TERRE HAUTE —
If there’s a position in team sports that has more cachet surrounding it than the starting quarterback in football, more power to you for finding it.
The starting quarterback shines brightest in the public spotlight and is a magnet for fan attention, for good and bad, and because of that, it’s a highly-sought after Alpha Dog position that provides an immediate ego infusion to whomever happens to have it.
Fit that definition into Indiana State’s 2013 season. Mike Perish, the incumbent starter, has been in a competition with redshirt freshman Robert Tonyan Jr. to earn the title of starting quarterback. It’s a battle that was joined in the spring and continues right up to the last week of fall preseason practice.
The key word is “title” of starting quarterback. There will be a starting quarterback for ISU this season. ISU coach Mike Sanford has remained adamant that he won’t name who the starter is until Thursday’s season opener at Indiana.
He’s also been firm that he intends to use both Perish and Robert Tonyan to start the season.
“We’ll decide a starter and then my philosophy — and [offensive coordinator] Brian Sheppard and I are in complete agreement on this — quarterbacks can get hurt,” Sanford explained.
“I think the best scenario is once a No. 1 is a No. 1 you still need to play the next guy. We’re going to play that next guy at least a series or a quarter. We’ll continue to do that every week to get him game experience. If something happens to the first guy, we’re in good shape,” Sanford added.
Perish and Tonyan’s competition isn’t a classic quarterback “battle”. If it’s a battle, it’s one without casualty. Both will play.
The challenge is dampening down the desire to want to have the position to oneself. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Quarterbacks are wired to be “the man”. Perish and Tonyan will have to accept being “the men”.
“I’ve never done it, but whatever coach Sanford thinks is best for the team, I’ll support. I’m excited to go out and win some games,” said Perish, who has lined up with the No. 1 offense for the majority of preseason practice.
“Obviously as a competitor, it’s very important to me [to be No. 1], but I’m going to take it a day at a time and keep working hard. I know it’s all going to work out for whatever the plan is with the coach and the plan for our lives. Everything happens for a reason so I’m ready for whatever comes my way,” he added.
Neither quarterback has expressed any obvious dissatisfaction with the split quarterback scenario. Sanford praised both quarterbacks for their mental approach.
“They’re friends, I think there’s a good environment in the quarterback room. They work together and they care about each other. They want us to be the best they can be. It’s a good situation they’ve handled it well,” Sanford said.
“We’re not worried about who’s going to start and who’s going to get reps. We’re focused on what we’re going to do against IU. We’re worried about getting everyone on the same page before we worry about who’s going to start and who’s not,” he said.
In simplest terms, Perish is more of a classic dropback passer and Tonyan is an athletic quarterback who can run. Both players’ skill set goes beyond those basic descriptions, but those are the attributes that provide contrast. Of course given that Perish has played and Tonyan hasn’t, a true read of Tonyan’s talent hasn’t yet been seen under fire.
“Rob is a very athletic, but still very young quarterback. His ceiling is really high. He needs to try and create as many game situations in practice as possible,” said Sanford on Tonyan.
Perish said he’s been working on his game. He wants to improve his ability to pick up blitzes (ISU quarterbacks were sacked 20 times in 2012), change protection and check inside the offense.
Regardless of how the quarterback position is defined, ISU needs improvement in its passing game. Perish’s individual numbers were solid, if unspectacular. He threw for 1,615 yards and 10 touchdown passes against eight interceptions in 2012.
ISU ranked 102nd in the nation in pass efficiency and 106th in passing offense.
Sanford doesn’t just put the onus on Perish, but has tried to improve the passing game from top-to-bottom by improving the options for the quarterbacks.
“We have to be better in the passing game in general. We tried to recruit some receivers to improve the passing game. A big thing is we have to protect. We have to be able to get the ball out [of the quarterback’s hand] and we have to get open,” said Sanford, a former quarterback himself at Southern California in the 1970s.
Of course, the quarterbacks must play their role too.
“Mike knowing exactly what to do, knowing his reads, where to go with the football, and having more than one or two options [is important]. It’s at least a 1-2-3 progression, sometimes four. That’s a good thing,” Sanford said.
Another element for all of the Sycamores, but particularly the quarterbacks, is learning Sanford’s spread offense. Perish, who transferred to ISU from Western Michigan after his freshman season, has become accustomed to the process.
“I’m comfortable with [the offense]. This is my third college offense. All of college football is about the same. Everyone runs the same plays, there’s just different names for it. There’s small differences, but it’s about attacking the same players on defense and finding weaknesses,” Perish said.
ISU has two other quarterbacks on the roster. True freshman Matt Adam, a Camino Capistrano, Calif. native, spelled Tonyan during ISU’s scrimmage on Aug. 17 and has promise. As does Brazil native Trent Lancaster, a redshirt freshman, who has received reps during the spring and preseason.
Projected starter: Mike Perish*, Jr.
In relief: Robert Tonyan Jr., RFr.; Trent Lancaster, RFr.; Matt Adam, Fr.
Defensive coordinator: Brian Sheppard.
Position coach: Sheppard.
* denotes returning starter