TERRE HAUTE —
Quarterback battles come in all shapes and sizes, but one could forgive Indiana State’s Mike Perish, Robert Tonyan Jr. and Trent Lancaster if they feel a bit more beleaguered than your average signal-caller.
Not only is the trio fighting for the right to be named ISU’s starter by the Sycamores’ football opener Aug. 29 at Indiana University, but all three also are trying to learn a new offense, they’re acclimating themselves to new coach Mike Sanford’s different way of running things, and they’re trying to maintain harmony amongst each other, so whoever the ultimate winner is can effectively lead the team without angst.
All of it is playing out during ISU’s spring practice, and so far, none of the quarterback candidates have separated themselves from the pack.
“We’ve got a good battle going on between Mike Perish and Robert Tonyan for the No. 1 job. I don’t how long it’s going to last before we determine it, but I think we’ll definitely go into the fall,” Sanford said last week.
Perish is the incumbent starter. The junior threw for 1,615 yards and had 10 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 2012 under former coach Trent Miles’ offensive tutelage. Tonyan and Lancaster were both on the roster a year ago, but neither played.
Even if they had, Sanford’s offense has dramatic differences from Miles’ offense. Of most importance is ISU’s no-huddle set, something Miles only occasionally used. Throw on the resultant new terminology and schemes and it’s a challenge to learn no matter the quarterbacks’ experience level.
“There’s confusing things, but meeting all of the time during the week helps. You just have to be mentally ready. I think things are going smoothly with the terminology. There’s a lot of similar things and a lot of new things,” Perish said.
“The easiest thing to grasp is the terminology, calling the plays and signaling them. The hardest thing for me is the reads, but that’s coming real well, between the running reads and the read option,” Tonyan said.
The battle for the No. 1 spot is between Perish and Tonyan and they offer a distinct contrast. Perish — 6-foot-3, 200 pounds — is more of a classic dropback passer. He bravely stood in the pocket and rarely scrambled out of the pocket last season as he rushed for 21 yards total.
But Perish also struggled at times with his accuracy downfield last year, a detriment for a dropback-only passer.
Tonyan, on the other hand, likes to run. The 6-5 McHenry, Ill., native stands taller in the pocket than Perish, but is also 10 pounds thinner. Build-wise, the redshirt freshman is a good prototype for the modern quarterback, someone who is tall like a traditional quarterback, but who can move.
“I’m a big, lanky guy, so under center I kind of waste myself with my athleticism. When it’s spread out more, I can keep my progression going. If not, I can scramble and run. With the read option, I think being athletic is a strength for me,” Tonyan said.
But Tonyan hasn’t proven anything in a game situation. The most important question is his ability to read the opposing defense.
Naturally, Sanford said he’d pick the quarterback who gives ISU the best chance to win, but he hasn’t come close to deciding who it is yet.
“They’re different styles. Mike Perish is more of a dropback passer. Robert is more athletic, more of a runner. They both have to accentuate their strengths and improve upon their weaknesses,” Sanford said.
Meanwhile, the quarterbacks battle and learn together. One aspect of practice everyone’s had to get used to is the 24 five-minute sessions that practices are broken into.
For those in a position battle, the five-minute sessions provide focus to get the job done … as well as pressure to get it right.
“I think it’s easier. I like the fact that the sense of urgency is there and that you can focus on one thing at a time. With it being such a short period, you have to focus to get your best rep. Our coaches really focus on those periods and hold to it too,” Perish said.
One thing the players are doing their best not to get distracted by is the competition amongst themselves. Once a leader emerges, he has to have the ears of his teammates, and if strife is sowed, it makes it difficult to achieve unity.
“If there’s no competition, there’s not a competitive attitude back there,” Tonyan said. “We’re all really close. The best man wins, but we’re not going to be mad at each other, we’re trying to help each other out. We help each other in the film room. It’s all new to us, so we want to benefit the team, we’re not trying to out-do each other.”
As Sanford observes and evaluates he left open the possibility that a clear winner might not emerge by the fall. He said it’s possible ISU could play both quarterbacks next season.
“Who knows what we’re going to do. We could end up playing them both. We’ll see how it works out. We do what gives us our best chance to win. If that’s both of them, that’s both of them,” Sanford said.
Competition continues this week with another team scrimmage Friday. The annual spring game is April 20.