On The Lighter Side

It's almost time for spring practice, and that means it's almost time for the start of the QB competition that fans have been talking about for over a year. As Gary Housteau says in this latest version of his column "On The Lighter Side," this competition is strangely reminiscent of another QB derby -- no, not Jackson/Germaine, but one that took place at YSU involving another QB named Zwick. Gary also has some thoughts on Justin Zwick from his high school coach and more.

I look at the pending quarterback battle at Ohio State and it's eerily reminiscent in one major way of the one that took place at Youngstown State under Jim Tressel going into the 1996 campaign.

The common denominator in each of the two scenarios is that one of the quarterback's last names in both instances is Zwick. Jared was a true freshman at YSU back in 1996 after coming off a tremendous career as the man under center at Orrville High School while Justin veered from his brother's course after just two seasons at Orrville, after leading the Red Riders to a state championship in his freshman year, and finished his prep career in a much-ballyhooed fashion at Washington High School in Massillon.

Jared, who was a prolific thrower and runner in high school, led Orrville to the state finals in ‘94 and the state semifinals in ‘95 but never won a championship, while Justin was never able to get either of his two Massillon team's beyond the state semifinals.

Upon arriving at Youngstown, Jared, who was fast as lighting and looked to be a perfect fit for Tressel's ground-oriented national championship offenses of the early 1990's, was never able to supplant Demond Tidwell as the Penguin signal caller. Ironically it was Tidwell, the immediate successor to Mark Brungard who guided Youngstown State to their national titles in ‘93 and ‘94, who was more of a pocket passer between the two upstarts, while Zwick, who was more than capable of running the option offense, delivered his passes with a visible hitch in his throwing motion.

As history tells us at YSU, Tidwell held off Zwick for two seasons and remained the team's field general over that time, leading the Penguins to the last of their four national titles in 1997. In all, Zwick's time at quarterback while at YSU seemed to dwindle yearly because after Tidwell left following the ‘97 season due to graduation, a hotshot freshman by the name of Jeff Ryan came in and almost immediately took over the reins from Zwick in his final two years at YSU.

Obviously the lack of quality playing time that Zwick garnered during his stay at YSU did nothing in a negative way to the relationship between the Zwick family and Tressel because not only is Jared, a career backup at YSU, one of Tressel's biggest supporters to this day, the family thought enough of the relationship that Tressel had with Jared that they sent their younger son Justin off to play for Tressel at Ohio State.

Now, Justin will try to earn that quality playing time under Tressel that eluded his older brother when he was at Youngstown State. This Zwick, however, will not have to battle against an apparent successor for the controls like his brother initially did, but he will have to compete against a more than capable candidate who was also an Elite 11 high school quarterback.

Troy Smith, a one-year starter at Glenville after transferring there from St. Edward, didn't put up the prodigious passing numbers that Zwick did in his prep career, but Smith is blessed with a rifle for an arm and a ton of athletic ability. But it's almost impossible to ignore the more the 10,000 career passing yards and all the hype that Zwick arrived in Columbus with.

Rick Shepas, who coached Zwick in his two seasons at Massillon, thinks that his former signal caller is certainly poised to make the most of the opportunity in front of him this spring.

"I think it's been good that he's had the opportunity to sit and learn from Craig Krenzel's performance over the past couple of years," said Shepas, who himself was a senior wide receiver in Tressel's first season as the head coach at YSU. "The last two years has given him the opportunity to develop both as an individual and football player as well. I think he's learned a great deal from the last two seasons."

Zwick supposedly was a can't-miss prospect coming out of Washington High School, and the odds were seemingly in his favor to come in and be the next true freshman to start at quarterback at Ohio State right out of the gate.

"Justin Zwick is probably the most celebrated quarterback to come out of this state since Art Schlichter back in the late ‘70's," Shepas said. "I think he has a tremendous upside with tremendous ability, and he was obviously a high school quarterback ahead of most of his peer quarterbacks in the state, and I thought he was a very solid student of the game as well coming out of high school.

"I think the last two years have served him well at Ohio State, and I think he's in a good situation right now. I think he's hungry and I think he's eager to get in there and continue to learn, but I think he's very excited about the opportunity to compete for this starting position."

Shepas recently caught up with Zwick when he was back home during spring break.

"I was real impressed with him here last week when he was home on break, working out and getting himself ready," he said. "He seems like he's very serious about what he wants to get done, so I'm looking forward to a good spring from him."

Of course, Smith will have something to say about who indeed will be the main man under center in the fall.

"That's up to the coaching staff at Ohio State and what direction they want to take the program," Shepas said. "Obviously you have two great athletes but you have two different style of players at the quarterback position so that will remain to be seen. But as far as the relationship between Justin and Troy goes, I think they have a very healthy relationship. I think there's healthy competition there, but they're also on the same team working for the same ultimate goals so I think that will work out fine."

Shepas obviously knows Zwick more intimately than he does Smith and is well aware of what Zwick is capable of doing as a quarterback.

"As it would be for any high school athlete especially as heralded as he was coming out of high school, it's very tough to take a redshirt and sit behind any good quarterback," the coach said, "but I'm sure his time preparing for this opportunity will show itself during spring.

"I think he's very excited about the opportunity, and I think he's going to show great poise, and I think he's going to show he's a quarterback that understands the game of football and he understands reading defenses and that he's a student of the game. I think he's going to show that he can distribute the football to a number of backs and receivers in the pass game as well as being a great field general. I think that he's the kind of guy that the team will rally around."

As far as Shepas is concerned, intensity and charisma are natural qualities that Zwick possesses.

"Justin Zwick is a winner. He's always been a winner and he's always found a way to make big plays," he said. "I don't think there is any question that with all the hype that he has had over the course of the last three or four years that the people know what he is capable of doing. Now it's just a matter of him taking the opportunity and running with it."

Saying all that, it's easy to determine that Shepas expects nothing short of greatness in Zwick's remaining tenure at Ohio State, but he won't necessarily come out and say it. After all, Shepas is a Tressel disciple and the compliments are more implied rather than stated otherwise.

"I expect him to be a very solid quarterback at Ohio State," he said. "All I would like to see is him consistently improve over the next three years. I'd like to see consistency from him more than anything, that's all."

One of the potential guys that Zwick could once again be throwing the ball to in the next few seasons if he wins the starting job could be another Massillon product on the Ohio State roster. Devin Jordan, who set many of the school's career receiving marks in his time as a Tiger, should be healthy this season after spending much of his first year inactive after he had his knee scoped.

"Devin Jordan is healthy and he looks very good," Shepas said. "He had put a couple pounds on that he didn't feel comfortable with so he shed those pounds to get himself ready for the spring. I look for him to fit into the mix as Ohio State gets into the three and four wide receiver sets. But I think he's going to have a very bright future as well."

Jordan is the kind of guy that can become an added and unexpected bonus to the offense sooner rather than later.

"He's just a very consistent player. He has very good hands and he's an excellent route runner and I think he'll provide some stability in the passing game," Shepas said. "And we always pride ourselves here on blocking at the second and third levels so he's going to be a big, physical receiver. It's hard to find those guys that are 6-3, 210 so I look forward to what can be for Devin Jordan. And he's got great speed. I really feel like Devin can potentially develop into a great possession receiver at the next level."

Of course, I would be remiss if I wouldn't have asked Shepas about the tragic loss that the Massillon football program and community suffered with the sudden passing away of longtime strength coach Steve Studer.

"It's just been an incredible off-season for us here at Massillon over the last couple of months," Shepas said. "We lost Matt Dottavio, a senior offensive lineman, in a car accident, and a couple of weeks after we laid him to rest, we lost Stu from a very tragic heart attack. It definitely was a very rough couple of months for us, but I think we've responded in a way that Stu would be proud of."

Studer played an integral role in the lives of people like Chris Spielman and Steve Luke for example and others from Massillon and even others from outside of the Massillon community.

"Stu and I worked together every day very closely and we shared a lot together and we were very close to each other, so obviously it's been a little tougher for me to recover from," Shepas said. "But at the same time, what a great experience it is to have had an opportunity to come to know a person like Steve Studer over a six year period. You really can't take time to sit back and feel sorry for yourself because you have to feel blessed that you had the opportunity to know the guy.

"He's the kind of guy that made a difference in a lot of people's lives and he made a difference in my life. He left me with a tremendous example to strive for, so I can only sit back and say that I'll be a better coach and a better person from knowing a guy like Steve Studer."

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