Backup quarterbacks have taken center stage for several Atlantic Coast Conference programs, and many have their team's postseason fortunes in their hands.
Redshirt freshman Danny O'Brien leads Maryland into an Atlantic Division showdown with Florida State on Saturday. O'Brien has led the Terrapins' resurgence since replacing injured starter Jamarr Robinson earlier this season.
One year after Maryland finished 2-10, O'Brien has Maryland in the thick of the Atlantic Division race. The Terps (7-3, 4-2) are battling the Seminoles (5-2) and North Carolina State (4-2) _ and they have O'Brien to thank. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and had one interception in his last four games.
"Just seeing his demeanor, I think he helps the huddle and helps the coaches," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He's kind of a cool guy. 'Yeah coach, I got it, no problem.' Or 'That one's on me.' He'll come up with some thoughts. He came up with a pretty good thought in the game against Virginia, and we changed some things around. He's growing at a very rapid rate right now."
Count Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher among the admirers of O'Brien's work.
"He's a very good player," said Fisher, who has also turned to his backup this season.
E.J. Manuel, subbing for the injured Christian Ponder, led the Seminoles past Clemson last week. Ponder returns this week, but if he re-injures his elbow, Florida State knows Manuel will be ready. The sophomore has started five times in his career, and Florida state is 4-1 in those games.
Also Saturday, No. 24 Miami will host No. 14 Virginia Tech, and the Hurricanes will start freshman Stephen Morris for the third consecutive week. Starter Jacory Harris hasn't played since he suffered a concussion at Virginia, but Morris has been impressive in his place.
Morris nearly led the Hurricanes back from a 24-0 fourth-quarter deficit at Virginia, but came up short as the Cavaliers hung on for a 24-19 win. But he has led Miami past Maryland and Georgia Tech since.
The Yellow Jackets have also had to turn to a backup, Tevin Washington. The sophomore was pressed into action after starter Joshua Nesbitt broke his forearm in a Thursday night loss at Virginia Tech. Nesbitt is the ACC's all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks.
In the loss at Miami, which was Washington's first career start, he ran for 122 yards and threw for 101 yards and a touchdown.
Morris has had a little more success at Miami, even though he wasn't even coach Randy Shannon's first option when Harris was injured. Shannon turned to Spencer Whipple, the son of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, but pulled him after two interceptions.
Morris' play highlights the importance of having a good backup, Shannon said.
"Backup quarterback and center. They're key to your success," he said. "Centers don't get many snaps with the backup quarterback and the backup quarterback doesn't get as many reps as the No. 1 quarterback. It's difficult. It's tough. But that's how it is."
Tougher still, Hokies coach Frank Beamer said, is finding time to get a backup quarterback who could become critical to the season meaningful playing time in advance.
"I think everybody would like to get their backup guy reps, but the problem is who you're playing, and every game we've been in, for the most part, has been tight, and you're just trying to win a football game, so you kind of want to take care of your job and your paycheck there," he said. "The more experience you can have at backup, certainly, the better it is."
Teams no longer in the championship mix have made changes too, or plan to.
Boston College will host Virginia, and the Eagles made the move to freshman Chase Rettig earlier this season. Cavaliers coach Mike London plans to give redshirt freshman Ross Metheny and true freshman Michael Rocco their first chance to see their meaningful action this week.
London didn't make the move sooner even when fifth-year senior Marc Verica struggled, but now that the Cavaliers (4-6) have been knocked out of bowl consideration, the coach is looking more toward next year.
"With two games left, now we have the opportunity to put those two guys in the game," London, in his first year, said. "It's a fine line between when you put a guy in, when you don't, when you just say all right, just junk everything and just go with the youth movement."
It's different, London said, when dealing with young players at other positions.
A defensive lineman, he said, can be sent into a game when the opponent is at their own 20 and get some valuable playing experience without feeling like the game is in his hands.
A quarterback, though, needs to be able to make all the checks necessary at the line, get his teammates in the proper position and also know where to put the ball, and when.
Wake Forest turned to a true freshman earlier this season, and Tanner Price has had flashes of brilliance as well as some forgettable performances while learning the job.
"We've given him about everything we could throw at him," coach Jim Grobe said. And while the Demon Deacons are just 2-8, the payoff may come next season. "We've got a quarterback coming back in the spring who has been exposed to an awful lot," Grobe said.
AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in College Park, Md., and Tim Reynolds in Miami, Brent Kallestad of The Associated Press in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this story.