Is the QB Competition Back On?

If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have a quarterback.

That adage is as old and cliche as football gets, but it has proven true throughout the sport’s history. There are often quarterback competitions that go down to the wire before the start of the season that ultimately don’t matter because the season ends up being a flounder as neither QB performs particularly well, anyway (see the New York Jets 2012-2017).

At the end of Fall Camp, it seemed as though SUU had dodged that conundrum as sophomore Chris Helbig emerged as the starter over junior Aaron Zwahlen. Then, four games into the season, it appeared that fate decided the issue as Helbig went down for the season with an apparent shoulder injury.

Zwahlen was thrust into the starting role, and his performances have been inconsistent. He threw for 285 yards against Eastern Washington, but two weeks later threw for only 28 yards and had two interceptions against Idaho.

In the second half of that Idaho matchup, Zwahlen was pulled in favor of true freshman Austin Ewing. Ewing was converted from quarterback to wide receiver earlier in the season, and saw some time on the field in the team’s victory over Sacramento State as a Wildcat QB.

While Ewing has spent most of this season on scout team and special teams, he has incredible speed for a quarterback. He’s quick on his feet and finds gaps in the defense like an experienced running back.

The offense was strong while Ewing was in running the read option that effectively confused the Sacramento State defense. Ewing even caught a touchdown pass from Lance Lawson on a double-reverse pass.

That strong performance must have inspired Head coach Demario Warren to bring Ewing in to see if he could revitalize the offense against Idaho.

That’s exactly what Ewing did.

He led the team to consecutive scoring drives, and scored the only 12 points the Thunderbirds registered on two rushing touchdowns. Ewing ran for 201 yards, and completed five of six passes for 37 yards.

Ewing’s performance, as well as Zwahlen’s struggles, may have reopened the QB competition that was the main talking point of Fall Camp.

Warren has made no mention of the prospect of sitting Zwahlen in favor of Ewing, but after the offense’s stale performance in Moscow, it’s fair to ask who should take the bulk of the snaps at QB in this weekend’s matchup against Northern Colorado?

The case for Aaron Zwahlen:

Zwahlen is a traditional pocket passer. While his recent performance was poor, overall he’s played solid football. He completed 71 percent of his passes in the team’s lone victory against Sacramento State.

The offense also wouldn’t have to completely revolutionize in just one week. Offensive Coordinator Jason Walterscheid’s offense calls for some slinging the ball around to go along with punishing runs.

Experience also favors the redshirt junior. Zwahlen has started the last three games and has been in Walterscheid’s offense for the past two years. His experience would ideally provide stability to what has been an inconsistent team.

Sticking with Zwahlen might also show recruits that Warren has his guys’ backs, and will stick with them, even after a rough performance.

The case for Austin Ewing:

In all of the series that Ewing has taken snaps in, he’s brought the offense to life. His elusiveness creates gains from broken plays, and he has big-play potential (highlighted by an 81-yard sprint in the fourth quarter, Ewing also fumbled on the play, so ball security might be an issue).

Ewing also looked decent in his six throws against Idaho. He doesn’t have the arm strength that Zwahlen does, but few quarterbacks do, and his athletic ability opens up the field for easy throws. Ewing is a threat to run every play, and the defense has to stack the box with seven or eight defenders to slow him down. That leads to open throws in the secondary.

Ewing, unfortunately, has a few cons to accompany his pros. The first being the offense as a whole. SUU would have to go from a balanced run/pass team to basically an option offense that controls the clock in just five days of practice.

Durability may also be an issue. Ewing runs often, and he almost always runs up the middle. Running at the heart of the defense means he’ll take a lot of hits, and considering the T-Bird’s recent string of bad luck with injuries, it would be concerning to have Ewing get flattened by linebackers over and over.

The Wildcat has been Ewing’s best friend, and it has been mostly used as a change of pace for the traditional offense. If defenses know what’s coming, they might be able to shut Ewing down.

The case for both:

The most likely case is that Warren will continue to use both players. While alternating drives can make it tough for a QB to find a rhythm, it may be the best approach for the offense, especially if Zwahlen struggles early on.

Alternating drives would also give Ewing breaks and would minimize the big hits he’d take. If either player takes hold of the game, then it should be easy to hand them the reigns and hope they can unlock the Northern Colorado defense.

No matter what Warren decides, fans should expect to see some combination of both players. It could keep UNC off-balance, or it could prevent either from really settling in and taking control of the game.

We’ll find out this Saturday, as SUU takes on Northern Colorado at 6 p.m. at Eccles Coliseum.

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo Courtesy of: SUU Athletics Strategic Communication