Oregon State football coach Mike Riley frequently threw out unsolicited post-practice compliments for quarterback Sean Mannion during training camp a year ago.
No one paid much heed since it seemed like “coach-speak.” Mannion was young and Riley had a returning starter in Ryan Katz, who had played well, had a strong arm and connected with his teammates.
Mannion was even third on the depth chart behind Cody Vaz, who just came in second to Katz the previous year in a competition for the starting job.
Then in the second half of the first game last year, Mannion was in the game. After a brief renewed competition, Mannion jumped from third-string to starter and the rest is history.
Riley was at it again during spring practice and as recent as this week in camp. With Mannion entrenched as the returning starter, he began to sing the praise of Vaz as a viable No. 1 quarterback.
Questions quickly came for Riley to clarify. Was it “coach-speak” this time or was the competition open again?
Riley quickly reassured people that Mannion is the starter and Vaz the backup.
“I’m really pleased with Cody Vaz,” Riley said. “You can’t discount that he has been a very good competitor for the spot. But Sean is our quarterback. You always need another guy, and we have one in Cody.”
Vaz continues to prepare for games like the starter so he’s ready when the time comes to play, even though he’s accepted being the backup for now.
“I’m going to be ready and go in when they call my number,” Vaz said. “I can only do what I can, and that’s play. It’s nice to have coach Riley says nice things about me, but that’s not enough. I have to keep improving.”
Vaz knows that can be any time. He made his debut as a redshirt freshman in a brief relief appearance for Katz.
Katz was shaken up enough to leave the game and the next play was a third-and-long from OSU’s 3-yard line. Vaz trotted in to attempt to get a first down, but his pass fell incomplete.
He also knows that being the backup quarterback can mean little playing time. Vaz didn’t play a snap during a game all last season.
Vaz is a fourth-year junior and he’s behind Mannion, a sophomore. If Mannion continues to develop and hold the starting job Vaz won’t see the field often over his entire career.
“I can’t control that,” Vaz said. “I come out here every day and try to improve. That’s all I can do. I can’t look at it that way.”
But is he trying to beat out Mannion?
“I don’t know if it’s beat him out,” Vaz said. “We are good friends and there’s always competition. As a quarterback you don’t want to be behind anybody. You want to be the starting guy. At the same time, I can’t control that. Neither can he. He’s working his butt off, so am I and the other quarterbacks. We worked together all summer. I don’t look at it as beating him out. I just have to be prepared.”
While Vaz chases and supports Mannion, he’s also the elder statesman for the quarterbacks.
Redshirt freshman Richie Harrington, freshman Brent VanderVeen and Mannion look to him for advice on and off the field.
“It’s a little weird since time has flown by, especially with all the other guys gone now,” Vaz said. “It doesn’t change anything. My personality is the same even though I’m the older guy. I’ve been here a while, and know what to do.”
So if it’s being a mentor, backup or the starter, Vaz can fill any of those roles. He’s enjoying each day with the team.
“It’s football in general,” Vaz said about his motivation. “I love playing and I always have. I like being around here with all my teammates and friends.”