The dreaded scenario has become a reality, one that could send the defending Grey Cup champs into an uncontrollable tailspin: Ricky Ray is hurt, out for upward of six weeks. But there’s good reason for Toronto Argonauts fans to believe 25-year-old backup quarterback Zach Collaros will keep the team afloat.
Ray started the CFL season with a flourish, toting a sensational quarterback rating and leading the Argos to the top of the East Division standings. But suddenly, the 11-year veteran is on the sideline, nursing an injured throwing shoulder.
So the Boatmen (5-3) will significantly tweak their game plan to favour the strengths of a very different quarterback. Collaros may not have Ray’s arm strength or his experience, but he can scramble and is motivated to make his name in the CFL.
With the league’s expansion draft approaching, Collaros could become an attractive quarterback choice for the incoming Ottawa RedBlacks if he seizes this opportunity. Every minute he spends on the field for Toronto is a chance to show he can be a CFL starter, beginning Tuesday, against the visiting Montreal Alouettes (3-5).
While it might seem like a high-pressure situation, Collaros has been in this boat before. Not only did he lead the Argos to victory in a start for a hurting Ray in July, but he also thrived in a similar scenario five years ago, at the University of Cincinnati.
As a sophomore in 2009, he took over for injured senior starter Tony Pike, who was generating buzz as a Heisman Trophy candidate, halfway through the Bearcats’ stunning undefeated regular season.
Collaros preserved the unblemished record with four wins during arguably the program’s best season, earned a Big East player of the week nod, and had experts debating if he should actually keep the job when Pike was ready to return.
“I remember that I wanted the guys around me to try to trust me, to believe that I could get them the ball in the right spots, and I had to earn their trust,” said Collaros, who was the starter at UC in 2010 and 2011, and also played for the Bearcats baseball team. “I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s a similar feeling right now.
“I have to continue to play well and guys will respond. If I play poorly, they’ll be like, ‘Who is this guy?’ It’s very important that I play well.”
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said that with Collaros in, Toronto’s gameplan will change by some 30 per cent to 35 per cent. The team anticipates a more-efficient outing from him with the full week of reps, compared to the shaky one Collaros showed last week in a loss to Calgary, entering after Ray went down.
“He’s very confident in himself and believes he can make a play, which has its pros and cons because mistakes can come with that, but big plays come with that, too,” Argos offensive co-ordinator Marcus Brady said. “We let him do his thing outside the pocket as long as he protects the ball. He has great instincts, natural instincts. When defenders are in his face, he reacts; he escapes and can make plays.”
The native of Steubenville, Ohio, grew up an Ohio State football fan, emulating running back Eddie George while playing in his backyard and dreaming of the NFL. While he was never drafted, one NFL scouting report called him a “highly competitive quarterback with sandlot instincts that enable him to scramble and run around to create plays.”
The six-foot, 216-pounder is in his second CFL season, and there is some murmuring about the possibility Ottawa could select him for the expansion franchise. In order for that talk to continue, Collaros will need more efforts like his team’s 38-12 victory over the BC Lions in Week 5, rather than the lacklustre 35-14 loss last week to the Stampeders.
“I think after the B.C. game, that possibility was in my head a bit and I heard people talking about it,” Collaros said. “But I haven’t thought about it since Ricky got hurt.
“I play for the Toronto Argonauts. For us to win here, I have to play well. I can’t let that creep into my mind, and it really, honestly hasn’t lately. It’s so important for me to focus.”