11/19/2013

Prolific college QBs Thomas, Brennan ready for Arena Football

By BJ PICKARD

Arena Football offenses are known for being high-tempo and high-scoring.

Those also happen to be the qualities that made Darron Thomas and Colt Brennan two of the most prolific college football quarterbacks in recent memory.

Before becoming the face of the Portland Thunder franchise, Thomas led the Oregon Ducks to become the nation's No. 1 scoring offense in 2010 and finished his collegiate career with a 24-3 record as a starter, a Rose Bowl win and an appearance in the 2011 BCS National Championship.

"I think the fast-paced, quick offense I ran at Oregon will help me at the Arena level," Thomas said. "In Arena Football, you get to throw a lot of touchdowns, which is what you want to do as a quarterback."

Brennan is familiar with that concept. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and rookie quarterback for the LA KISS set an NCAA record with 58 scoring strikes at Hawaii in 2006. That season, he also led the nation in passing yards (5,549) and completion percentage (72.6).

"Obviously, we threw the ball a lot," Brennan said. "Arena Football is a high-paced, up-tempo style of game and I think that correlates pretty well."

The additions of Thomas and Brennan to the League has Arena Football fans buzzing about the kind of video game numbers the pair might put up... but even for the most accomplished college football quarterbacks, adjusting to life at the next level can be a challenging task.

The windows are smaller. The game speed is faster. The margin for error is slimmer. ...And that's just in the outdoor game. A rookie quarterback's acclimation process to Arena Football is even more daunting, regardless of collegiate pedigree, because the game itself is essentially a different sport.

"It was a big difference," former Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks said of his adjustment to the AFL. "You have to change up your throwing a little bit. The trajectory of the throws is a little different. On top of that, the game speed is a little faster because the field is so compact."

Banks joined the AFL as a member of the Iowa Barnstormers in 2011 after an impressive college career that earned him Big Ten Conference Player of the Year honors and the Davey O'Brien Award, given annually to the nation's best college quarterback, in 2002.

The former Iowa Hawkeye - who passed for 3,973 yards and 82 touchdowns as a rookie with the Barnstormers - actually became the third former O'Brien Award winner to continue his playing career in the AFL.

The 1999 Davey O'Brien Award winner, Joe Hamilton, spent three seasons under center for the Orlando Predators following his All-American career at Georgia Tech. Hamilton enjoyed a 32-15 record as the Orlando starter and guided the team to an ArenaBowl XX appearance in 2006.

The O'Brien Award winner in 1998, Michael Bishop, also put together a successful stint in the AFL. As the signal-caller for the Grand Rapids Rampage in 2005, the former Kansas State All-American quarterback set the AFL single-game rushing record with 100 yards on the ground against the Colorado Crush. He remains the only player in League history to eclipse triple-digit rushing yardage in a single game.

Even "big name" passers who didn't take home the hardware have at one time called the AFL home. Chris Leak - MVP of the 2007 BCS National Championship - spent the 2012 AFL season with the Jacksonville Sharks and Orlando Predators, while dual-threat quarterback Major Harris parlayed his exceptional collegiate career at West Virginia into a starting gig with the Thunderbolts of Columbus and Cleveland. Harris, two-time Heisman finalist and College Football Hall of Famer, rushed for 424 yards as a rookie with the Thunderbolts in 1991, the third-highest rushing yardage total for a quarterback in AFL history.

Banks says the reason why so many decorated passers, including this year's rookie class of Thomas and Brennan, have gravitated towards the Arena game is simple.

"It's an opportunity to play football in this cool game that you hear good things about," Banks said.

Brennan echoes the sentiment.

"I just see it as a great platform for me to get back onto the field," Brennan said. "I think that's what I need right now - for someone to turn on the TV and see me playing."

The selling point for Thomas was two-fold.

"I really wasn't considering playing until I talked to Coach [Matthew Sauk]," Thomas said. "He inspired me a lot and I really believe in him. He's a quarterback guru. What attracted me, really, was the opportunity to be back in Oregon and be his quarterback."

Thomas cites his greatest strength as having the ability to get the ball out quick to his playmakers. Banks asserts that skill - which Thomas perfected during his run with the Ducks in which he racked up a school record 66 career passing touchdowns - will come in handy in Arena Football.

"You have to be able to get the ball out of your hands when it's time to get it out," Banks said. "What I got out of [playing Arena Football] was developing a quick release and a quick dropback. I think that's the biggest thing with playing the position."

Those qualities are also the same ones that made Brennan among college football's elite.

"I had never seen a guy with as quick a release and accuracy like he had," Brennan's former head coach at Hawaii, June Jones, told Sports Illustrated in 2012. "I was just in awe."

It's a skill that Brennan says should bring "a lot of fun" to the KISS in 2014.

"I've always prided myself in the way I play the game," Brennan said. "KISS fans should be excited to see the original style of game play that I have as a quarterback. I don't have any stats that I'm looking for except wins. I play with a ton of heart and a ton of passion and I have a lot of fun out there."

Despite a roster currently made up entirely of first-year players, Thomas says he has high expectations for the Thunder as well.

"Fans should expect a good team," Thomas said. "I don't think we're going to be a losing team. I'm really ready to get out there and experience what the Arena Football League has to offer."

Arena Football fans are ready as well. The additions of Thomas and Brennan to the Thunder and KISS rosters make the squads' April 5 matchup at the Honda Center - also the first home game in LA KISS history - all the more interesting.

"It's something that people will be interested to see," Brennan said. "If there's good football out there, people are going to watch it."

The two quarterbacks know there will be some growing pains along the way as they prepare for their highly-anticipated Arena Football debuts. However, having guided two of the most dynamic offensive units in college football has both prolific passers feeling right at home in the fast-paced, high-scoring world of Arena Football.