Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Time to shine

By Andrew Cyr

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ross-comis-2

(Collegian File Photo)

There are 80,000 people staring at Massachusetts quarterback Ross Comis.

The Minutemen are playing arguably their biggest game since taking the leap of faith to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012, a matchup on NBC with one of college football’s most historic and popular programs, Notre Dame.

With the game well out of reach, Comis trots onto the field in one of college football’s greatest cathedrals: Notre Dame Stadium. Hesburgh Library sits quietly in the distance on the crisp, fall afternoon in South Bend, Indiana, as the famous mural of “Touchdown Jesus” calmly looks over the greats who donned the forever classic navy-blue jersey, gold pants and the slick, metallic, all-gold helmets that haven’t changed over the years – except in luster.

Trailing 62-20 with eight minutes, 34 seconds remaining, Comis takes command of the offense. Despite being considered undersized for a quarterback, he certainly looks the part and carries the swagger of a starting college quarterback.

Despite leading by six touchdowns, the Notre Dame faithful are still heavily invested in the game, as football is king in South Bend. The fans, decked out in navy, gold and green proudly display shamrocks and leprechauns, their roars still echoing through the stadium as Comis stands behind his offensive line.

After sitting behind Blake Frohnapfel for the past two years, and with the quarterback job up for grabs the following season, UMass fans themselves were wondering if the highly-touted Comis was in fact the heir to Mark Whipple’s pro-style offense, and more importantly, the future of football in the Pioneer Valley.

The moment might have been brief and short-lived, but Comis made the most of it. During that time, Whipple, his coaching staff, the Minutemen and their fans got a glimpse of what the future would be like – and it was optimistic.

“He’s a gamer, 100 percent,” quarterback coach Scott Woodward said. “He’s definitely a guy that shines under the pressure. When everyone’s watching he’ll definitely step up and make plays for you.”

What Comis did next was stunning. After UMass struggled to generate any sort of offense in the second half, the Minutemen’s offense suddenly came to life with him running the show. Comis connected on a check-down to his running back, Lorenzo Woodley, for a seven-yard gain to get the drive moving, and more importantly, finding his rhythm.

He then completed his next six passes to cap off a 10-play, 77-yard drive that ended in a perfectly-thrown ball 33-yards downfield to wide receiver Shakur Nesmith, who was running a go-route down the left sideline.

Comis finished a perfect 8-for-8 on the afternoon for 69 yards, scoring the Minutemen’s lone touchdown of the second half.

“He didn’t flinch,” Whipple said. “He drove the team (down the field), it might have been Notre Dame’s two’s, but we couldn’t recruit those guys he’s going against. Especially in front of 80,000 people, he called the right plays and got all the guys going the right way.”

Frohnapfel, however, already knew what Comis was all about. He had seen glimpses of promise in him during summer camp and in the preseason, but it was against Notre Dame when Frohnapfel became completely sold.

“There was no doubt Ross had the talent from the first day he stepped on campus,” Frohnapfel said in an email interview with the Daily Collegian.

“There are a lot of quarterbacks who are just (plain) quarterbacks, and they aren’t real football players. Ross is one of the guys who is a true football player, who just happens to play quarterback,” Frohnapfel added. “There are just some guys who can pick up anything and be good at it, and he is one of those guys.”

Confidence is never something that Comis lacks when he’s under center, and he’s always known that when it was his opportunity to shine, he would make the most of it.

“For some reason when the pressure is on, I’ve always been able to perform at my highest,” he said. “I have confidence in my abilities. I trust what I can do as a player.”

But for Comis, that moment almost never came.

“It was a tough process”

With two weeks to go until signing day, Comis was still without an offer from any Division I school. It didn’t seem real. How could the player that almost single-handedly rewrote the West Virginia state high school football record book and had video game-like statistics still not be without an offer?

“It was a tough process,” Comis said. “I only had preferred walk-ons two weeks before signing day.”

Comis attended Weirton Madonna High School, a small, private Catholic school located in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia settled in-between Pennsylvania and Ohio, where he competed in football, basketball and baseball. Despite showing serious abilities both on the basketball court and baseball diamond, Comis stuck with his gut and chose football.

As a senior with the Blue Dons, Comis led Madonna to a perfect 14-0 season that completed their redemption as the West Virginia Class A state champions. A year prior, they had lost in the championship game in a heartbreaking 43-42 overtime loss against Wahama. Comis finished with 276 totals yards and accounted for all six touchdowns in defeat. He was named MVP of the game each year.

Comis ended his decorated career at Madonna with 9,255 total yards and 121 touchdowns. His 4,839 rushing yards and 71 touchdowns make him the all-time in West Virginia record books in those categories. His 2,037 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns his senior year also set state records for quarterbacks.

However, standing only 6-feet tall, weighing no more than 200 pounds, many Division I coaches were skeptical of his size, concerned that his frame wouldn’t support his frenetic play style.

Then came Whipple.

After the Minutemen got off to a disastrous 2-22 start as an FBS school under Charley Molnar, the then-athletic director John McCutcheon pulled the plug on Molnar just two seasons into his tenure, opening the door for Whipple’s return to Amherst. Whipple won the 1-AA championship with UMass as a Football Championship Series team back in 1998 before leaving the college ranks to become a quarterback’s coach in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“UMass ended up calling me when Mark Whipple got hired, he called me on the phone and they ended up offering me,” Comis said. “They were my first offer, I visited there, and I kind of just fell in love with the campus.”

But after returning home to West Virginia following his trip to Amherst, another Mid-American Conference team came searching for Comis; this time, to play much closer to home. Toledo became the second team interested in him, with the Rockets’ campus less than a two-hour drive from Weirton. Comis had always wanted to stay close to home, which made his decision even more difficult.

After much deliberation with family and friends, Comis finally put his trust in the quarterback guru with a Lombardi Trophy to his name. Just two weeks after Whipple was hired as head coach, he committed to UMass.

“I think it was the biggest thing that coach Whipple was the first guy that really trusted me. To put a scholarship out, even though it was about my height and this and that, and what I look like,” Comis said

“He saw a guy that’s a competitor and winner that goes out and makes plays for his team and wins games.”

Learning the ropes

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

Before Comis could prove his ability on the field, he first needed to take a step back and learn the system. With Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel also joining the team the same year, Comis redshirted his freshman season after Frohnapfel won the job in camp that was formerly held by A.J. Doyle, a Molnar recruit.

Rather than being disappointed by Whipple’s decision, Comis became a student of the game, learning the ins-and-outs of the pro-style offense that Whipple ran with the Minutemen. As a high school standout, Comis had the ability to run circles around defenses who simply weren’t fast enough to catch him. But at the college level, Comis would have to learn to stay in the pocket and take snaps under-center, something he rarely did in high school.

That’s when Frohnapfel took Comis under his wing – and nest.

“Coming to UMass, we were both new and in a way we were both in the same boat in terms of figuring out how we fit with the team, our way around campus and learning a pretty dense playbook,” Frohnapfel said.

“We grew close because of that and because I was someone who had gone through that before, I think I was able to make the process a little easier for him. On the field, it’s hard as a freshman, but as he became more comfortable, we were able to have more in depth conversations about the game to the point we would be constantly talking about details about the opponent. Off the field, he was a roommate and we were with each other all the time.”

“The thing that helped me the most with Blake was that I lived with him and whenever I had a question that came up after football or before football, I was able to ask him at home. And that stuff came with me,” Comis said. “He’s taught me so much in the film room, more so than (on the field). He did a lot for me and I learned from him.”

“I took a side of his game and a side of my game and I kind of combined them.,” Comis added. “I’ve been able to stay in the pocket and like pro-style quarterbacks do, I also have the ability to make plays when a play breaks down with my feet. I’ve learned to not get out of the pocket too soon, but when I have to make a play I’ll do that.”

But as helpful as watching Frohnapfel was to the development of his game, Comis and the rest of the coaches couldn’t account for one thing that Frohnapfel had; his size. Standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 238 pounds, Frohnapfel had the ideal build for a quarterback running a pro-style offense.

So Comis and the coaches had to make an adjustment and find new players he could model after. Thankfully, there just so happened to be a pair of NFL quarterbacks, who like Whipple, had a Super Bowl ring on their resume, and fit Comis’ size more accordingly.

“When you think of pro-style, you’re thinking about the prototypical body, like Blake Frohnapfel,” Woodward said. “Russell Wilson and Drew Brees are pretty good fits for pro-style offenses too. Ross and I sat down and watched some Wilson and Brees tapes because they have to do things a little bit differently than say a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.”

Woodward added: “He understands that he’s only six-feet-tall, and he understands that and he plays as tall as he can. He does a lot of good things that Blake couldn’t do, and there are some things he can’t do that Blake could do. He makes the most of his ability and does a good job with it.”

“You see guys in the NFL like Russell Wilson and people think that small guys can’t stay in the pocket. There’s never a time when I can’t see the field. There’s never a time when I have trouble seeing over the linemen,” Comis said. “That’s another thing, as a small guy you have to find lanes to throw the ball in, and being out here with these guys for three years, I’ve developed that and that’s helped me a lot.”

Becoming a leader

Once Frohnapfel took his final snap against Buffalo on the final week of the 2015 season, Comis knew that it was his time to take the wheel of the offense.

By nature of the position, Comis had always been a leader in the UMass locker room. But once his friend and mentor in Frohnapfel left, he knew he had to establish himself as the guy for the Minutemen.

“Last year, as a backup, you’re still a leader, but you take a backseat to the starter because he’s the guy in charge,” Comis said.  “But this year, from day one, I’ve been more vocal. When I talk, their eyes are on me and they trust me.”

“When you’re a backup, people listen, but it’s different,” Comis added. “From day one you can see a different change in the way people look at me and they trust me behind center.”

Comis took all first-team reps during the Minutemen’s spring practices, and was eventually named the starter in camp over transfer Andrew Ford, a decorated four-star recruit from Pennsylvania who had been selected to the Elite-11 before transferring from Virginia Tech to Lackawanna Community College.

“(Experience is) what separates himself from Andrew (Ford),” Whipple said. “He’s heard all the things, knows all the things and how we do everything. He’s had to sit and wait, but its his time and we’ll see how he does. He’s done a good job.”

“I really haven’t had a guy since Ben Roethlisberger who’s been in a system for three years.”

“When guys look for a leader, they turn to Ross, especially on the offensive side of the ball, Woodward added. “He controls the room and he controls the meetings, and he does a great job with that.”

Although his collegiate career as a starter got off on the wrong foot, Comis played well against No. 25 Florida on the road, finishing 9-of-17 for 141 yards, including a five-yard touchdown run making a pair of Gator defenders whiff as he scampered into the end zone at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

But despite the Minutemen’s 0-1 start to the season, Comis knows he’s in the best possible situation to help him find success on the field.

“I just felt like coach Whipple always had a plan for me. I trusted him and he’s trusted me as well,” Comis said.

“I knew I made the right decision to come here, and I hope it just plays out well this year.”

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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