Nov. 20, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
In the aftermath of a victory that assuredly felt like a long time coming, Rice coach David Bailiff lauded the gutsy performance of his sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi, credit Fanuzzi was quite worthy of receiving.
Justly Bailiff didn't narrow his focus to that particular performance. He placed what Fanuzzi accomplished against Tulane, notably a career-best four touchdown passes, in the context of an entire season of stops and starts, ups and downs. Fanuzzi wasn't praised for succeeding that game; he was touted because he'd overcome the obstacles strewn in his path.
"I am so proud of Nick," Bailiff said following the Owls' 28-20 victory over the Green Wave. "The amazing thing people forget is that with a hurt shoulder he missed a lot of reps earlier in the season. He was behind an offensive line that, at times, we were moving it around.
"He's done nothing but improve every week. He's standing in the pocket; you can tell he's confident in what he's doing. He's really turning into the leader of this offense."
For Fanuzzi, the process of establishing that leadership position was agonizingly slow. He began the season locked in a competition with senior John Thomas Shepherd for the starting job, a battle that lingered through the first two weeks until Fanuzzi caught fire with a brilliant display of quarterbacking in the second half of a loss at Oklahoma State.
While guiding the Owls to three touchdowns Fanuzzi averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, a robust number that would rank third among the nation's top 100 signal callers. The inconsistent performance at Texas Tech that undermined the progress he displayed in the opener against UAB seemed a thing of the distant past, but then came the aforementioned shoulder sprain that slowed his development to a screeching halt.
"We scored three touchdowns in a row against Oklahoma State," Owls offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher
said, "so he was making some progress."
After missing two weeks of action, Fanuzzi essentially started from scratch when he returned to the starting lineup against Navy. Fanuzzi appeared unsteady, rusty, and he pressed occasionally, throwing more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) over the three games preceding the Owls' off week. His passer efficiency rating of 110.17 would currently rank 99th nationally, and in the Owls' eighth game, Fanuzzi clearly spent more time concerned with UCF's pass rush than he did attempting to locate receivers downfield. He was back at square one.
"When you have an interruption in the process in some ways you're starting over again," Zaunbrecher said. "He didn't have as much strength in his arm and his timing was off (for the start against Navy). You can't go that long without throwing without having to regain some stuff."
Conversely, the more reps Fanuzzi got the better acclimated he became to the offense and the expectations that came with his role. It wasn't instantaneous, and Fanuzzi needed others - namely right guard Jake Hicks - to return from injury so that the offense could function fully.
But as the pieces slowly began to fall back into place, Fanuzzi gradually reclaimed his position fronting the unit. Even during preseason camp when the quarterback competition was in full bloom, Fanuzzi spoke of embracing his role as a team leader, and as he scuffled to regain the form that earned him the starting job before news of his injury settled in, Fanuzzi accepted the responsibility that comes with taking the snaps.
"I know as a quarterback how I perform goes hand in hand with a lot of the results of the game," Fanuzzi said. "As a manager of the football team and the offense, it's a big part of it. It's not all of it, but it's a big part of it.
"I'm not saying it's all me out there, but how the quarterback performs gets the offense rolling. I just want to do everything I can to get this offense rolling in the right direction."
Fanuzzi has proven fit for the role. His 160.72 passer efficiency rating over the last two contests would rank fourth nationally if it represented his entire body of work, and his overall rating of 126.83 ranks just 66th, but it bests the efficiency of Jake Locker (Washington), Greg Paulus (Syracuse), Jevan Snead (Ole Miss) and Juice Williams (Illinois) as well as C-USA signal callers Patrick Pinkney (East Carolina) and Trevor Vittatoe, who will lead UTEP into Historic Rice Stadium on Saturday.
Fanuzzi has rediscovered the path to proficiency that he worked his way toward in mid-September, and his present plan is to keep progressing at a rate that leaves the obstacles that slowed him previously well behind.
"I feel very comfortable," Fanuzzi said. "We're getting some momentum with the offense, things are starting to click a little more (and) our progress is continuing to grow. With no more injuries or quarterback competition, it's helped out a lot to be able to learn the game, learn the offense - every little aspect of it helps. Our offensive is getting better each week, so it's definitely helped that all that stuff is in the past.
"I'm always looking for ways to get better. There are things you can always fix in practice, things that you can work on at every position. But it's just continuing to work on your game and get better each practice and each rep; that's all my focus is about. Ultimately you focus on what you've got to do to get better. That's my frame of mind."