EDMONTON - It has been the year of the understudy quarterback in the CFL and one of the quickest of those, in all senses of the word, is Toronto Argonauts backup Zach Collaros.
It's almost as if backups across the eight-team league have hired a squadron of Jeff Gillooly-like thugs to take out the starters to create opportunities for the second stringers.
Or at least a George Costanza-like doofus to accidentally (on purpose) take out the headliner.
Of course, this being pro football, no outside assistance is required. Ricky Ray was injured on Aug. 23 with a shoulder injury when he was brought down hard but cleanly by Calgary sackmaster, Charleston Hughes. The Argonauts, who play the Eskimos tonight at Commonwealth Stadium (7 p.m. kickoff), lost that game.
But Collaros has led Toronto to a 3-1 record since then, including three straight road victories in Montreal, Regina and Calgary as their odyssey winds up here.
Including his start against B.C. on July 30, Collaros has assembled a 4-1 wonlost mark for the 8-4 Argonauts, the first-place team in the East and defending Grey Cup champion.
"That guy (Collaros) has done a great job with his limited opportunities," said Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, who subbed in for B.C. Lions starter Travis Lulay when he was out with an injury last season. "It's tough, when you go into replace Ricky Ray, with the year that he's had, that's a lot of pressure.
"But I really think that offensively, with their game plan, they did things really well and did them the right way for Zach."
A former starter with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, who played a spread offence with a run-and-gun flair, the six-foot, 218-pound Collaros seems tailor-made for the Canadian game.
He's a fast, elusive runner, has a decent arm and, evidently, is a quick study, even for an understudy.
"Only being away from being a starter for a year, I think helps out," said Collaros, whose senior year as a Bearcat was 2011. "I think it would be tough to be a backup for four or five years and never having to prepare as a starter, not having to play consecutive weeks. That would probably throw me off more than anything."
The coaching support Collaros receives in Toronto is also important.
Head coach Scott Milanovich is a former college quarterback and longtime Montreal Alouettes offensive co-ordinator; offensive co-ordinator Marcus Brady has plenty of CFL player experience as a quarterback; receivers coach Jason Maas is an useful resource, as are Ray and the other three quarterbacks on the depth chart. "That has been huge," Collaros said. "I think coach Milanovich is the best in the business.
"He does a great job of getting everybody prepared to play. Not only the quarterbacks, but every position. Having Ricky is definitely comforting. Any question I have, he's seen it before.
"We have eight quarterbacks (current and former) in a room. It's great to be able to bounce off ideas. Any time any of us has a question, there's usually someone that can answer it."
Ray has completed 148 of his 189 passing attempts this season for 1,824 yards and a whopping 78.3 completion rate, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions, a brilliant start to the season. But he has only played seven games, owing to injuries.
Ray had a brief apprenticeship as a backup in Edmonton before bursting out as a full-blown star - and starter - in his rookie season in 2002 on a talent-laden, veteran team.
Ray has always said his role was simplified by stepping in at quarterback with such a strong team and he suggested something similar is at play with Collaros.
"He's a good player, obviously," Ray said. "We're a well-coached football team - offensively we're wellcoached. We're playing good football.
"You step into that situation and, for him, it was just about getting more reps. He was here all last year, but really (didn't play much). So, for him, it was just about getting out there and getting that experience.
"He's starting to get better with a lot of things that most people probably won't notice: getting through his progressions; trusting his feet; seeing things a little bit better.
"That's what you want to see in a young guy is to be able to make those little adjustments and see that improvement in yourself. I really see him getting more comfortable in the pocket, and that's difficult for a young guy."
The Eskimos, for their part, want to keep the mobile Collaros in the pocket, but they sure don't want him to be comfortable.
"We want him to stay in the pocket." said linebacker Damaso Munoz, who played against Collaros as a star at Rutgers. "We don't want him to run around and extend plays.
"He's got skill. He's a good player. This league is good for him, because he did it in college and now he's running the zone read, getting out on the edge, finding people downfield, same thing."
Some see similarities in the playing style of Reilly and Collaros, both being mobile, capable passers.
Just not Reilly. "I don't think our styles are necessarily similar by any stretch of the imagination," Reilly said. "He buys more time in the pocket and does some good things with it.
"My rushing yards have come on more design-type plays than scrambling downfield. Still, when you're taking over for a veteran guy, you don't have a ton of reps under your belt, you don't get a lot of practice reps. You've got to be able to make things happen.
"He's been able to do a good job of that. I was able to do some of that last year. So, yeah, there are similarities."
And in this year of the understudy, comparing and contrasting the styles of play of the two quarterbacks on the make should make for an entertaining encounter.
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