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COMMENTARY : Georgia's Zeier Could Be Best College Football Quarterback

August 28, 1994|DAVE KINDRED | THE SPORTING NEWS

Five seconds to play in a big game and you are trailing, 33-26. You are 12 yards from a touchdown that can beat a team much better than yours. A victory turns your season around. A coach signals in the play. He wants the Smash game. The call is 272.

You have thrown the ball 64 times. Even Fran Tarkenton never did that at your school. You have completed 36 for 386 yards. You need 12 more yards.

Four receivers go wide, two on each side. The outside men run a hitch, straight downfield and turning to face you. The men inside run a flag, breaking toward the end-zone corners.

You like the play. But you have used the formation before. It can be no surprise. In the huddle, you say: 272. And you say: Let's run it a new way.

*

We are talking quarterbacks with Eric Zeier, the Heisman Trophy candidate from the University of Georgia. He already belongs in Southeastern Conference lore with Archie Manning and Kenny Stabler, Joe Namath and Heath Shuler. Zeier, 21, is a career military man's son. He is a portrait of bubbling energy, eager to get at life's next play.

We are talking quarterbacks with a good one who is answering questions with bursts of words that leave the visitor's notebook a scribbly mess when all the visitor did was ask about putting together the perfect quarterback.

"Aikman's drop," Zeier says. "Marino's release. Montana's knowledge and feel. Elway's arm. Johnny Unitas' leadership."

Rat-a-tat-tat.

Zeier says he will name quarterbacks he has seen. But he went back 35 years for Unitas because he knew the stories.

"Unitas broke his nose in a game and kept on playing," Zeier says. "He just stopped it up with a bunch of mud. That's toughness and leadership. Getting up in pain, you're hurting, and you say, 'Let's do it.' You're hurt but you don't stay down. You get up and lead your team to victory."

*

Before his 65th pass against Florida, Zeier read the coach's signal for Smash, 272, and then told the inside receiver on the left side: Let's change routes. No flag. Make it a post.

Zeier hoped Florida's defender would be late to cover, even a heartbeat late. Zeier would turn his eyes to the outside. A "hard look," he called it, hoping to persuade the defender the ball might be thrown out there, a heartbeat's indecision. "Then we've got him beat," Zeier says.

The ball left Zeier's hands ... and he says he thought he heard a whistle.

*

Some folks in Georgia get buried wearing red and black, the university's colors. College football means a lot to a lot of people. Older than basketball, in more places than big league baseball, it fills stadiums with more people than live in any but some state's largest two or three cities.

Sanford Stadium holds 86,117 Georgia worshipers, many of whom fall to all fours and woof in the manner of Uga, the bulldog mascot. Such behavior was perfected during Vince Dooley's 25 seasons, particularly in 1980 when the team won a national championship on Herschel Walker's running.

Dooley's successor, Ray Goff, recruited Zeier out of suburban Atlanta's Marietta High School (chosen by the Zeiers for the quarterback's last two high school seasons; the first two were in Heidelberg, Germany).

In his sixth season, Goff needs to be good after last season's 5-6 record. And for Georgia to be good, it needs Zeier to be great.

We know he can throw. We know he is Joe Montana's size, 6 feet 2, 205 pounds. But we also know Montana works with instincts and quickness that make possible the unlikely. Whether Zeier has such gifts, we will soon find out.

Last winter, wondering about the pros, Zeier canvassed 14 NFL teams and decided he was a third-round draft choice at best. So he returned to Georgia for his senior season. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that NFL scouts now rate Zeier the country's No. 1 quarterback prospect.

"His throwing motion is pure beauty," says Dexter Wood, his high school coach. Florida Coach Steve Spurrier, himself once a quarterback who won the Heisman, says Zeier throws "a nice, catchable ball." Bill Curry of Kentucky, on how seldom Zeier is intercepted: "That's the kind of stuff Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas used to do."

*

A whistle? When? No one stopped playing. The defender held his ground for an instant, just as Zeier hoped. He had him beat. The quarterback didn't even look at receiver Jerry Jerman. He knew where he would be. A perfect pass. Touchdown.

Only there had been a whistle. Georgia's outside receiver on the left side, Anthone Lott, had called timeout an instant before the snap. No play. Some teams find ways to lose.

"I heard the whistle right before I threw," Zeier says. "I didn't do any celebrating."

Still five seconds to play. Another pass. Interference. One more play, no time on the clock. Zeier's 65th pass. Incomplete. "Their linebacker made a good play," Zeier says. "I had nowhere to throw it where it could be caught."

*

We are talking quarterbacks with the only passer in SEC history to throw for 500 yards in a game. He is also the only SEC player to throw for more than 400 yards more than once, doing it three times last season. What he does better than most is see theory on film and take it to the field where he makes it real for his team. Only quarterbacks get to do that.

So a visitor asks Zeier one more question. Would he like any other position as much? Zeier tries to say yes; he is a football player, and he would play anywhere. "But," he says, eager to make a play on this day of Montana and Unitas and Aikman, "I love being a quarterback."

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