EAST HARTFORD - Randy Edsall has spent nearly four decades evaluating football players, including quarterbacks, and determining who might fit best in starting roles.
What kind of beer a player drinks is not on his list of criteria.
What kind of beer a player seems like he might one day drink? Yup, that counts.
The UConn head coach playfully admitted that was one of the reasons he decided to go with true freshman Jack Zergiotis as the starter for the Huskies’ game against Illinois Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. And although UConn lost the game, 31-23, to the Fighting Illini, Edsall found a quarterback in the young Canadian.
“He’s like one of the boys. Give me a Molson, let’s go have a drink and sit down with the offensive linemen,” Edsall explained after the game. “There’s just something. You just see it.”
That may be so, but Edsall’s move wasn’t one that anyone saw coming.
With Week 1 starter Mike Beaudry nursing a injury that would keep him out of action for the Illinois game, the likely choice for a replacement seemed redshirt freshman Steve Krajewski. Even N.C. State transfer Michah Leon, who battled injuries during the preseason and hasn’t been at full strength himself very long, was thought to be ahead of Zergiotis on the depth chart.
But considering Edsall is one of the few coaches in the nation not to produce a depth chart for public consumption, the assumptions were wrong. Or, perhaps, Edsall just changed his mind.
“I talked with the offensive coaches but I went with my gut,” Edsall said.
Zergiotis was 21-for-32 for 275 yards against Illinois. He did throw two interceptions, including one late in the game as UConn was trying to drive for the game-tying score, and also fumbled but the Montreal native also displayed surprising poise and arm strength.
Now, the starting quarterback job is his.
“I saw something out of him in the preseason. Mike got hurt last week and couldn’t go. I talked with the offensive coaches but Sunday we went to practice and I just saw something,” Edsall said. “This is the way we’re going to go. There is no quarterback controversy. He’s our quarterback moving forward.”
Zergiotis said he was a bit nervous during the week and early Saturday morning, but that the feeling faded by kickoff. He was feeling confident and appreciative of Edsall’s trust.
“Last Monday the coaches told me I’d be running with the 1’s during the week. And then we had a pretty decent week of practice,” Zergiotis said. “A couple days ago they said ‘We’re going with you.’ They trusted me and gave me the opportunity.”
In addition to the Molson attitude, Zergiotis has an overall swagger and confidence that Edsall likes.
“I’ve been around the game for 40 years, coaching it. I think I have a pretty decent eye for judging talent and judging what you need to get it done,” Edsall said. “There’s just something I saw out of the kid, how he handles himself, how he goes out and plays.”
Asked about his swagger, Zergiotis admits readily that he indeed has it.
“I’m the best. I’m the best,” he said after the game. “That’s the mindset we have to have.”
No true freshman quarterback has started and won a game for UConn since Dan Orlovsky beat Eastern Washington back in 2001. It’s too much to think that Zergiotis is the next coming of Orlovsky, but it’s not too farfetched to believe that dry spell of rookie winners for UConn will end very soon.
Confidence aside, Zergiotis knows he has to perform better if UConn is going to win such games.
“I thought considering the circumstances I did fine,” Zergiotis said. “But coach put me in to win the game. We couldn’t do it.”
Under Zergiotis’ direction, the Huskies moved the ball for most of the afternoon against a solid Illinois defense. But they also settled for short field goals instead of touchdowns on three occasions. The young gun-slinger knows that his offense has to put more 7s on the board and fewer 3s if the team is going to win consistently.
“There’s a couple plays I could have made that would have impacted the outcome of the game but I mean, we’re going to get better, move on and we’re going to beat Indiana,” Zergiotis said, noting the Huskies’ opponent in two weeks.
Although rumors of Beaudry’s status began to circulate late in the week, few outside the UConn inner circle knew it would be Zergiotis taking over under center.
But the players who practiced against Zergiotis leading up to the game had a feeling he’d play well.
“During the week he made a great play during two-minute,” said Tyler Coyle, the Huskies’ junior safety from Windsor. “There was like eight seconds left and they were on the plus-40. He made a great throw for a touchdown to win the two-minute on us.”
In addition to a theoretical thirst for Canadian brews in his left hand, it’s also clear Zergiotis has a right arm that can perform all the tricks needed to play college football.
“That kid’s got a slingshot of an arm. I think you saw that,” tight end Jay Rose said.
Rose, who came to UConn as a quarterback, knows what kind of mental and physical pressure Zergiotis must have faced.
“I’m really proud of him. That’s not easy, for a freshman to come and play a Big Ten team like that,” Rose said. “He played his butt off. I know everyone’s proud of him and very impressed with what he did.”
And, to boot, everyone now wants to have a beer with him.