Sept. 3, 2011
By Jeff Geiser
Zach Collaros has made quite the transformation since arriving on the University of Cincinnati campus in 2007. From receiving just two football scholarship offers in high school, to redshirting his freshman year, to becoming the popular backup quarterback to being named first-team all-BIG EAST, the senior has made a phenomenal evolution during his collegiate career.
Collaros' journey has been the byproduct of dedication, opportunity and hard work.
Coming out of Stuebenville (Ohio) High School, Collaros broke nearly every school passing record on his way to back-to-back Ohio Division III championships. In three years as the starting QB, he compiled a 41-1 record. After his senior year in 2006, he was named the Ohio Division III Player of the Year and an EA Sports All-America third-team selection after completing 68 percent (136-of-201) of his pass attempts for 2,550 yards with 30 TDs and only four interceptions, while also rushing for 720 yards and 15 scores.
Despite his tremendous success, most colleges were looking at him more as a baseball player than as a signal caller on the gridiron.
"I didn't have many offers for football; Kent State was my only other offer," recalls Collaros. "I was getting a lot of looks for baseball; I had a lot of scholarship offers there. But I wanted to play Division I football. I wanted to play at the highest level; that was always a dream of mine. It was something I wanted to do and something I felt that I could do.
"Coach (Jim) Tresey got the coaching job at UC, with coach (Brian) Kelly's staff, pretty late in the recruiting process. I got a phone call one day. They said they saw my tape and they liked it. They wanted me to come on a visit and they offered me a scholarship. I was all over it. That's all I had to see - a Division I program in the BCS at the highest level. It was something I always wanted to do so I jumped on that."
During his freshman year in 2007, Collaros was redshirted. Rather than sulk at the idea of having to sit out a year, he embraced the opportunity to learn from his mentor and roommate, quarterback Ben Mauk.
"When I first came to UC, I moved in with Ben Mauk and he's been a guy I've always looked up to and a guy that I modeled my play after," Collaros says. "I try to handle my business on the field like Ben. He was a guy that prepared a lot for the game and took great pride in that. He was just a gamer. He'd make plays with his feet. He'd make plays with his arm, whatever he had to do for the team to win. That's something I've always tried to model myself after seeing him on the field. I learned a great deal from him in the year that I lived with him and just being around him a lot."
Mauk guided to Bearcats to a 10-3 record and a victory in the PapaJohn's.com Bowl in 2007. It was the first 10-win season for Cincinnati since 1951. After Mauk applied for and was denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA prior to the 2008 season, the quarterback competition was wide open.
Senior Dustin Grutza won the quarterback competition during preseason training camp and started the first two games of the season. He got injured at Oklahoma in the second game of the year and was replaced by junior Tony Pike, who led the Bearcats to a 45-20 win over rival Miami University.
Pike started the following week against Akron and the Bearcats struggled offensively for most of the day. Trailing 15-14 with under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Pike started to march UC down the field before breaking his left (non-throwing) forearm during a 14-yard pass play that gave the Bearcats first and 10 from the Akron 35-yard line.
Cincinnati was just on the border of field-goal range and needed a few more yards to get into place kicker Jake Rogers' comfort zone. After a penalty forced Cincinnati into a third-and-22 situation from the 37 yard-line, the Bearcats needed even more yardage for a field-goal attempt. Collaros rushed for seven yards on the play to set up Rogers' connection from 48 yards and give UC a 17-15 lead it ultimately held onto.
Collaros' fourth-quarter collegiate debut at Akron showed the type of fortitude and toughness that has now become his calling card.
Cincinnati would go on to play five different quarterbacks in 2008 on its way to its first BIG EAST Conference championship and a FedEx Orange Bowl appearance.
With Pike returning for his sixth season in 2009 as the clear-cut No. 1 starter, Collaros showed enough improvement and dedication in the offseason to wrangle the top backup job away from classmate Chazz Anderson, who in '08 started two games.
"I take pride in my preparation for practice and for games," says Collaros. "I try to do as much as I can, whether it's in the meeting room, on the field or in the weight room. I try to be around the building or my guys, the players, as much as I can."
His preparation paid off for the Bearcats in their sixth game of the '09 season. After starting the year with a 5-0 record, Cincinnati climbed to No. 8 in the national rankings heading into a conference matchup at USF in Tampa, Fla. on Oct. 15.
Pike threw for two touchdowns in the first half to give UC a 17-10 halftime lead, despite re-injuring the same forearm he broke the year before. He tried to play through the pain in the second half, but was eventually replaced by Collaros.
Collaros entered the game for UC's second possession of the third quarter. Facing a third-and-25 from their 25 yard-line, the Bearcats ran a quarterback draw and Collaros went 75 yards for the touchdown to increase the lead to 24-17. Cincinnati held on to win the game 31-17 and kept its perfect record intact.
With Pike now out indefinitely, Collaros ensured the explosive Bearcat offense didn't miss a beat. In his first two career starts - wins over Louisville and Syracuse - Collaros combined for 548 passing yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
A quarterback controversy started to brew after Collaros' third start, a nationally-televised ESPN game against Connecticut. Collaros torched the Huskies defense all night after combining for a UC-record 559 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in a wild 47-45 Bearcat win.
In Collaros' final start of the '09 season, a Friday night matchup vs. West Virginia, Pike came off the bench to throw two scores, while Collaros held the fort to guide Cincinnati to 24-21 victory.
Pike resumed his starting role the remainder of the season as Cincinnati won its next two games to record the school's first 12-0 regular season and second BIG EAST Championship.
Collaros' exemplary work as a backup in '09 was a prelude to the 2010 season when his time to be the full-time No. 1 quarterback finally arrived. Despite his phenomenal in-game experience learned during the previous two seasons, becoming the No. 1 starter was a major adjustment.
"He's gone through the maturation process of really being a full-time, starting quarterback," says UC Head Coach Butch Jones. "It's one thing to be a part-time starting quarterback, to go into where you're the guy week in and week out; from film study to the rigors and the grind of college football and the amount of preparation and intangibles that go along with it. He's as competitive an individual as I've ever been around. He's done a really great job of improving every technical aspect of his game; his eye discipline with coverage identification to throwing with his feet. Everything with a quarterback is about your footwork, the mental aspect and the leadership qualities. I just can't say enough to what he means to our football program, not only on the field, but off the field as well."
A bright spot for Cincinnati in 2010 was the play of Collaros. In 11 starts on the season, he went 225-of-383 passing for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns. He led the BIG EAST in touchdown passes, passing yards per game (263.8), total passing yards (2,902), total offense (282.2), and was third in pass efficiency (137.5) on his way to earning unanimous first team all-BIG EAST honors.
The individual success, for Collaros, was overshadowed by the disappointing season.
"It (2010) tough everybody," Collaros says. "You can't get used to losing. We learned a great deal from it and I think throughout the offseason and through spring ball, winter conditioning and summer conditioning we've used that to our advantage and we've matured a lot as a team. We've grown up and I think it's going to show on the field this year."
Collaros, who has been a labeled a gym rat by the coaching staff since the beginning of offseason workouts in January, has been fueled by a 2010 season that didn't meet his expectations.
"Everything is football. Some people like football and love football deep, but do you need football every day? He needs football every day," Jones adds. "He's a great student of the game. You always see him in the quarterback room watching film, studying football. He may not be even watching our opponent or our offense, but watching somebody else's offense. It's really, really showed in his play. He's a coach on the field. A quarterback is a coach on the field and he's really asserted himself and done a great job with it."
Now entering his fifth season with the UC football program, Collaros has accepted the responsibility of not only being the starting quarterback, but also the duty of being a team leader.
"Zach has always had great leadership capabilities and he's usually led by example, which is great," says Jones. "But you also want you're quarterback to lead vocally; and I think that's where he's really taken the next step in the evolution of being a great leader. We do so much in our program with our peer intervention program, but he's done a great job and he's vocal. You know you're a great leader when the players view you as their leader, and they view Zach Collaros as our leader."
"I think it's just being more vocal," Collaros adds. "I've always tried to lead by example. I think it's the first step you have to lead by example for anybody to respect you. So I've always tried to lead in that way.
"All of the players and coaches always say, 'You're normally only vocal when you get frustrated.' I kind of agree with them about that. Just be more vocal, you don't have to always be positive, but sometimes as the leader you have to crack down on somebody. But do it in a way where the player will respond. Find out all of those angles of the guys that I work with and know how to push certain people's buttons. I think I've done a decent job at that and I hope to continue along in the season."
On BIG EAST Media Day Aug. 12, the preseason all-conference team was announced. In a surprise to many around the UC program Collaros was voted as the second-team all-conference quarterback after being a unanimous first-team choice back in December.
"You don't really pay attention to what the media have to say," says Collaros of his first-team preseason snub. "At the end of the year it will all take care of itself. I'm just focused on completing passes, moving the chains and winning football games.
"As a competitor, you always try to find things that motivate you. I'll twist anything in my favor to motivate me; anything that I can get my hands on. That's just more motivation and it adds to the chip on my shoulder."
"We don't really look at that, I know I don't look at that," adds Jones. "It's not where you start; it's where you finish. I just know this; I wouldn't trade Zach Collaros for anybody in the country. I respect him that much for what he brings to our football program from a leadership and a player standpoint. Everything that we're working toward here, Zach encompasses and embodies that."