Texas Tech's new gunslinger
In high-octane attack, ex-walk-on Cumbie can expect big stats, skeptics
Updated: Friday August 27, 2004 1:49AM
Sonny Cumbie's name is not exactly being bantered about in discussions about the likely stars of the upcoming season. Yet he's the rare player who one can say with near certainty will be a fixture among the national leaders at his position.
Cumbie is the new starting quarterback at Texas Tech, a job that has become as synonymous with passing records as the U.S. softball team is with shutouts. Over the past four seasons, Red Raiders QBs Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons threw for a combined 18,807 yards and 154 touchdowns. Kingsbury, the starter from 2000-02, holds NCAA records for career completions (1,231) and attempts (1,883) and ranks fifth all time with 12,429 yards, while Symons, in his one year as the starter last fall, shattered the NCAA single-season yardage record with 5,833.
"Last season was when I really sat back and said, 'Wow, this is incredible,'" said Cumbie, a fifth-year senior who backed up both players. "These are PlayStation2 numbers we're putting up, and it's something we can do every week."
Now, having patiently waited his turn for four years and having beaten out top-rated junior college transfer Robert Johnson, Cumbie, a former recruited walk-on from nearby Snyder, Texas, has been handed the keys to coach Mike Leach's unique spread offense. It's a job that comes with no shortage of responsibility. Tech's quarterback is essentially his own coach once he gets to the line of scrimmage, charged with calling any number of variations off any given formation and improvising if necessary once the ball is snapped.
While skeptics were apt to label Kingsbury and Symons as "products of the system," the two must have been doing something right. Kingsbury now plays for the New England Patriots, Symons for the Houston Texans.
"You cant just stick anyone in this and things will roll along," Cumbie said. "You have to know this offense inside and out, you have to know what the defense is doing on every play."
After four years working with Kingsbury and Symons, Cumbie certainly knows the offense. And physically, says Leach, he's just as capable as they were.
"He's pretty much gotten steadily better every year since he's been here," said Leach, who chose to offer Cumbie a scholarship after his first year rather than recruit another quarterback. "He's bigger than both of them [6-foot-4, 220 pounds], has a strong arm, a quick release. He's like B.J. from the standpoint that he's real methodical in how he analyzes situations. He doesn't get too emotional."
Whether Cumbie is able to duplicate the success of his predecessors may ultimately depend on factors out of his control. The Tech offense, which spreads the ball almost evenly among four receivers and the tailback, must replace three players, Wes Welker, Mickey Peters and Carlos Francis, who accounted for a staggering 679 career receptions and 8,418 career yards. Several reliable targets will have to emerge from a group of candidates (sophomore Jarrett Hicks and junior Cody Fuller chief among them) that are bigger but less experienced than their predecessors.
On the positive side, Tech does return tailback Taurean Henderson, who has caught 176 passes out of the backfield the past two years; senior wideout Nehemiah Glover, who's caught 161; and four of five starters from an offensive line that allowed just one sack for every 30 pass attempts last season.
"Clearly one of the most important components of whole thing is the front line," Leach said. "I think the line B.J. played behind was better than Kliff ever had. He was completing balls Kliff could never get off, and his numbers were big as a result."
Then there's that little thing called defense. While Leach has successfully ridden his high-octane offense to four straight bowl appearances, his teams have gone a modest 16-16 in Big 12 play thanks in large part to a defense that ranked 106th out of 117 teams nationally last season. While Cumbie knows he's likely to receive plenty of individual recognition if he does his job, he wants to be part of a greater accomplishment.
"I just want to win 11 games," he said. "I'm not an idiot, I know we're going to throw for a lot of yards, but I've also seen a lot of yards result in losses. That's just not something I'm interested in."
Do that, and Cumbie and the Red Raiders would lend some serious credibility to Leach's oft-ridiculed system, something that was largely missing for Kingsbury and Symons, who, despite their eye-popping numbers, failed to garner many national accolades. Cumbie grew quite close with the departed pair and still talks to them weekly about the various pressures and questions that come with the job.
Cumbie doesn't expect those conversations to end with the start of the season.
"After each game," Cumbie said, "I expect to go to my phone and have a message waiting from both of them -- congratulations on the victory."
Around the country ...
TENNESSEE: The elevation of freshmen Brent Schaeffer and Erik Ainge to co-starter status at quarterback hasn't been the only surprising development in Knoxville this preseason. Junior tailback Gerald Riggs Jr., a major disappointment his first two seasons, has been the Vols' most impressive runner throughout camp and is close to unseating two-year starter Cedric Houston. Riggs, a former all-everything recruit, limited to just 256 yards his first two seasons, is also being challenged by much-improved senior Corey Larkins. The Vols are looking to improve a running game that averaged a measly 138.5 yards per game last season.
MICHIGAN STATE: Preseason injuries have taken their toll at Michigan State, where as many as nine starters or major contributors missed practice time this week. Among those was No. 1 QB Drew Stanton, who is still feeling the effects of a knee injury suffered on a special teams play in last year's Alamo Bowl and likely won't be ready for MSU's Sept. 4 opener at Rutgers. Former starter Damon Dowdell would likely take his place. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Jehuu Caulcrick has become the third Spartans running back to move to defense this offseason (last year's top two rushers, Tyrell Dortch and Jaren Hayes, switched in the spring). The top two remaining runners are Jason Teague and DeAndra Cobb.
BOSTON COLLEGE: Head coach Tom O'Brien now knows who his starting quarterback will be for 2004 -- and 2005. Senior Paul Peterson, who led the Eagles to victories in their final three games last season, earned the starting nod after completing 18-of-24 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in BC's final scrimmage. Meanwhile senior Quinton Porter, who started the first 10 games last year before giving way to Peterson, will redshirt and come back for a fifth season next year, when the Eagles join the ACC.
AIR FORCE: Head coach Fisher DeBerry hasn't entrusted his intricate option attack to a freshman quarterback since former star Dee Dowis took over in 1986 -- and even then it wasn't until the last game of the season -- but that's about to change. Shaun Carney, an athletic 5-9, 190-pound freshman from North Olmstead, Ohio, who learned the system last year while quarterbacking Air Force Academy prep school, will start the Falcons' Sept. 4 opener against No. 13 Cal.
WASHINGTON STATE: Star linebacker Will Derting, initially feared lost for an extended period with a wrist injury, has returned to practice, and head coach Bill Doba expects him to be ready for the Cougars' Sept. 3 opener against New Mexico. Derting, a preseason All-America, is expected to have a cast on his dislocated wrist removed Aug. 31.
TOLEDO: Several players for the Rockets, preseason MAC favorites, were allegedly involved in a fight at a fraternity house early Sunday morning that left three people injured, one seriously, according to the Toledo Blade. Depending on what if any disciplinary measures are inacted, Toledo could be at a disadvantage headed into its opener at No. 25 Minnesota.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.