Whatley to battle for starting quarterback position

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Whatley drops back to throw pass in spring game. Photo by: Makayla Puckett

A major storyline leading up to the 2018 Southern Miss football season was the ongoing quarterback battle that brewed throughout the offseason. Jack Abraham, Keon Howard, Kwadra Griggs, Marcelo Rodriguez and Tate Whatley were all at one time under consideration for the position. Due to various circumstances, Jack Abraham earned the nod as the starting quarterback for 2018.

Following the Black and Gold spring game last Saturday, Southern Miss head coach Jay Hopson seemed to indicate that Whatley and Abraham are poised to be the frontrunners in a new battle for the position that may extend well into late summer.

“It’s competition. I’m going to let them compete,” Hopson said. “I think Tate’s earned that right, and again he came out today and just had an outstanding day, so we’re going to put the ball down and let guys go and we’ll find out here in mid-August where we’re at.”

Both players received significant playing time throughout each quarter in the game, with Whatley leading Team Gold to a 10-6 win over Abraham and Team Black.

As a true freshman last season, Whatley eventually became the principal backup quarterback to Abraham. Whatley appeared in the season opener against Jackson State, rotating with fellow quarterback Marcelo Rodriguez, and completed his only pass for five yards. His next appearance came in relief of an injured Abraham in the team’s Oct. 27 road loss to Charlotte.

Whatley threw two touchdowns on eight passing attempts and showed his dual-threat ability with 62 yards rushing, but the Golden Eagles still narrowly lost a 20-17 contest to the 49ers.

Whatley started the team’s next two contests following the Charlotte game against Marshall and UAB. Whatley had 134 yards and a touchdown through the air in a 26-24 win against the Thundering Herd but followed that performance up with a 42 percent completion percentage and -42 yards on the ground against UAB in a loss the next week.

Abraham returned to start the team’s final two games of the season against Louisiana Tech and UTEP, but Whatley made appearances in each game, completing three passes and rushing 13 times for 61 yards in the two wins.

Following the spring game, Whatley talked about improving on reads this offseason.

“Obviously still got to work on reads, missed some today, but I’ll just be quick[er] with my reads and get the ball out,” Whatley said.

One of the highlights of last season was Abraham’s accuracy and rapport with the receiving corps. In his first season at the helm of the offense, Abraham eclipsed the 70 percent mark in terms of completion percentage in six of the nine games he started.

As the person in the quarterback room with the most experience, he should be still considered the favorite in the race. However, Whatley showed chemistry with members of the team’s receiving corps as well. Whatley completed 9-of-15 passes for 203 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown pass to Trevor Terry and passes of 44 and 35 yards to Neil McLaurin.

New Southern Miss offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Buster Faulkner talked about Whatley’s big plays through the air.

“I liked the fact that he was doing that, I thought he did a good job of checking the ball down at times to the running back, that’s something that we preach,” Faulkner said. “Tate really has finished the last probably three practices plus today, he’s going in the right direction.

Abraham also picked up where he left off from last season completing 18-of-27 passes for 191 yards and a late touchdown, but he also threw an interception on the final play of the game as well. Still, Abraham connected on big plays with a few receivers, including Jordan Mitchell and found ways to get De’Michael Harris involved in the offense.

With Hopson comments about competition at the position, all eyes will be on the position heading into the season. Abraham has one year under his belt working with an offense and players that has largely remained in place from last season and was one of the most accurate passers in college football last year but also struggled with turnovers at times as well.

Whatley also brings starting experience and mobility to the position, but is still young and developing in those aspects of the game. Both players had highlights and positive takeaways in the spring game, which makes the competition this offseason even more intriguing and something that will not be resolved soon.