks, Storey and the others will be months in the making.


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