He’s the 12th man.
That’s how important a backup quarterback is.
Any football team that doesn’t possess a talented No. 2 quarterback is living on the edge, just a sprained ankle or broken collarbone away from disaster.
Few college football teams have proven that more impressively than Marshall University.
Why, two of the most significant victories in Thundering Herd history came with backup quarterbacks at the controls.
The first occurred on November 12, 2002, when Marshall pulled out a 36-34 win over arch-rival Miami (Ohio) in the final seconds before a national television audience at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
Who was quarterbacking?
It was sophomore Stan Hill filling in for Herd star Byron Leftwich, who was sidelined with a leg injury. All Hill did was complete 25 of 39 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns while outdueling a Miami quarterback people might have heard of — Ben Roethlisberger.
Besides that, Hill scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with five seconds remaining.
Not bad for a backup, huh?
Hill tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in the 2003 season and yet another backup — Graham Gochneaur — stepped in and led Marshall to a 27-20 win over sixth-ranked Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas.
To this day, that is the highest-ranked opponent any Marshall team has defeated. And a backup quarterback was pulling the trigger.
Gochneaur completed 16 of 24 passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, the junior college transfer tossed the game-winning 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Rader with 3:30 remaining.
The list doesn’t end there.
When transfer quarterback Eric Kresser got dinged up in the 1996 opener, Mark Zban stepped in and quarterbacked Marshall to a 42-7 win over West Virginia State.
Then, later in the season, Zban stepped in for Kresser again and led the Herd to an impressive 34-10 win at East Tennessee State on Nov. 9.
The vitally significant issue that was understated at the time was Zban’s performances allowed Herd coach Bobby Pruett to keep Chad Pennington’s redshirt year intact.
And, of course, Marshall went 15-0, won the NCAA I-AA national championship and became known as the best I-AA team of all ime.
Now, hit fast forward.
Heading into the 2020 season, it appears Marshall has a solid tandem at quarterback with starter Grant Wells and backup Luke Zban. And, yes, the Zban who stepped in for Kresser is Luke’s father.
It all goes to show how vital it is to possess a quality backup QB.
Just ask Marshall’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Tim Cramsey.
“It is an important role for obvious reasons,” said Cramsey. “If something happens to the first-stringer, you can go in and not have to change your play calls, your game plan and all that type of stuff.
“It’s important to have a similar style of quarterback. I’ve been places where you have a dual-threat quarterback backed up by a pro-style quarterback and all of a sudden there’s a problem. So, it’s important to have a similar quarterback in that sense.”
Another factor is a talented No. 2 quarterback can keep pushing the starter.
“If you have a backup quarterback you feel good about,” explained Cramsey, “you feel solid about and you can put him in with no problems, you can be a little more risky with that first-string quarterback. You can give him more carries.
“Depending on who the person is, I’ll give eight tackles a game on the quarterback. Now, if it’s a game that’s close and we need to win it, shoot, it might turn into 15 times he gets tackled. If we have a lead and we’re playing well, once we’ve reached that eight tackles the QB run stuff is off.”
If Cramsey didn’t feel good about Zban, obviously he wouldn’t have as many running plays in the offense for the athletic Wells.
“Kind of makes sense,” said Cramsey. “The backup quarterback allows the first-stringer to be himself. Quarterbacks lift weights. They do all the work. They can get tackled every now and then. You don’t want them to get tackled like [star running back] Brenden Knox, 20 times a game, but they can get tackled.”
There’s nothing wrong with competition at every position. But that’s especially true at quarterback.
“Competition is overly important at the quarterback position,” said Cramsey. “That first-stringer has to know that if he’s not dialed in on every single repetition and every single day, Cramsey is going to make his move to the backup guy.
“They’re not looking over their shoulder and playing scared, but they know they have to produce.”
That’s why backup quarterbacks have been so vitally important in Marshall’s football history.
From Mark Zban to Stan Hill to Graham Gochneaur to … well, now, another Zban.
They were more than second string.