Rob Oller: What's happening behind scenes and inside heads of Ohio State QB contenders?
A quarterback’s brain goes a mile a minute when the ball is snapped. Pick up the blitz. Find the open receiver.
But what happens when things slow down? What happens between snaps at practice when a quarterback competition is in full swing and a starting job is on the line? What happens in that mental space between throwing a touchdown and tossing an interception?
No better way to know what goes on inside a QB’s head than to ask a QB. In this case, two of them: former Ohio State quarterbacks Mike Tomczak and Todd Boeckman.
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It is one thing to ask C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and Kyle McCord how the Ohio State quarterback competition is going. All three are programmed to answer “Great.”
But “great” is generic, leaving much ground uncovered, which is where Tomczak and Boeckman come into play. Both lived through their own quarterback competitions, and while each experience was different the emotional tug-of-war remains universal for the most important position on the field.
Tomczak in particular has a trusty feel for how production and politics factor into determining a starting quarterback; the former NFL quarterback serves as a volunteer coach at Youngstown State.
To that end, Tomczak is certain Ohio State coach Ryan Day has known for awhile who his starter will be, despite telling the media on Monday “after this week, we’re going to have a really good feel.” The Buckeyes open Sept. 2 at Minnesota.
“All these guys are raw,” Tomczak said of Stroud, Miller and McCord. “But I’m sure that in his heart of hearts, Ryan Day and his staff have said, ‘If the game was tomorrow at noon we’d go with so and so to start and so and so to back up and so and so after that.’ I know we have those discussions (at YSU).”
Tomczak is equally certain that the three OSU quarterbacks have at least an inkling of who leads the competition, even if two of them don’t want to admit it. Even as their egos act as a neon sign flashing ‘Of course it’s me,’ their minds and emotions waver.
Tomczak knows, because he was that guy.
“You fumble a snap or you and the center have a bad exchange, or it’s third-and-10 and you’re pushing it downfield and throw an interception and your demeanor and body language change,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Man, where do I sit now? Am I a second teamer or third teamer?’”
Tomczak ultimately won the starting job at Ohio State, beating out Brent Offenbecher, Tim Stephens and Scott Wolfe, who eventually transferred to Mount Union.
“It’s rough, because only one guy plays that position,” Tomczak said. “You’re thinking, ‘Yesterday I got six reps and today I only got two. Should I read anything into that?’ ”
Coaches often purposely choose not to communicate clearly, wanting to test how a quarterback responds to pressure.
“You think you’ve moved ahead (in the competition) and the coaches say, ‘Today, we’re going to have the other guy take the first team reps.’ They want to see how the quarterbacks respond under the toughest mental conditions,” he said.
Boeckman’s emotional wounds still sting through a decade of scar tissue. As a junior, he won the starting job over Antonio Henton, who eventually transferred to Georgia Southern, and Rob Schoenhoft, who transferred to Delaware. But after leading the Buckeyes to the BCS championship game against LSU, Boeckman lost the starting job to freshman Terrelle Pryor three games into his senior season.
The benching caught Boeckman off guard, since he was never told directly that his job was in jeopardy. Jim Tressel didn’t make many relational missteps, but he mishandled that one. The senior deserved better treatment.
“I did start realizing it as they began putting in more options, and I was not an option quarterback,” Boeckman said. “So I kind of knew it was coming, but it was never explained to me.”
Pryor’s promotion muddied team chemistry, but Boeckman did his best to keep the team united by remaining friendly with his replacement. How will the current QB trio handle things when Day delivers the news?
“Are you friends? Yeah, in the locker room, because you’re a team,” Boeckman said of quarterbacks. “Outside, maybe not as much, because you’re battling for the job. You’re literally trying to take somebody’s job, so there’s almost a real-life aspect to it.”
Exactly. The winner moves up. The losers often move on, especially with the new one-time transfer rule that allows immediate eligibility.
“It was difficult for me then, and even more of a challenge for them now, because money is on the line (with name, image and likeness),” Boeckman said. “And how do Ryan Day and Corey Dennis handle this when two of these guys don’t play? You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have a backup.”
These are the thoughts that happen between snaps. A blitz of a different kind.