Making your first college start at quarterback sounds stressful.
Making your first college start against the 10th-ranked team? Intimidating. Making your first college start on the road, facing a crowd of 106,000? Terrifying.
Except Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas found the scene at Penn State last Saturday natural and fun. Once you peer into his upbringing in Trussville, Ala., the calm vibe he radiated in a near-upset of the Nittany Lions (a 45-38 overtime loss) makes a lot of sense.
Thomas’ father played linebacker at Auburn in the early 1980s on teams featuring superstar running back Bo Jackson. Thomas’ mother is a passionate Alabama fan. So before Zac even knew what a big deal SEC football was, he attended Iron Bowl matchups of those teams in his home state. That immersion left him craving to play in settings like Beaver Stadium, not fearing it.
So for all the preseason misgivings about Thomas replacing four-year starter Taylor Lamb, the sophomore didn’t just look capable, he shined. He accounted for three touchdowns - one rushing and two passes to Malik Williams. Thomas, who is 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, finished with 313 total yards, half of those in a fourth quarter in which the Mountaineers led by a touchdown late in regulation.
The quarterback who will start Saturday against the Charlotte 49ers at Richardson Stadium - the one nicknamed “Bamm-Bamm” (a tyke from the Flintstones cartoons with superhuman strength) because he launched every throw as a freshman with bazooka force - looks thoroughly prepared to succeed Lamb.
No one has celebrated that succession more than Lamb, now a graduate assistant with the South Carolina Gamecocks’ coaching staff.
“Finally, a good QB for App State football,” Lamb joked via Twitter. “Zac Thomas, ice in his veins! Legendary stuff from the youngin!”
Busy as Lamb is in Columbia, he’s a constant resource for Thomas, who says he’ll ask Lamb things he’d be embarrassed to ask the coaches.
“He’s been phenomenal - taught me everything I knew about this offense and what to do on and off the field,” Thomas said of Lamb.
Those two define a quarterback contrast. Lamb didn’t have ideal arm strength or foot speed, but he had touch and finesse in his passing. The biggest question about Thomas was whether he could rein in how hard he threw.
“In high school I threw the ball way too hard,” Thomas recalled. “There are some plays where you have to throw rockets. And there are others, like a running back screen: They’re not made to catch the ball, they’re made to run the ball. I’ve got to give them a good, catchable ball when they’re open.”
That’s just what he delivered by the review of co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Frank Ponce: “That didn’t surprise us. He’s a level-headed kid who practices hard. In the meeting room he’s always dialed in: very focused, very mature.
“He’s a tough kid who runs hard and can also throw the football. He fits our offense perfectly.”
If so, then that as much serendipity as a grand plan. Thomas said Appalachian State didn’t recruit him hard until early 2016 after another quarterback left the program. He made an unofficial visit to Boone about three weeks before signing day, and was sold.
It’s only natural Thomas would be struck by the masses in the stands that surrounded him for warmups at Beaver Stadium. But jitters abated when teammate Darrynton Evans returned a kickoff 100 yards to tie the game in the first four minutes.
“When (Evans) took that kickoff return to the crib, all my nerves went out. In my mind, I was just thinking, ‘We can do this. We can beat this team.’”
It certainly looked that way with less than two minutes left in regulation when running back Jalin Moore broke multiple tackles for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Mountaineers ahead 38-31.
“I went up to Zeb (Spier, a reserve quarterback) and said, “We’re about to win this game!’ and he said, ‘Let’s take a knee and pray.’
“Then right before we took a knee, they took the kickoff to about the 40.”
Penn State tied the game and the rest became a repeat of the overtime loss at Tennessee in 2016: impressive, but ultimately unfulfilling.
“I’m sure we were just another game on their schedule. First game, usually the big teams schedule an easy team,” Thomas said.
“I think we shocked a lot of their fans by what we did.”