For the first time since Oct. 27, 2012, a quarterback not named Joe Licata will lead the University at Buffalo. The face of the program is off to, he hopes, the NFL.
So inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center on Tuesday – Day One of spring football for UB – second-year head coach Lance Leipold scanned his options.
There’s Chris Merchant, the backup returnee. There’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson, who casually brings up Cam Newton’s name. And there’s Grant Rohach, the Iowa State transfer with one year of eligibility and Big 12 experience on his résumé.
Leipold is in no rush to name a starter. He’ll let this three-man race run through the spring.
“It is an open competition,” Leipold assured after practice. “Each guy brings a little something different to the table.”
The Bulls plan on rotating the three through drills, but hope to lean reps toward someone near the end of these 14 practices. The Blue/White Scrimmage will be held April 23 at UB Stadium.
While it’s a competition, Rohach is easily the most battle-tested. The other two have a combined one career pass. On Tuesday, Rohach’s dual-threat ability stood out. He zipped in and out of the pocket – flashing potential as a scrambler and an option QB – and seemed to have the strongest arm of the three, too.
Leipold brought up the fact that Rohach has faced schools such as West Virginia, TCU and Oklahoma in throwing for 1,491 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The 6-foot-2, 217-pounder once engineered the greatest comeback in Iowa State history, erasing a 24-point deficit to beat the Mountaineers, 52-44, with 331 yards on 64.1 percent passing, four touchdowns and another 66 yards rushing.
Leipold liked the fact that Rohach played in Ames, Iowa, where the weather can get nasty because, well, have you seen Western New York in November?
And, above all, Leipold said Rohach was known as a leader at Iowa State who mentored others. That should help the growth of Merchant and Jackson.
Still, coaches are approaching spring ball with an open mind.
“It’s going to be overall play, decision making,” Leipold said. “Being able to move the team. The thing that’s going to be tough is we’ve got some offensive linemen missing this spring so there’ll be some things that aren’t as clean and we have new players in a lot of spots. But the ability to get the ball where it needs to, leadership and command of the offense, the huddle and making those solid decisions to move the sticks.”
UB plans on using the quarterback more as a runner this season. While they’ll lose Licata’s high football IQ, experience and strong arm, a more mobile quarterback could dust off new pages in the playbook.
Jackson sure passes the eye test with rare physical gifts. A four-year starter at Mona Shores (Mich.) High School who threw for 4,491 yards and 50 touchdowns and rushed for 1,064 yards and 13 scores his final two high school seasons, Jackson said he learned a lot in the film room with Licata last fall.
And, you know, he believes he has a Cam Newton-like game.
“We’re both big quarterbacks who can pick up yards on the ground,” Jackson said, “but we can also throw. Have strong arms.”
Added Merchant, “I bring a balance of an arm and some legs. I can run if I need to. If we need to throw the ball downfield, I’m accurate and I’m just trying to bring some more leadership to this team and continue to build toward a MAC Championship.”
So each practice will be critical.
Rohach doesn’t have the year of experience in this offense the other two possess but has seen more on Saturdays. This is his third different offensive system. Then, there’s the wait. The agonizing wait. He’s been overlooked often since signing on as a three-star prospect in 2012.
He knows this is his last rodeo, too. A heightened sense of urgency is driving him.
“I’ve been in every position,” Rohach said. “I’ve been the starter. I’ve been the backup. I’ve been the third string. I’ve been the redshirt. At all these different spots as a quarterback and knowing them all and getting that experience, I think that gives me a little bit of an edge.”
Enough to lock this job up in a week or two? Maybe.
Rohach admitted it’s best to know who the starter is “sooner rather than later.” He’s been through QB battles before – at times the team decides immediately, other times they take it to fall camp. For now, a legitimate battle resumes.
“The longer you are the starter,” Rohach said, “and the more guys look to you as the starter, you get reps with them and they’re trusting you, I think that really helps an offense. … But that decision’s a little above me.”