Joe Santoro: Tyler Lantrip gets nod to start season for Nevada Wolf Pack

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It's Tyler Lantrip's job to lose.

Chris Ault made it perfectly clear this week during the Western Athletic Conference's media gathering in Las Vegas about who will be the Nevada Wolf Pack's starter at quarterback this season.

"Tyler Lantrip is the guy penciled in to start for us," Ault said.

Interesting choice of words. Pencil, after all, can be erased. Colin Kaepernick, after all, was never "penciled in" as the starter. Kaepernick's name was tatooed in the starting lineup about five minutes into his first start in the middle of the 2007 season.

Lantrip, though, who spent the last four years watching Kaepernick become arguably the greatest football player in Wolf Pack history, will have to be content with seeing his name in pencil right now.

"I don't feel pressure from outside," Lantrip said during the Pack's spring practices, "but I put pressure on myself."

The pressure Lantrip puts on himself won't even compare to the pressure Ault puts on him.

Ault, after all, never even relaxed the pressure valve on Kaepernick, even benching him for two series in a conference home game last season because he didn't like the way the greatest player in school history was reading the defense. Lantrip saw his most extensive and meaningful playing time since his days as Jesuit High's quarterback in Roseville, Calif., with Kaepernick on the bench that evening against Utah State, leading the Pack to two touchdowns.

"He grew up with Kap," Ault said this week of Lantip. "He understands and knows the system and what we're trying to do."

Watching Kaepernick play might not be such a good thing. Replacing the greatest quarterback in Wolf Pack history will be sort of like replacing the greatest head coach in school history. It hasn't been done yet to anyone's satisfaction (just ask Jeff Tisdel and Chris Tormey).

Lantrip, though, knows as well as anyone that he's not the next Kaepernick. He's simply the next Pack quarterback. There might never be another Kaepernick in Nevada. There wasn't one, after all, for about 100 years before he got here.

"I know what we accomplished last season," Lantrip said. "I know what it did for this town. That's something I want to do for this city again."

Lantrip is not necessarily more talented than redshirt freshman Cody Fajardo and sophomore Mason Magleby. In fact, he might be third or fourth on that subjective depth chart behind Fajardo, Magleby and freshman Tanner Roderick of Bozeman, Mont.

Lantrip is simply the safe choice this year. He's earned it. And, right now, he's the only choice.

Ault took a peak at the Pack's grueling schedule the first month (at Oregon, at San Jose State, at Texas Tech and at Boise State) and, well, the last thing he wanted to do was ruin the confidence and the career of a young quarterback like Fajardo and Magleby -- two guys who have yet to throw a pass in a college game -- before it even started.

Lantrip is the sacrificial quarterback this year. That doesn't mean he can't win games. Actually, he's really the only one equipped to win games right now. But if Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech and Boise State destroy the Pack quarterback's confidence, well, better it be the senior who was leaving after this season anyway than the guy who has to lead you into the Mountain West Conference next fall.

The Pack's schedule the first month of a season could eat a young, wet-behind-the-ears quarterback alive. Kaepernick might have even had a tough time coming out of these four games with all of his limbs attached. The Pack has opened only one other season (1949) in its long football history with four road games. Ault has vowed to never let it happen again.

"We have some tremendous challenges," Ault said.

Ault certainly didn't want to spend this crucial training camp teaching his starting quarterback the playbook. Lantrip knows the plays. He can execute most of them. He's a nice, safe, easy transition quarterback from Kaepernick to the long-term starter in 2012.

"I'm really excited about Tyler," Ault said. "He's had back-to-back great springs."

Ault then slipped into his annual everything-and-everybody-is-amazing mode that he slips into at every WAC media gathering.

"Tyler is a terrific, terrific player," Ault said. "Magleby and Fajardo are outstanding. Our quarterback spot for the future is in good hands. I like this group."

Pack fans should like it, too. These kids will be all right. When has Ault ever had a bad or unproductive quarterback? The answer to that question is never. He could teach your pet Jack Russell Terrier to play quarterback. It's what he does as well as anyone in the country.

Lantrip is no wet-behind-the-ears quarterback. The guy, after all, will be 23 next month. He has already earned his finance and economics degree. He's already married. He's a more stable, settling presence than most of the Pack coaches.

And that's what the Pack needs at quarterback right now more than anything else.

Lantrip has also played reasonably well when given the chance. He's completed 12-of-23 passes in his career for 193 yards and a touchdown. He's also run the ball 24 times for 90 yards and two scores.

"He's not as fast as Kap but he can run the ball," Ault said. "The offense we're going to run will look very familiar to you."

Well, sort of. The offense might look familiar but the results might be a bit different. You don't take a Kaepernick out of an offense and, well, not notice the change.

But the beauty of the Pistol offense is that it is an evolving offense. Ault customized the Pistol around Kaepernick's unique talents the last few years. The Pistol we see this year will likely be the Pistol offense that Ault dreamed of when he started to put his thoughts to paper after the 2004 season.

"Tyler will throw the ball a little more than we did last year," Ault said.

In other words, this is no longer the Kap Pistol offense we've all come to know and love. This is the Ault Pistol, the one the old coach has envisioned all along that is really a combination of the drop-back-and-throw-it Mike Maxwell years with the run-oriented-mobile-quarterback years with Eric Beavers.

"We're adding some wrinkles to it as we do every year," Ault said.

Better get that wrinkle cream ready for a very interesting year.

Just never forget that the starting quarterback's name this year will be written in pencil. Ault won't use an indelible Sharpie. He hasn't chiseled Lantrip's name in stone on the wolf statue leading into Mackay Stadium.

And that's OK. Ault has earned the right to change his mind whenever he darn well pleases when it comes to who plays quarterback. Ault, after all, has changed his mind about his starting quarterback before, guys with a lot more impressive resume than Lantrip. Just ask Nick Graziano, Fred Gatlin, Chris Vargas, Steve Baxter, Jeff Ardito, Marshall Sperbeck, Eric Beavers and Joe Pizzo among others.

Ault will have a quarterback school at Nevada this year complete with on-the-job training. The big quarterback competition, after all, is not really this year. The competition that will determine the long-term success of the Pack in the Mountain West will take place starting next spring when Fajardo, Roderick and Magleby (and others) fight it out.

Lantrip is Ault's way of protecting the position of quarterback this year. Lantrip, a guy who knows the Pistol as well as anyone on the planet, will be sort of like a coach on the field with three wide-eyed pupils (Fajardo, Magleby, Roderick) watching him from the sideline.

So, yes, Lantrip will start the year against Oregon. And if he survives that frightening day, he'll start against San Jose State. And so on. But don't be surprised to see all three (Lantrip, Fajardo, Magleby) on the field this year, maybe all in the same game. It would be silly (and short-sighted) for Ault to give almost all of the playing time to the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lantrip. You don't, after all, want to go to the Mountain West with a quarterback who has never played a meaningful down in a college game.

So, right now, the Pack has a quarterback whose name is in pencil. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Just remember that pencil can be erased.


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