There’s more to playing quarterback than knowing the playbook. More than memorizing the routes and protection schemes. More than being able to throw pretty spirals.
Quarterbacks also are expected to lead. Which means they must conduct themselves in a certain way.
Fresno State’s Zack Greenlee didn’t always understand this. Now he does.
“No one want to follow a guy who’s standing over there with his head down and shoulders slumped,” Greenlee said Saturday after the Bulldogs concluded spring practice with a 50-play situational scrimmage before a smattering of fans at Bulldog Stadium.
During his first two years in the program, Greenlee was that guy. He had the chin to chest, saggy shoulders look down pat. But take a look at the redshirt sophomore these days. There’s been a change in his demeanor. You could almost call it a transformation.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got to be the guy people look to,” said Greenlee, looking the questioner right in the eye. “Good or bad, people are watching you and taking cues from you. …
“I think I’ve learned a lot about the importance of that since last year. Sometimes I’d have a bad play and I’d let that carry over to my body language, and people notice that stuff.”
They certainly do.
Right about now, I should probably mention Greenlee has not been named Fresno State’s starting quarterback. All spring, he’s been locked in a duel with redshirt freshman Kilton Anderson and precocious early enrollee Chason Virgil, who should be a high school senior back in West Mesquite, Texas.
Coach Tim DeRuyter and offensive coordinator Dave Schramm are in no hurry to anoint a starter and probably won’t do so until late August, when the Bulldogs are chest deep in fall camp.
However, it’s fair to say Greenlee is ahead of Anderson and Virgil at this point — an assessment both coaches agree with. Some of that has to do with experience in the huddle and understanding of the offense. But it also has to do with how the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is looking and acting the part of a starting quarterback. More than ever before.
“He’s carrying himself with that confidence you want to see,” Schramm said. “His first couple years here, it wasn’t that way. But he’s growing up, and he’s learning.”
That’s the thing about college football players. They do grow up. They mature. And hopefully, they improve.
Which is why snap judgments so often lead to erroneous conclusions.
Last year Bulldogs fans clamored for Greenlee based on one deep pass, an 81-yard touchdown heave, in garbage time against Southern Utah. But when he earned the starting nod against Wyoming and struggled (putting it mildly), many of those same fans immediately wrote him off.
Looking back, that poor performance may have been a blessing in disguise.
“I think that game kind of inspired Zack’s whole offseason, because he learned the status quo didn’t get him where he needed to be,” DeRuyter said. “He needed to learn and he needed to improve. He needed to work harder at it, and he has.”
That hard work is beginning to pay off. Greenlee’s knowledge of the playbook is such that he’s starting to become instinctual out there. When the defense gives a different look, he’s able to make adjustments without having to stop and think.
His dedication in the weight room is also apparent. By gaining 10 pounds, most of it in his thighs and butt, Greenlee has a beefier throwing base. His passes have more accuracy and zip on them, and his pocket poise is noticeably improved.
“I’m a little stronger, so I want to just keep it going and keep eating right,” he said. “I’d like to gain another 5 pounds before I get to fall camp.”
When last year’s primary starter, Brian Burrell, decided not to return for his senior season, it left Fresno State with virtually no experience under center. But it probably worked out for the best. Based on my practice observations, Fresno State’s quarterback play is miles ahead of where it was last spring.
Competition always brings out the best in competitors, and Greenlee, Anderson and Virgil have proven to be just that.
“We’ve got three guys who aren’t happy being the backup,” DeRuyter said.
No Bulldogs quarterback was more competitive — or better understood the importance of body language — than Derek Carr, a senior when Greenlee was a true freshman.
Before Carr’s final game, I asked him how much his backups (at the time Burrell, Greenlee and Myles Carr) had learned from his experience by asking questions and picking his brain for knowledge.
Never one to give a false answer, Carr replied by saying Burrell and Myles Carr did a good doing those things. Greenlee? Not so much — not until the very end.
Now fast-forward 15 months. After Carr visited a recent Bulldogs practice, Greenlee made a point of reaching out. How do I get better? What are some of the things you did to be successful?
It’s another sign of his maturation and development.
Greenlee even took to growing a Carr-like beard this spring. Which the 20-year-old promptly shaved before Saturday.
“Mom came to town,” he said with a grin. “Gotta clean it up.”
You might say Greenlee already has.