Since June, all five quarterbacks on the Towson University football roster have journeyed to Gino’s in Towson to take advantage of student specials on Tuesdays. Over dinners of burgers, chicken and milkshakes, the players hold court on serious and light topics, tease each other, and generally get to know each other.
“It’s just a good time to hang out and talk to each other about what’s going on in our lives and kind of get away from football,” redshirt junior Jeff Miller said. “We’re always around each other in film and practice and lifting, and we’re always competing against each other. So it’s really nice to be able to sit down and have a meal with each other.”
That camaraderie is significant, considering all five quarterbacks are jousting for the right to be the starter in the season opener against Morgan State at Hughes Stadium on Sept. 4.
As the program prepares to open preseason camp Friday, Tigers coach Rob Ambrose likened the situation to the beginning of the 100-meter sprint at the Olympics.
“Basically, they’re all at the same starting line,” he said. “So we’re going to see in very short order who’s going to be the guy.”
In 2018 and 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, Towson had the luxury of leaning on Tom Flacco, the younger brother of former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco who contributed to Towson compiling a combined record of 14-10 and a berth in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2018.
This summer, there is no undisputed starter. Two of the five candidates have yet to make a throw at the college level, and two others have appeared in four career games, combining for four completions in seven attempts for 52 yards.
The exception is Chris Ferguson, a graduate student who played last fall at Liberty but might be more well known by Towson fans for his time at Maine, a rival in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Ferguson went 15-13 as a starter in three seasons from 2017 to 2019 for the Black Bears, completing 56% of his passes for 6,091 yards and throwing 46 touchdown passes against 30 interceptions.
“I’m excited about this offense at Towson,” said Ferguson, who has been reviewing game film of how Flacco ran the offense. “I think it fits me well, and I think we can really do some special things, and I think we can use the weapons around us. That’s what it’s all about, getting the ball to the playmakers.”
After Louisville transfer Jawon “Puma” Pass left the program in April for Prairie View A&M, Ambrose said the team needed “an older guy.”
“We were pretty much on the phone talking to every quarterback in the country,” he said. “Well, [Ferguson’s] personality is one that is massively congruent to my own. I’d say that if he and Tom Flacco got into a room together and the only thing was a ball, they’d figure out how to play a game and how to beat each other competitively.”
As experienced as Ferguson is, he has not had as much time absorbing the playbook, joining the team in June. His five teammates, on the other hand, have used their time to study the plays.
“As long as you’re there, you can’t help but become more comfortable with the offense, and you become more acquainted with what you can do in the offense,” said Miller, who backed up Flacco in 2018 and 2019. “Me and [sophomore] Nathan Kent don’t run the offense the same way, and me and Chris aren’t going to run the offense the same way. So you just get more comfortable running the offense.”
Ferguson’s arrival made an already packed quarterbacks room even more crowded. But the other candidates said they did not begrudge the coaching staff for adding another competitor.
“If you bring in better guys, that’s the coaches’ jobs,” said redshirt sophomore Vincent Amendola, who backed up budding star Sam Howell at North Carolina in 2019 and has shed 45 pounds from his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame by replacing soda and carbs with water and home-cooked meals. “I love competition. It makes everyone in the room better. We’re all competing. Nothing is going to be given away.”
Each of the five candidates boasts a particular strength, according to Ambrose. Ferguson and sophomore Scott Smith III (St. Paul’s) are accurate pocket passers, while Miller is the prototypical West Coast model. Amendola might have the strongest arm, and Kent (Liberty) is the most mobile.
Ambrose said two qualities he values highly are accuracy and leadership.
“The biggest thing I tell these guys is, you don’t run plays, you run people,” he said. “They have to believe in you, and how you go about what you do is almost as important as what you do. For some kids, that’s a foreign quality, but when you get guys like Peter Athens, Grant Enders, Tom Flacco and Connor Frazier, those guys are leaders with those skills that tend to be successful quarterbacks.”
Ambrose said he would prefer to settle on a starter by Aug. 21, which would give the quarterback two full weeks to work with the first offense before the season opener against the Bears. Until then, the unit will have to adapt to the different ways the five candidates operate.
“With every quarterback when they get under center, it takes a little bit to get used to a lot of things about them – their cadence, their playing style, etc,” graduate student left guard Aaron Grzymkowski said. “But I would say at the end of the day, our job is the same, and whoever is back there, we have to execute. We know how we have to execute regardless. So I would say it takes a little getting used to with a new quarterback, but it’s not that bad.”
Ambrose emphasized that whoever he names the starter, the others must be prepared to play as the specter of a COVID-19 outbreak continues to lurk throughout the country. He similarly is anticipating fast starts from each of the candidates when practices begin.
“We’re going to give them reps,” he said. “Each one of them is expected to walk into camp hitting the ground running. Nobody’s expected to have to catch up.”
Amendola, Ferguson and Miller individually acknowledged that there is only one starting position and that four of the five candidates might be disappointed by the coaches’ decision later this month. But they agreed that whoever emerges as the starter will have the full support of the quarterbacks room.
“On other teams, I would have BS-ed you and said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re all friends.’ But that is legitimately the feeling with us,” Miller said. “We have kind of adapted the idea that it’s not me against Chris Ferguson, and it’s not me against Vincent Amendola. It’s me against me. I’m trying to improve myself to be the best quarterback and the best player that I can be, and every single guy in that room is doing that. Whichever guy ends up doing that, Coach Ambrose will choose him to take over the spot, and we’re going to support each other no matter what.”
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