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Rice's quarterback search narrowed this week

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
HOUSTON -- The first thing Ed Zaunbrecher told his quarterbacks when he took over as Rice's offensive coordinator in January was that each of them had a clean slate.

And since Zaunbrecher was inheriting a team that lost quarterback Chase Clement, receiver Jarett Dillard and tight end James Casey, players who accounted for almost all of the team's offense, he was essentially starting with a clean slate, too.

Zaunbrecher didn't come in with radical changes to the offense (the terminology is the same). But Zaunbrecher said there would be minor tweaks to it to fit the starting quarterback -- a quarterback that has yet to be named.

Zaunbrecher has three quarterbacking choices and has spent the spring and the past week charting everything from completions to decision making in an effort to find the right quarterback to keep the Rice offense rolling after a 10-3 season.

Senior John Thomas Shepherd is the team's best rushing threat. Alabama transfer Nick Fanuzzi has the best arm. And redshirt freshman Ryan Lewis has the ability to do both. Zaunbrecher said he plans on sorting out the quarterbacking situation this week. And while he'd like to have a true starter, he's not opposed to playing two guys if they both provide needs for the offense.

"You can't say you've got three quarterbacks and you're going to play all three guys," Zaunbrecher said. "If you play two, you're not really alternating them. One guy plays and the other guy plays some. That's the way I've done it before and it's worked out well."

Zaunbrecher is quick to point out that none of the three players in contention is as versatile as Clement. None can consistently run and pass at a high level. But, he said, the Owls' running backs are playing a bigger role in the offense, which might alleviate some of the pressure of trying to find a dual-threat quarterback.

For Shepherd, who was recruited by Ken Hatfield to be an option quarterback, this is his last chance. During his four previous seasons, Shepherd, who has played for four different position coaches, has spent most of his career as Clement's backup. He's the only quarterback with game experience and had Zaunbrecher not opened the quarterback position up, he would have been the frontrunner.

"That was kind of tough just because of the fact that I've had some experience and played some games and [former offensive coordinator] Coach [Tom] Herman has seen what I can do," Shepherd said.

Fanuzzi spent his first year at Alabama, but wasn't sure it was an offense in which he would excel. He liked the competition of the SEC and the coaching of Nick Saban, but he thought he'd have a better chance of playing at Rice, which was near to his hometown of San Antonio.

And Lewis is the dark horse. He's also a baseball player. Last season, he hit .289 in 22 games while playing outfield or designated hitter.

Zaunbrecher stressed that while it would be nice to find the next Clement, it's unrealistic to ask any of the three players to fill those shoes. Clement finished his career as the school record holder in passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and attempts.

So, as Zaunbrecher looks to narrow the quarterbacking field this week, each player is going to play to his strengths.

"You never know," Zaunbrecher said. "All three of them could end up playing if someone gets banged up or we want to change the pace or something. And even when we [choose a starter] they'll have to understand that doesn't mean they're cast out forever. It's just right now, someone else is ahead of them."