The Football Gods have chosen an odd time to take away Cincinnati's most respected leader.
Assimilating a new quarterback in mid-November can't be the way UC Head Coach Butch Jones planned this season on paper. Alas here we are. Cincinnati is leading the chase pack by a half game with Munchie Legaux assuming the role of team leader starting quarterback.
Do they believe?
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Cincinnati football has lost its captain, its leader, its figurehead. Zach Collaros' face is on all the billboards around town for goodness sakes. Fans, outsiders, and media identified Zach as the face of the program. But what about the players and coaches within?
Can they envision life without Zach Collaros under center?
"You can't replace it," said Coach Jones. "But you also look at Munchie and what we were able to accomplish in the second half and at the end of the game and he actually drove us down and he actually provided the spark. He provided the big plays and kind of got us into a rhythm offensively, so our players have a lot of confidence."
Everyone within the University of Cincinnati program is on script.
"As a team we have full confidence in Munchie Legaux," said Kenbrell Thompkins. "He is actually the second quarterback. Everybody believes in him, the coaches and everything. We have to gather together around him and lift him up."
They do believe in their new quarterback. But is this belief grounded in truth or in necessity? If two offensive linemen didn't think Munchie was the answer imagine their half-hearted efforts.
If Kenbrell Thompkins decided Munchie couldn't get him the ball he might start breaking off his routes. When your unit or your football team goes to war any insubordination or inkling of doubt becomes magnified. In football parlances it doesn't cost lives thankfully, but there are game-changing moments resulting from internal distrust.
For this reason it makes total sense that UC coaches and players are 100% behind Legaux. Their success depends upon this faith, this confidence. Unfortunately at this early juncture in Munchie's career that is all it is…faith.
How can anyone guarantee Cincinnati will win two straight road games with a quarterback who has completed fifteen career passes?
Receiver Kenbrell has faith.
"We are just going to be a team with focus," said Thompkins. "He is a quarterback. We aren't looking for him to be Superman. We aren't looking to change the offense or do anything different for him."
Munchie's teammates believe in him. And he has faith they will stand up for him. No Bearcat questions his capacity to lead the team.
But will they listen?
The Cincinnati offense called by Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian is an up-tempo offense predicated on quick decisions and crisp execution. Collaros had perfected the speed if not the execution. Sure Zach was good for an ill-advised pass or two every other game, but his decisions were generally pure.
Legaux has a tough act to follow.
Zach Collaros was rightfully beloved by his teammates and the entire fan base. Unlike a divorce which forces connected parties to choose sides, Collaros' absence begat another relationship of reciprocity.
"I see it as an opportunity to take over," said Legaux. "I take a lot from Zach. I watch him a lot in practice."
Legaux does not have the same determined, at times robotic facial expressions as Collaros. He has not been the same vocal leader. His background in Louisiana has him moving at a different pace than most Northerners.
"Munchie has a quiet confidence," said QB Coach Bajakian. "For sure. Don't mistake what might seem like a quiet demeanor as a lack of confidence. And rightfully so. He is very talented and worked hard. He is confident in his own abilities."
His roommates, Anthony McClung and Roney Lozano had a hard time understanding his accent at first. It is stoic, measured, and deep.
"We tell him everyday he can't play like a sophomore," said Thompkins. "He has to play like a senior. That is something he is embracing. We are looking forward to see how he performs."
Taking a moment to listen to Legaux talk you realize he is in charge. He does carry his shoulders high.
"It seems that everybody likes him," said Coach Bajakian. "Doesn't matter what year. Doesn't matter if they are from Louisiana or up in Michigan. He gets along with them. I can tell you from a coach's standpoint he is a good person. I mean a really good person."
Been there before
Cincinnati football has a storied history of backup quarterback success. Zach Collaros college career was launched off an injury.
"I remember when he had to take advantage of his opportunity a couple years back," said Legaux. "He brought that up to me."
The man calling the plays, in charge of possibly changing the offensive flow, the thread of success has been here before too.
As Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian needs to adapt to a new driver behind the wheel. No longer is he calling plays for Zach Collaros. Now Munchie Legaux takes all snaps, attempts to execute all plays.
Does he have any experience changing his routine midseason? Have quarterback injuries ever popped up?
"Absolutely," said Coach Bajakian. "Too many. Where do you wanna know? At Central Michigan Dan went down for a few games his junior year. A guy named Brian Brunner stepped in and did really well. In his first start he passed for 346 yards and two touchdowns and beat over our rivals Western Michigan. Brian beat Indiana throwing for 485 yards and four touchdowns."
Cincinnati would leap at 300+ yards and two touchdowns. With the way the defense has played in 2011 such figures would virtually guarantee a win.
"Prior to that, Chicago Bears. It was quarterback rotation on a seasonal basis," said Coach Bajakian. "We went through Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman. Previous to that we had four quarterbacks with Rex Grossman, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, and Jonathan Quinn. Prior to that at Central Michigan I lost another quarterback to an ACL. So everywhere I have been, maybe not every year, but everywhere I have been there has been a quarterback situation."
As for Munchie he began his sophomore year (sound familiar) as starting quarterback for Edna Karr High School. He never looked back.
Can he finish?
Munchie Legaux has never won a game for Cincinnati. This is a patently unfair statement that does bear some significance. Since Legaux has played just one major game his "record" seems irrelevant. But what happens if Cincinnati is trailing by five on the road?
Can Legaux make the right choices quickly enough to overcome? Physical skills become secondary at a time like that. Pocket presence, command of the offense, confidence, and leadership. These are not measured by arm power or height.
"There is no substitute for the speed that you see at the Division One level," said Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano. "The only way you get used to it is playing."
Coach Schiano was referencing his young quarterback Gary Nova, but the adage applies across the board.
When Munchie entered the game Saturday he was not ready.
Physically, mentally he was prepared. But emotionally the moment overwhelmed him.
"I could have done better," said Legaux. "When I first got in I threw a big turnover."
It was just his second pass play.
"I thought he was obviously put into a very challenging and difficult situation," said Coach Jones. "When you look at the game and the speed of the game I thought he started relatively very slow. I knew he was going to be ok because when he came off the field he told me the coverage and what happened. I think the longer the game went on the speed of the game slowed down for him."
Tuesday Legaux had trouble running the offense.
Twenty-nine seconds later the ball was snapped. UC completed a pass. Offensive linemen reset.
Twenty-two seconds later the next play was killed.
Whistles blared and the practice ended. Not good.
"Success comes from being prepared for your opportunity," said Thompkins. "Coach said that the offense was moving slow today."
Wednesday was a completely different story. Communication from the sidelines was quicker. Receivers were set well in advance.
It still took an average of 23.5 seconds between plays. While this is nowhere near Collaros' 12 second average it is improvement. Each day should bring a sharp improvement in this his first full week of starter practice.
"The biggest thing with Munchie is that he doesn't have to win the game, he just has to run our offense," said Coach Jones.
This week, with the help of QB Coach Bajakian, QB Nick West, and QB Brendon Kay the sophomore is on his way.
He already has the admiration of rival coaches.
"I thought he was poised, handled it," said WV Head Coach Dana Holgorsen. "The more they (young QBs) play the better they are going to be. He looked very talented to me, pretty poised, and took care of the football."
After a sketchy first drive Munchie did settle in. In fact second half passing was 50%. And the final two drives were facing preventive defenses.
"At first it was just everybody flying all over the field," said Legaux. "I just calmed down the second series."
This pocket presence will be vital every weekend the rest of the season. Games at Rutgers and Syracuse might be close and winning on the road in college football hinges on capable leadership and tough defense. UC is hoping Legaux provides the former. It is the biggest unknown going forward.
"As I watched the tape, of the limited plays we have, he is an incredibly powerful guy," said RU Coach Schiano. "He is fast. He is elusive. Once he settled down a little bit he really threw the ball rather well. You don't go up against the West Virginia defense and do what he did. You can see that he is a very cool customer."