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Tim O’Sullivan: Vailas and Goldrich make quarterback a strength for UNH

DURHAM – The big question going into last season was who would be the University of New Hampshire’s starting quarterback, Andy Vailas or Sean Goldrich? As it turned out, both got their chances to start.

So now, as the Wildcats prepare for their Sept. 7 season opener at Central Michigan, the question remains the same – Vailas or Goldrich? Only this year it has a different tone.

“I can wake up every morning knowing that we’ve got two guys that are healthy and, when they are healthy, can help us win this league championship because they’re good enough football players,” UNH Coach Sean McDonnell said. “And last year at this time, man, the teabag was getting put in the hot water for the first time.”

Goldrich won the starting job to open last season as a redshirt freshman, but he injured his shoulder in the second week at Minnesota. Vailas, then a sophomore, stepped in until he injured his shoulder on Oct. 13 against Richmond, so Goldrich returned to the starter’s role. There was also a quarterback rotation in the final weeks, but through it all one thing became apparent – both quarterbacks could handle the hot water.

McDonnell knows either one can lead the ‘Cats to a Colonial Athletic Association title because that’s what they did last year as UNH finished 8-4 overall, 6-2 in conference, won a share of the CAA crown and advanced to its ninth straight playoff appearance. And they finished with similar stats in the process. Vailas went 126-for-217 for 1,558 yards, 18 touchdowns and three interceptions to finish with a 140.3 passing efficiency mark, third best in the CAA. He also ran for 451 yards and six touchdowns on 101 carries. Goldrich went 107-for-180 for 1,202 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions while running for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 48 carries.

While Vailas (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) is a more explosive athlete and Goldrich (6-3, 213) is probably a better pure passer, both are dual-threat quarterbacks who are dangerous through the air and on the ground. And both know how to produce scoring drives, which is all that matters to their teammates.

“Half the time I don’t know who is behind me,” said senior left tackle Seamus O’Neill. “As an offensive line our goal is to keep the quarterbacks and running backs pretty, so whether it’s Andy or Goldrich back there, it doesn’t matter.”

Both quarterbacks spent the offseason rehabilitating their shoulders and they’re now back to full health. And once again they’re doing their best to make this a tough decision.

“Like I always said last year, whenever one takes a step ahead, the other one does something to catch back up and then we’re right back at the competition,” said junior R.J. Harris, who was UNH’s leading receiver last season. “So I feel like it’s just going to go like this for the rest of camp and then come Central Michigan we’ll see who gets the nod and go from there.”

When asked what they needed to show to earn the starting job, both had slightly different answers. Vailas stressed taking care of the football and leadership. Goldrich talked about demonstrating a deeper understanding of the offense and getting on the same page as offensive coordinator Ryan Carty. But both quarterbacks clearly understand that a positional battle like this is a grind. As Goldrich said, “There are no days off because one bad day could completely change coach’s mindset.” Or, as Vailas put it, “Like coach often preaches, everything is an evaluation.”

That evaluation process will be slightly different during this preseason. Rather than just alternating repetitions with the first team like they did last year, the quarterbacks will also take turns working with the second string so McDonnell can see how they, “elevate the play of other people around them.” The coach also has higher expectations for both Vailas and Goldrich now that they have a year of experience.

“They’re expected to know what they’re doing all the time and to be able to help other guys out and where they’re locating the ball and making throws,” McDonnell said. “And as you go along in any program … the expectation level changes and what you expect as a coach changes, but more importantly what the kid expects of himself, what he demands of himself, (changes), and that’s pretty important to me.”

McDonnell didn’t rule out the possibility of an in-game rotation like the Wildcats employed at times last season, but the coach strongly suggested he’d rather pick a starter and stick with him.

“I don’t have a crystal ball about all this stuff. I do what I think is for the betterment of the team and what I think right now is that somewhere we’ve got to decide on one,” McDonnell said. “The other kid will play during that game, just to have him ready for a series, maybe two, but the other guy has got to run this football team.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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