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The most popular guy in town is the backup quarterback.

Or so the saying goes.

Kyle Orton and Mark Sanchez can certainly attest to that notion.

But at Colorado a relatively unknown signal caller is currently second in the pecking order and playing with a swagger this spring.

John Schrock, a walk-on, has the same goal as Connor Wood and Nick Hirschman.

"I know that different guys are getting more reps than other guys and stuff. It doesn't change how I look at it," Schrock said after Monday's practice in the crisp fall-like air. "I'm still competing and trying to win the spot for sure."

Wood, the blue-chip high school recruit who transferred from Texas last season, was supposed to be battling Hirschman for the starting job this spring. Just before practices began, Hirschman, who was Tyler Hansen's backup from last season, suffered a broken foot.

Most of us outside the CU practice fields trying to peek in already have made the assumption that Wood will be breaking the huddle on Sept. 2 when the Buffs play Colorado State in Denver. Through eight spring practices he is the leader of the pack.

2012 CU football schedule

Sunday, Sept. 2 - Colorado State, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High

Saturday, Sept. 8 - Sacramento State at Folsom Field

Saturday, Sept. 15 - At Fresno State

Saturday, Sept. 22 - At Washington State

Saturday, Sept. 29 - UCLA at Folsom Field

Thursday, Oct. 11 - Arizona State at Folsom Field

Saturday, Oct. 20 - At Southern California

Saturday, Oct. 27 - At Oregon

Saturday, Nov. 3 - Stanford at Folsom Field

Saturday, Nov. 10 - At Arizona

Saturday, Nov. 17 - Washington at Folsom Field

Friday, Nov. 23 - Utah at Folsom Field

"Right now Connor is ahead," CU quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer said. "Those other guys are making an improvement. The thing I challenge them with every day is that if we were starting this on a graph, we'd want to see a steady upward spike."

Schrock's graph has been trending in the right direction since he arrived on campus. Last August as a skinny true freshman he beat out scholarship players Brent Burnette and Stevie Joe Dorman for the third spot on the depth chart behind Hansen and Hirschman.

Only three quarterbacks get to travel for road games.

Schrock didn't take a snap during a redshirt season, but he was able to listen to the communication between offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and the other assistants on headphones while studying Hansen.

"I came in here last year and I didn't know anything," Schrock said. "I was kind of taking a back seat just watching a lot and figuring out how to handle everything. This year, I know everything, so I'm competing a lot more."

Based solely on knowledge of the offense, Schrock would be the starter.

Of course, there is a big difference between memorizing the playbook and executing the game plan in front of a hostile road crowd as the pocket is collapsing.

"I have a lot of respect for John. Mentally, he really understands it," Scherer said. "Of the three quarterbacks that are going this spring, he probably has a better grasp of it because he has had more reps at it than Stevie Joe and Connor."

Hirschman has the most college experience but can't seem to stay healthy. His injury last fall opened the door for Schrock to get some extra snaps and make a good first impression with the new coaching staff.

In addition to "owning the offense," Scherer said he is looking for a quarterback who can fill the leadership void created by Hansen's graduation.

Schrock, who looks the part at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, says you don't have to be on scholarship or running the first team to emerge as a team leader.

"I think that you earn it every single day with your teammates and your coaches by how you act and how you practice," he said. "That's not something you can turn on or turn off, or put on a leadership hat. That's something you have to carry with you wherever you are."

Schrock didn't receive any Division I scholarship offers coming out of Shawnee (Kan.) Mission East High School. Not even the arrival of incoming freshman Shane Dillon or the expected arrival of Kansas transfer Jordan Webb will faze him.

This isn't a popularity contest. Jon Embree will play the best quarterback.

"I think that I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder because I'm still trying to prove myself. I know that people think, 'You're a walk-on, you're probably not as good," Schrock said. "I didn't get recruited as much coming out of high school, but I look at myself just the same and compete just as hard whether I'm on scholarship or not. ...

"I want to start, I want to earn a scholarship and I want to play."