UB quarterback battle should be cut to two people

The competition is between Merchant and Rohach

The Blue and White spring game was exactly what it was supposed to be – a chance for on-the-rise prospects to prove they have what it takes to earn a starting gig.

The Buffalo football team is a squad forced to remake a portion of its starting lineup after a mass exit of starting seniors. There are positions that are already decided no matter the results of the annual spring scrimmage. Jordan Johnson is locked in as the starting running back. Most of the offensive and defensive line is made up.

The biggest question mark that has been looming in Bulls fans’ minds is the next quarterback.

Since former QB Joe Licata graduated, the search has narrowed down to three possibilities – a freshman, a transfer and a backup.

Freshman Tyree Jackson and Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach have been the favorites to take over the job since Licata threw his final pass for Buffalo. But that’s all speculation. Head coach Lance Leipold doesn’t even know who his next quarterback will be.

The fact that Rohach got the most snaps or Jackson was the first to play in the game doesn’t mean anything to Leipold. It was merely coincidence more than anything. He doesn’t have a public opinion about which players should start the season against Albany this upcoming September.

But I do.

From the hour-long sample size to watch these three quarterbacks perform, I came to the conclusion that Buffalo will have no quarterback problems for the foreseeable future. And while most of the offseason hype has revolved around the aforementioned Jackson and Rohach, it’s the dark horse candidate that actually may have the best chance to start.

Chris Merchant, a rising sophomore and former backup to Licata, proved to the UB football community that the backup should be associated as a legitimate threat to take the starting job.

With that decision also knocks out Jackson as a potential starter for the upcoming season. It has nothing to do with how he played on Saturday, even though he made respectable throws and proved he could be a mobile threat.

He’s simply not the best candidate to take over the team.

That will inevitably change sooner than later. He has the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference one day. It’s rare for a freshman, redshirt or not, to take on starting duties. And even in the changing game today where mobile quarterbacks are hot commodities, Buffalo’s offense, for now, works better with a classic pocket passer who has the ability to run if necessary.

That’s what I learned about Merchant at the spring game.

I knew Merchant had talent, but Saturday’s game proved he could be much more than a backup quarterback. It would be upsetting to see him become the next Tony Daniel – UB’s former quarterback who was overshadowed by Licata his entire career and, in essence, was one of Georgia’s best quarterbacks when he was recruited to Buffalo.

Merchant played like a quarterback that sought out to prove something. His pocket precision was impressive, but his awareness of blitzing linebackers was more impressive. His physical attributes don’t allow him to be a run-first quarterback, but he can move if necessary – a trait that Licata deeply lacked.

Merchant is the only quarterback option that knows the offensive system as he played under Leipold and company for a year already. He learned under one of Buffalo’s best quarterbacks ever. And with a new quarterback-wide receiver tandem, there are no favorites yet.

K.J. Osborn, a rising sophomore wide receiver, caught three touchdown passes during the scrimmage, but said he didn’t have a preference as to which quarterback threw the ball best. He didn’t even know the difference most of the time.

The only person in Merchant’s way is Rohach.

Buffalo brought the Iowa State transfer in for a reason. It was to play quarterback, not ride the bench. I know Leipold doesn’t care who the quarterback is or where they came from. He judges talent, not name recognition.

If Rohach had a bad performance during the spring game, I’d be more adamant to consider him the opening day quarterback. But the fact of the matter is Rohach had a great performance. His accuracy is impressive and he overshadowed his acclaimed arm strength known from his Big 10 days.

I still believe that Rohach will be the starter come opening day, mainly for experience reasons but Merchant is on the rise and will be a close contender up until the first snap of the season. Jackson will have his day. It will just most likely come in 2017 or 2018.

Merchant is Buffalo’s best-kept secret. He only threw one pass in his UB career, an incompletion. He shouldn’t be judged on one throw over the course of a season.

He should be judged when he’s in the game for an extended period of time. Leipold and company may have to dissect game tape further than expected to make the right decision on their next quarterback. 

Jordan Grossman is special to The Spectrum and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com