January 9, 2018

Zach Collaros is feeling right at home

Zach Collaros arrived in his new surroundings on Tuesday, but they may not be all that different from his old ones.

The 29-year-old quarterback, whom the Saskatchewan Roughriders acquired from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last Wednesday, told reporters at Mosaic Stadium that the football-crazed atmosphere in Regina reminds him of his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio — except …

“There’s way more media,” Collaros said with a grin. “It’s a high school program, right, so we may have had one writer in there once a week.”

In reality, Steubenville (pop. 18,072) likely prepared Collaros for life in the CFL. Last week, Roughriders head coach-GM Chris Jones called the city “a place where you’re destined to be a football player.”

“Ohio really cares about football,” Collaros said Tuesday. “Every kid grows up aspiring to be a high school football player. Whatever high school you went to, you’d go to games, watch those older guys and look at them like they were NFL players.

“I can remember being a kid and begging my dad to go outside with me every day to throw the ball around. They don’t tell you (in Steubenville) that you have to play football, but it’s there. It’s what you do in the neighbourhood.”

Collaros wanted to play quarterback starting out, but he began as a running back and receiver. He was a receiver and defensive back in high school until his junior year, when he won the No. 1 quarterback job.

He admitted Tuesday that he wanted to be like Michael Vick, who at the time was one of the NFL’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks. After realizing he didn’t possess Vick’s athleticism, Collaros started patterning his game after those of NFL stars Drew Brees and Tom Brady — two of football’s more cerebral pivots.

Collaros went 30-1 as the starter at Steubenville High School and led the Big Red to state titles in 2005 and ’06. He then attended the University of Cincinnati, where he played four seasons with the Bearcats — including two as the undisputed starter.

“When I got to college, if I did something wrong, (then-Cincinnati head coach) Brian Kelly would be like, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you to do, I’m going to move you to safety,’ ” Collaros recalled with a chuckle.

Despite Kelly’s ultimatum, Collaros managed to stay on offence through his time at Cincinnati. He wasn’t selected in the 2012 NFL draft and, after a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.

In Toronto, he quickly learned about life in pro football.

“Two guys in Toronto my first year were (quarterback) Ricky Ray and (receiver) Chad Owens, guys who really set the tone of, ‘This is how it is to be a professional. You get here at this time, you take care of your body, you study the film,’ ” Collaros said. “I was very, very fortunate to come into a situation like that with those two guys as well as the coaching staff we had there.”

Jones was the Argos’ defensive co-ordinator and assistant GM that season and he played a role in getting Collaros to Toronto. Nearly six years later — in his third year with the Roughriders — Jones sent a second-round pick (10th overall) in the 2018 CFL draft to Hamilton for Collaros.

The 6-foot-0, 219-pound quarterback started 43 games for the Tiger-Cats after signing with them prior to the 2014 season. But he lost the No. 1 job to Jeremiah Masoli in 2017 and, with a large contract, was deemed expendable by Hamilton.

The Roughriders and Collaros’ agent are renegotiating that deal — “It seems like everything is going well,” Collaros said — and the quarterback is looking forward to joining Brandon Bridge, Vernon Adams Jr., Marquise Williams and David Watford in Saskatchewan’s stable of quarterbacks.

When it comes to being the starter, Collaros is ready to let the best man win.

“I’m showing up and I’m competing,” he said. “It’s what every quarterback does.

“I don’t think anybody, even if they tell you you’re the starter, slacks off in the off-season or comes in nonchalantly. If you’re coming (to camp) and you don’t have the fire in your belly to play the game at a high level, you’re going to get passed up.

“I’m just excited to get back on the football field and compete. That’s how I approach every camp. That’s how I have (done it) my entire life for any sport I was playing.”

That competitive streak is something for which Collaros is famous. Players and coaches alike report the quarterback is a battler, whether it’s on the football field or at a ping pong table.

Roughriders slotback Bakari Grant (who played with Collaros in Hamilton) told that Collaros “is probably one of the most competitive people I’ve ever played with,” while guard Peter Dyakowski (another of Collaros’ former Tiger-Cats teammates) said the quarterback “was always the most competitive” table tennis player in Hamilton’s locker room.

“I don’t like to lose,” Collaros said. “A lot of people don’t like to lose. But if I’m not good at something, I want to get good at it and I spend a lot of time practising it.

“Peter used to beat me pretty badly at ping pong and now he can’t touch me.”

Collaros will be familiar with a few of the Roughriders’ players from their days together in Hamilton and Toronto, but he also knows Jones and Saskatchewan offensive co-ordinator Stephen McAdoo from their time with the Argos.

That familiarity should help Collaros get acclimated with the Roughriders — and the hope is that he’ll be able to put a difficult 2017 season in the rear-view mirror. Collaros posted an 0-8-0 record as Hamilton’s starter last season and accumulated some of the lowest passing numbers of his CFL career.

While admitting Tuesday that his 2017 campaign was “tough,” Collaros stressed that his focus is on 2018 and “this new opportunity in my career.” He has a new number (17; defensive back Crezdon Butler will move to No. 5) and a fresh outlook.

“Flying out today, I felt like the new kid at school,” Collaros said. “I’m sure I’ll feel that way again when we’re all together as a team.

“This is Canada’s team. This is quite the atmosphere to play in as an opponent and I’m really looking forward to being on the same team now.”