Tommy Lazzaro brings 'huge value' to offense as backup quarterback
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Tommy Lazzaro didn't know what role he'd play when first-year coach Jim McElwain was hired in December 2018.
In spring camp, the senior quarterback planned on being the starter.
By the end of fall camp, he was on special teams.
"However I can help the team, that’s what I want to do," Lazzaro told McElwain.
Leaving was never an option, and Lazzaro remained through the struggles while McElwain and offensive coordinator Charlie Frye carved out a run-package role for him.
"I didn’t care how much I was playing or if I was playing at all," Lazzaro said. "If we win games, I’m happy.”
But Lazzaro, the starting quarterback in 2018, watched from the bench as his role was slowly created by the offensive-minded coaches.
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound backup has carried the ball 33 times for 156 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. He's completed 4 of 7 passes for 47 yards.
Despite not getting action early in the season, Lazzaro possesses plenty of momentum heading into Dreamstyle Stadium for a 2 p.m. Saturday clash in the New Mexico Bowl against San Diego State.
The momentum was something Lazzaro worked to gain.
Lazzaro carried the ball four times in the first four games, all against Wisconsin in a 61-0 loss.
Against Eastern Michigan, Lazzaro scored his first touchdown of the season on a 6-yard run with 2:55 remaining in the contest to give the Chippewas a 42-16 edge. Following three carries against the Eagles, Lazzaro had four for 18 yards against New Mexico State in the ensuing game.
Devastation occurred when Lazzaro fumbled on the 1-yard line with a 7-0 lead with 1:30 left in the first quarter Oct. 19 against Bowling Green. Sophomore defensive back Caleb Biggers returned the loose ball 100 yards to tie the game, 7-7.
The fumble was Lazzaro's only carry of that game, and the coaching staff followed up by electing to use him just once Oct. 26 against Buffalo.
"In the moment, it was really surreal," Lazzaro said of his fumble against the Falcons. "I thought I was in. Nonetheless, I should’ve held onto the ball. It was just shocking to see him running the other way with the ball."
While Lazzaro was frustrated, Frye made sure to get him back on track.
"We’re going to get you another shot," Frye said. "We’re going to get you the ball."
Lazzaro went silent, but he was awaken in a must-win game Nov. 2 against Northern Illinois. A loss would've likely put the Chippewas out of Mid-American Conference West Division contention.
The backup made sure that didn't happen.
Lazzaro carried the ball seven times for 27 yards and one touchdown in the 48-10 victory. With the Chippewas' needing another win Nov. 16 against Ball State, he scored the two most important touchdowns.
With a victory putting Central Michigan just one win away from a MAC West title, Lazzaro found the end zone on a 5-yard carry with 13:10 remaining on the road and from 2 yards out with 1:01 left to secure the 45-44 victory.
Continuing to use Lazzaro in a run-pass option package, he scored twice more in a 49-7 blowout Nov. 29 against Toledo to clinch a spot in the MAC title game.
And when the offense struggled to move the ball through the air against Miami (Ohio) in the championship, McElwain leaned on Lazzaro.
He scored twice on six carries for 48 yards, but it wasn't enough to push the Chippewas to their first conference title since 2009.
"It's great to give somebody a role on the team that brings value," McElwain said. "Obviously, he brings huge value."
Even Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin acknowledged Lazzaro as one of the most unstoppable players in the MAC due to his ability to pass and throw.
The RedHawk defense never knew what to expect.
"That package, that was very frustrating for me today," Martin said. "We didn't defend it very well at all."
McElwain said he needs the same type of value from Lazzaro in the New Mexico Bowl, where San Diego State is likely to stop the run game of senior Jonathan Ward and sophomore Kobe Lewis and force senior graduate transfer quarterback Quinten Dormady to beat the Aztecs through the air against some of the top cornerbacks in the nation.
Even San Diego State coach Rocky Long has taken notice of Lazzaro, but he said there's no way to truly shut him down.
Instead, the focus will be on containing the backup from Monument, Colorado.
"There's no shutting him down," Long said. "They have quality players that run difficult schemes to stop. The trick is to keep the score to a point where you have a chance to win."
Looking past the touchdowns and plays in key moments, McElwain respects Lazzaro for being great teammate, even when he was slated for specials teams in fall practices.
"I love the way these guys interact with him, (Quinten) and the rest of the quarterbacks," McElwain said. "I think it's really a good thing."