Just this one time, nobody would have blamed Paul Rhoads if he went back on his word.
The Monday after a 34-0 win over Kansas, before even the unreal comeback against West Virginia, Rhoads promised the first snaps of the spring to then-freshman Grant Rohach, who at that point was 1-2 as a starter with a completion percentage of 55.9, four touchdowns, six interceptions and 13 sacks.
"It will be Grant when we take the field that first spring practice in March," Rhoads said, adding the quarterback competition would certainly be an open one.
The first day of spring ball came March 10. The culture of the program had changed drastically. Out was offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, in was Mark Mangino, Todd Sturdy got promoted to quarterbacks coach and last year's incumbent starter Sam Richardson healed from the maladies that gave Rohach his window of opportunity in 2013.
There Rohach was, No. 3 in the don't-touch-me-green, guiding the first team.
"It's different when he says it in November or December, whenever that was: 'You get first snaps,'" Rohach said Saturday after Iowa State's Spring Game. "Well, shoot, so many months have gone by, coaching changes have gone by, you don't really know."
As Iowa State looked for an offensive coordinator, Rohach fidgeted. He's comfortable in any system, he claims, but the hiring Rhoads had to nail to save face had plenty of QB repercussions. Had the Cyclones, say, promoted Chris Klenakis from line coach to coordinator and ran his pistol offense, Richardson would have been the best fit. Had they went out and hired a pro-style guru to teach an under-center, drop-back offense, it might have best suited Joel Lanning, the redshirt freshman with poise beyond his years and a Favreian arm.
Instead, Rhoads coaxed Mangino back to the Big 12, and his variety offense — shotgun, a little option, quick reads, short and intermediate passing concepts — was just right for Rohach.
To fans, Iowa State allowing Rohach the first snaps of the spring smacked of letting the horse have his trot before the glue factory calls.
Rohach isn't the sexy contender in the QB derby — although the California kid might argue his burgeoning mustache is quite snazzy. He doesn't have Richardson's wheels. Doesn't have Lanning's bazooka.
Yet Rohach has something, something enough to be ahead, by appearances, of Lanning and Richardson with two practices left in spring. This even after stumbling out of the gate in March, too eager to make the most of his chance with the 1s.
"To begin [spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting that pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes and I think I got a lot better."
Rohach's spring game stats — 22-for-38, 171 yards, two interceptions — looked eerily like a line he might have posted in October, but there's no argument he appeared worlds better. The nicest guy on the team, Rohach played the majority of last season like he was scared to mess up and disappoint. Invariably, that happened, as his maddening hesitancy in the pocket led to sacks, rather than throw-aways, and his declination to fire away at his first reads resulted in pick-ups of five yards, rather than 15.
As the year wore on, Rohach grew more confident, twirling together two gems in back-to-back wins over Kansas and West Virginia, in which he accounted for 531 total passing yards, six total scores, two interceptions and 77 yards on the ground, including a 54-yard touchdown scamper on a read-option against the Mountaineers.
Such decisiveness was on display Saturday. While none of the quarterbacks put up the video game numbers custom in spring games around the country, Rohach graded out the best, fitting passes into tight places over the middle of the field and showing improved arm strength.
"I would say Grant was probably the top performer of the day," Rhoads said. "That doesn't put him on top of the stack, necessarily."
In tight end E.J. Bibbs and slot receiver Jarvis West, the Cyclones have outstanding options between the hash marks. That's an area in particular where Rohach shines while he tries to improve his outside throws.
"I think I've gotten better at developing my reads throughout the entire field and I think I made a few big throws down the middle today, but in the boundary I was late," he said. "Still need to work on those boundary levels."
Rhoads said ISU will have chosen two quarterbacks to take into a fall battle after Wednesday's practice (Whether they announce the finalists is another story). Rohach is essentially a lock for one of the two spots, while the spring game snaps distributions suggest Lanning pulled an upset and edged out Richardson, the junior, for the second spot.
When the Cyclones open camp in August, they'll entertain the two-man rotation for a few practices, but will try to select a winner quickly to get 95 percent of the snaps to him. Rohach's experience and improvement give him a leg up over Lanning — who might need one more offseason of seasoning — in a competition of that element.
As it stands, Rohach is the frontrunner to captain Mangino's offense into the 2014 slate. The rising sophomore has honed his physical tools. Tape study has slowed the game down. He has a better relationship with ISU's bevy of targets.
Rhoads has faith in Rohach. He's made very public displays of that. Rohach knows it.
"When a coach says, 'This is the guy we want to start for the first reps,' or 'This is a guy we've got a belief in,' that's a huge confidence booster," Rohach said. "That really helped this spring."