Alex Niznak wasn’t joking last week when he said he was one play away from getting into the football game.
At the time, he told me he didn’t consider himself the No. 2 quarterback.
One week and a game later, after starting quarterback Cody Kater was sidelined with a broken clavicle, Niznak now finds himself as the outright starter. This time with more pressure and responsibility.
Mix in the broken ankle of senior tailback Zurlon Tipton also suffered in Saturday’s game, arguably a bigger blow to an offense that was going to heavily rely on its running game, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Instantly, a team that had a chance to make moves and surprise some people in the Mid-American Conference is now down its two major offensive pieces. Pieces that had different goals, different purposes, but so necessary for this offense to click.
Now one game in, well before the heart of the conference schedule, this team finds itself at a crossroads. It can dwell on losing Kater, a guy who worked so hard last season to finally master the offense and win the offseason quarterback battle. It can dwell about losing Tipton, touted and hyped and expected to have another big season.
Or it can develop new stars, guys that fell in the shadow of Kater and Tipton in the projected depth charts and preseason magazines.
Niznak, Saylor Lavallii, Anthony Garland … This is your time.
This is your time to get most of the snaps. Your time to prove yourself. Your time to validate Dan Enos’ claim that this team is more deep than years past, that his recruiting is beginning to show dividends.
If you know anything about Enos, he’s not going to panic. He’s not that type of guy. He and the coaching staff will continue to mentor, teach and push.
This is also a turning point for Enos. Central Michigan football fans began to grow impatient with Enos’ tenure last season, particularly after the team started the season 3-6 and appeared headed toward a third consecutive losing season. Instead, they rattled off three-straight wins, snuck into a bowl game and subsequently won. The critics were hushed, at least temporarily.
At this point though, with the overtures Enos and his staff have made with recruiting, it’s time to put up some wins, no matter who’s on the field.
Kater will be easier to replace than Tipton, no doubt, but games aren’t won on paper. It’s going to take the team to buy into their new starting quarterback, and it appears like they already have, but will also require some help in the backfield.
That means Lavallii, Garland and redshirt freshman Martez Walker, along with tight ends Mike Kinville and Connor Odykirk, are going to have to make up for it. From taking the lead on the field to working extra hard in practice.
With that also comes a slight change in offensive schemes. With Tipton, you could just hand it off and let him power his way through the line. With Lavallii and Niznak, it’s going to require more spreading of the field.
So this is going to take more than just Niznak. It’s going to take more than Lavallii and the offensive line. More than Enos changing the plays he calls, fitting the personnel he’s been given.
And it starts Saturday against New Hampshire, a game in which they could have comfortably won with Tipton healthy, now poses an issue. A loss this week could signal a free fall to another losing season. And no matter the situation, the Enos critics will come out of the woodwork.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the players on the field. And Enos. The season is far from over.
How bad do they want to win? How bad do they want to prove the doubters wrong about Enos?