Making your first collegiate start is never easy, especially when you’re trying to follow in the footsteps of a multiple school-record holder. Making that start against the defending National Champions in front of nearly 90,000 hostile fans? Now that’s a tall order.Despite the challenge, that’s exactly what one young Utah State quarterback will do this September, as either Alex Hart, Jeremy Higgins, Adam Kennedy or Chuckie Keeton will attempt to follow in the footsteps of record setting signal caller Diondre Borel, and lead the Aggies into Jordan Hare Stadium to take on the Auburn Tigers. The four have just four career completions between them, while two of them – Hart and Kennedy – have never stepped foot in a Division I game. Nevertheless, Hart, Higgins and Kennedy will be battling all spring and then Keeton will join the mix this summer, for the right to general a loaded Utah State offense, which, despite losing Borel, returns nine starters and 22 lettermen from 2010. “Diondre is a great quarterback; I don’t know if anyone can fill his shoes completely, but we’re all going to try our hardest,” said redshirt-freshman Hart. “It’s good to have competition, it brings out the best in all of us.”Hart, who redshirted in 2010 after finishing a nationally-acclaimed prep career at Jordan High School in Draper, Utah, will have plenty of competition from incoming freshman Keeton, sophomore Higgins and junior college transfer Kennedy. Keeton is a highly-regarded signee out of Houston, Texas. Higgins, who is the younger brother of former Weber State all-Big Sky Conference and 2008 Big Sky Player of the Year quarterback Cameron Higgins, is the only one of the four quarterbacks to have ever stepped into a Division I college game, but his four career completions hardly qualify him as experienced. The wild card for Utah State is Adam Kennedy, a 6-foot-5 gunslinger who comes to Logan after quarterbacking San Joaquin Junior College to a 7-3 record last season. None of the four are Borel, but none of them need to be. According to Aggie offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, the three candidates battling in spring camp each posses a unique skill set, and have already shown off their strengths in limited spring action.”They all have different kinds of strengths,” Baldwin said. “Higgins anticipates things very well and throws before he sees things open, which you love in a quarterback. Alex Hart has mobility and has made good decisions, and Adam Kennedy has the strongest arm and is able to throw all the balls. They’ve all showed something right now.” What they haven’t shown yet is Borel’s penchant for making Aggie fans hold their breath. Amidst a flurry of injuries last season, Borel was deprived of many of his top targets in the running and receiving games, and often had to ad lib to give the Aggie offense a spark. Passing for 2,108 yards and rushing for seven touchdowns, Borel was sometimes the only playmaker on the injury stricken USU offense. Now, with a full compliment of returning receivers and running backs, including former all-WAC rusher Robert Turbin, the Aggies are just looking for a quarterback with the ability to allow other players to make plays.”We’re going to be a different style of offense; we’re not going to be Diondre running the ball,” Baldwin said. “We relied on him to be the playmaker last year. This year we don’t have to. The quarterback should be the manager of this football team.”No one understands that better than Kennedy, who comes to Logan amidst high expectations following his junior college career. Although he wasn’t with the team last season, and didn’t gain the practice reps Hart and Higgins had, Kennedy looked calm and confident during the opening days of spring practice, barking signals and firing darts to his fellow teammates.”I expected it to be a little faster than it actually was,” Kennedy admitted. “I felt like I dealt with the speed and felt like I was right in the mix from the beginning.”Part of Kennedy’s confidence comes from his experience in junior college, where he played against nationally acclaimed players who, like him, now dot the rosters of Division I programs. While he’s not taking the competition lightly, Kennedy has a confident demeanor born from that resume. “Even though it’s not going to compare to D-I, it’s definitely a large step up from high school, especially when you play some of the nationally ranked teams,” he explained of the junior college environment. “You play guys who are going to go D-I, so it’s a huge help.”Another huge help for Kennedy has been quarterbacks coach Matt Wells, who was hired by head coach Gary Andersen during the offseason amidst a coaching staff shuffle. A former Aggie who was a member of two Big West championship teams in 1993 and 1996, Wells has extra incentive to see his alma mater successfully replace Borel. He said Kennedy has taken extremely well to the offense, and done everything necessary to instantly earn the respect of his teammates.”He spends every extra minute watching extra tape,” said Wells, who comes to Logan after coaching wide receivers at the University of New Mexico last season. “There’s a hunger, and a thirst for success.””Being a junior college guy, his clock is ticking as far as eligibility,” Wells added. “He’s got two years left and that’s it. I think there’s a sense of urgency that’s now for him.”Despite Kennedy’s ability to take to the offense and impress his teammates and coaches, Wells made clear that Hart and Higgins have plenty to bring to the table. Wells has been especially pleased with Higgins, who has also displayed a confidence needed to manage Baldwin’s complex, multiple set offense.”Jeremy is a kid who has a little bit of moxy. He’s kind of a smooth operator, and he knows where to go with the ball,” Wells said.Wells knows that whichever quarterback he and Baldwin eventually choose to lead the Aggies will have their work cut out for him when the team travels to Auburn on September 3. Remembering his own first start, Wells said they’ll inevitably be some good and some bad in the much anticipated game, but that the key will be for whomever the staff chooses at quarterback to prepare well and take their lumps as they come. “Whoever the starter is, they’ll gain their confidence through their preparation,” Wells said. “You have to draw your confidence from something, and that’s going to be from your preparation. That’s what they can carry with them into Auburn.”Different styles, different paths, one goal: To lead the Aggies into the 2011 season, and live out the dream of starting before a roaring stadium in one of college football’s most iconic scenes. For now, Hart, Higgins and Kennedy practice before a few dozen onlookers on a cloudy Utah afternoon, but soon enough one will seize opportunity to play in front of a sea of orange and blue. “You’re working towards playing the defending National Champions,” Kennedy said. “You take it one step at a time, but every once in a while you catch yourself looking ahead, imagining 90,000 in that stadium, and you want to be the guy.”
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