Zach Collaros looks to lead Cincinnati back to a bowl in 2011.
One of the best quarterbacks in the Big East Conference is as comfortable doing a traditional Greek dance during the summer in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, as he is throwing touchdown passes at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium in the fall.
Senior Zach Collaros, who led the Big East in passing yardage and touchdown passes in 2010, has never lost sight of his roots in Steubenville, where he led his high school team to back-to-back state championships as a junior and senior and went undefeated as a starting quarterback.
An old steel town with a population of about 19,000, Steubenville is located along the Ohio River about 39 miles west of Pittsburgh. The town that produced Dean Martin and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder rallies around the Big Red football team, which has won three state championships and ranks among the top-25 programs in the country with 724 victories. It boasts a proud Greek heritage that Collaros eagerly embraces, right down to dancing at the annual Greek festival.
“I can do it all,” he says. “That’s my favorite part of the festival.”
Collaros, who grew up following the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Ohio State Buckeyes, dreamed of playing in Columbus. But at 6'0", 223 pounds, he doesn’t match the classic quarterback profile, so no matter how well he played or how many games he won at Steubenville, OSU coach Jim Tressel simply wasn’t interested.
“You would always hear rumors that Ohio State was here,” Collaros says. “After awhile, it’s like, you know, they’re probably not here. I would keep playing better and better and better and I wouldn’t hear anything.”
After he came to terms with the reality that Ohio State was not his destiny, Collaros accepted a scholarship from Cincinnati and swore to his father that he would never walk into Ohio Stadium unless he was playing against the Buckeyes.
He was redshirted during his freshman year at Cincinnati in 2007, then threw only four passes in 2008 when he was one of five Cincinnati quarterbacks to see action. As a sophomore in 2009,
he began training camp at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Tony Pike and Chazz Anderson, but ended up starting four games in place of the injured Pike, passing for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. By the end of the season he had emerged as the frontrunner to be the starting quarterback in 2010.
In his first season as Cincinnati’s head coach last year, Butch Jones handed Collaros the keys to Cincinnati’s spread offense, and Collaros responded by passing for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns. But the Bearcats, coming off back-to-back Big East championships, fell off the map. Not only did Collaros suffer his first loss as a starting quarterback in either high school or college after 34 straight wins, but his team also lost repeatedly and at times couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.
Following a 2009 season in which Cincinnati finished third in the final BCS standings, narrowly missing a chance to play for the national championship, the Bearcats slipped to 4–8 overall, 2–5 in the Big East.
The season started with a loss at Fresno State. The Bearcats beat Indiana State at home, but then lost at North Carolina State and at Paul Brown Stadium to No. 8 Oklahoma, 31–29, in a game they might have won if not for four turnovers. Those turnovers proved to be a harbinger of a problem that would plague Cincinnati all season. The Bearcats finished with a league-high 29 turnovers, and Collaros had a major hand in that negative statistic, with 14 interceptions.
Cincinnati saw a 14-game Nippert Stadium winning streak come to an end against South Florida. It also lost at home to Syracuse and to Pittsburgh in its final regular-season game, finishing with five losses in its last six games.
But it was a loss at Connecticut on Nov. 27 that was the most crushing for Collaros, who fought back tears at the post-game press conference because he knew then that the seniors — many of whom he had begun his college career with — would not return to a bowl game. He assumed much of the responsibility for that shortcoming.
“We hadn’t lost that many games in all the years we’ve been here,” Collaros says. “It was disappointing and frustrating.”
After the season, Collaros went through a period of soul-searching where he tried to figure out what went wrong. Having won 33 games in their final three seasons under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats had reached the point where they expected to win. Perhaps they took winning for granted. Perhaps their fall was the result of playing for a new head coach and adjusting to a new way of doing things.
Whatever the reason, the losing season ate at Collaros.
“There was definitely a period of time where that was all you really thought about,” Collaros says. “Why were we this bad? Why didn’t I play better? We just had to forget about it and start playing for this year.”
Collaros had an outstanding offseason according to Jones, working tirelessly with his receivers in Cincinnati’s new indoor practice bubble and displaying a level of leadership that Jones has been waiting to see. In the long run, dealing with the pain of defeat might prove to be beneficial to Collaros as he enters his final season of college football.
“It’s been a great humbling experience for him,” Jones says. “It’s been a great learning curve for him. Being a quarterback, you’ve got to take care of the football. He had some bad habits where he was going to scramble and throw the ball.”
Indeed, a major part of Collaros’ interception problem last year was his refusal to accept defeat. That’s also part of what endears him to his teammates. When the Bearcats were trailing late in a game, he often tried to force a big play, usually with wide receiver Armon Binns at the other end.
Binns, who led the Big East in receiving, had a knack for leaping up to catch the ball in traffic, and Collaros had come to rely on him to make a play when there was nothing there. Binns would deliver occasionally. Every time he did, it made Collaros more willing to take an unwise risk.
One of Collaros’ strengths is his ability to make plays when the protection breaks down, so he doesn’t want to lose that ability to improvise on the run. But he has to learn the fine art of knowing when to throw the ball with a decent chance of success and when to pull it down, punt, and play for better field position.
“I’ve really been trying to work on moving in the pocket, resetting my feet and getting the ball out,” Collaros says. “Sometimes stuff breaks down and you can’t be in the pocket. Sometimes I held the ball too long and took a lot of sacks. Sometimes stuff breaks down and you have to be an athlete and make a play.”
Collaros is the unquestioned leader of Cincinnati’s offense now, but at one point early in his college career, he was so frustrated by his lack of playing time that he considered transferring from Cincinnati. He decided to stay, because to him, transferring would be akin to quitting. And he knew that wouldn’t go over well back home in Steubenville.
“I’d feel like I let everybody in Steubenville down,” he says, “and that was something I just didn’t want to do.”
Now Collaros wants to make sure he doesn’t let the fans in Cincinnati down. He enters this season determined to make sure the Bearcats return to the top of the Big East, where he believes they belong.
“I want to win games,” Collaros says. “That’s really all I care about. As long as we win games for this program and this city, I think the rest will take care of itself.”
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