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Stewart still seeking next signal-caller

By EDWARD MARLOWE emarlowe@paducahsun.com

MURRAY -- On a cool, crisp Friday afternoon at Roy Stewart Stadium, true freshman Murray State quarterback Preston Rice looked to his left and tried to thread a seam in the middle of the field.

And just like many other times during the Racers' first scrimmaging moments of the spring installs, a defender - this time linebacker Lamont Crittendon - was there for the interception.

A quick jab from the defensive sideline followed the nice play.

"Hey Preston, how many more of those (interceptions) are ya'll throwing?"

Over the past two weeks, MSU football and its head coach Mitch Stewart have been able to enjoy the fruits of a deep roster for an effective spring session.

But heading into his third season, Stewart finds himself with one of the biggest questions of his young career: "Who is going to be the next quarterback?"

For the past three years it's been the sure-handed KD Humphries, a signal-caller Stewart often noted he didn't have to teach. Humphries just knew what to do and went and did it.

This spring is a little different, as five quarterbacks - Cameron Birse (R-Sr. formerly of Arkansas State), Shuler Bentley (R-Jr. formerly of Old Dominion), Rice (Wayne County, Tenn.), Brendan Bognar (R-Soph. formerly of Lindenwood) and Eli Oltean (R-Fr. from St. Joseph, Ill.) - all stand on somewhat equal footing for the starting job.

"I know it doesn't look like it, but we're the best collectively at quarterback since I've been here," Stewart said. "We've got five dudes that can all play. They can all go in there and take reps."

During Friday's workouts, all but Bognar went through major progressions, and even then Stewart added he'd wished he'd gotten him in there for some of the two-minute drills, as the Racer defense continued to harass passing routes and make throws ineffective.

Leading up into the April 28 Spring Game and perhaps into early fall, the quarterback battle is a very real thing for the Racers, who even before Humphries got a strong season out of one-year Racer Mikhail Miller and an incredible career from current wide receivers and pass-game coordinator Casey Brockman.

"We're looking for that one guy who can go out there and have a good, good day and kind of grab the bull by the horns, and so the next day he can do it again," Stewart added. "And that's what we're missing."

Each quarterback possesses solid arm strength, but each also brings his own utility.

Rice is on campus early after graduating high school and has a propensity to propel out of the pocket. Birse started a game for the Racers last season against Southern Illinois and may be the furthest ahead in understanding the playbook. Last fall, Stewart consistently commented on Oltean's poise and ability to stay composed in the pocket. Bentley has some solid college experience after playing seven games for the Monarchs during the 2015 season.

And Bognar may be the least seasoned, but spent his redshirt year at Lindenwood (Missouri) preparing for the next level.

"You want to keep that 'gunslinger' mentality about them," Stewart said. "But honestly the two-minute (drills) helped me realize how far away we are. Because we have no experience, there was no urgency. It was almost like we were running a four-minute and trying to take time off the clock.

"That was very, very â ¦ not discouraging â ¦ enlightening about how far we are. I'm not down on them by any means. I don't mean this to sound like a QB bash session. We're young and inexperienced."

Defense rules day

With the quarterbacks battling, a defense that will return 11 starters and plug in a host of new talent came away with a plethora of plays. If it wasn't the line breaking up pass protection, it was the linebacker corps and secondary creating deflections and interceptions.

"We know the system, and the new people coming in we can just fill them in," redshirt senior cornerback D'Montre Wade noted. "Us as a secondary with how hard we work, the time that we put in â ¦ we should have the best secondary, no â ¦ we will have the best secondary in the OVC."

Kenney Wooten (Itawamba CC), a new defensive pass rusher for the team, consistently exploded off the line and created havoc in the backfield.

After practice, he laughed and said he was brought to Murray for one job and one job only.

"That's what they told me they brought me here to do, and that's what I'm going to do," he said. "That's all I did at my JUCO was rush. It's what I know best."

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