GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple was discussing why he expects quarterback Ross Comis to adjust well Saturday night, despite having his first collegiate start take place in a tough road environment at Florida.
Whipple mentioned that Comis is not totally new to this, that he had all of last year to get ready and that he even got some valuable playing time at places like Colorado and Notre Dame.
But he also acknowledged that, yes, this will no doubt be a little different.
“I’m sure The Swamp is a little louder than Notre Dame was when he was in the game in the fourth quarter,” Whipple conceded.
Facing Florida’s vaunted secondary — even without suspended star cornerback Jalen Tabor — amidst the frenzy of a season-opening crowd inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is a daunting task for any opposing quarterback.
Especially a redshirt-sophomore with 21 career pass attempts in his collegiate career.
Comis isn’t looking at it like that, though.
“Obviously, I’m excited getting my first start. I worked very hard for this in camp and I had to battle it out,” he said in a phone interview this week. “And it has always been a dream of mine to play in The Swamp and big stadiums.”
He’ll get to fulfill that dream Saturday night while the Gators try to turn it into more of a nightmare.
Florida ranked 13th nationally last season in holding opponents to 182.1 passing yards per game, and after losing star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and stud safety Keanu Neal as first-round draft picks, the Gators’ secondary is motivated to validate the “DBU” nickname it embraces.
Even with Tabor relegated to the sideline this week, junior cornerback Quincy Wilson and fifth-year senior safety Marcus Maye bring plenty of star power to the back of the Florida defense.
Massachusetts ranked a respectable 37th nationally last season in passing offense at 257.5 yards per game, and Whipple is excited about what Comis brings to the position.
As a redshirt-freshman last year, he got into six games while completing 15-of-21 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns. His performance at Notre Dame was especially encouraging as he completed 8-of-8 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown, albeit at the end of a 62-27 loss.
Beyond that, he often ran the first-team offense in practice as former starting quarterback Blake Frohnapfel was usually limited during the week while playing through some injury issues.
“I’m excited to see him play,” Whipple said. “I think he’s a really great competitor. I think he’s a winner. He wasn’t a really highly recruited guy because he never went to any camps, but he played all the sports and just competed. He got a lot of practice time last year because (Frohnapfel) had some injury issues and didn’t practice a whole lot during the week so he ran the offense. He’s been around a lot and understands.
“He’s a little bit more mobile than Fro was probably so (we are) just trying to mix and match and try to make sure he gets the ball out and not take any sacks and try to eliminate the negative plays.”
Comis, who is listed at 6-foot, 200 pounds, was an under-the-radar recruit out of Weirton Madonna High School, a small private school in West Virginia. He put up dazzling stats while accounting for 9,255 total yards and 121 total touchdowns in his high school career and leading his team to a 14-0 season and a West Virginia Class A state championship as a senior, but late in the recruiting process he only had preferred walk-on offers to consider.
He was going to head to Pittsburgh as a preferred walk-on before Massachusetts and Toledo came in late with offers.
And now he’s set to make his first collegiate start in one of the SEC’s most high-profile environments.
He said he’ll have his parents and siblings in the stadium Saturday night and a bunch more people back home watching. They’ve made sure to remind him of that.
“I’ve been getting a ton of texts and calls from people back home,” he said. “There are some parties and get-togethers people are throwing (to watch) me. I don’t have to worry about that. I’m (focused) on trying to get a win.”
In regard to handling the crowd Saturday night, Comis said there are some things he can draw upon from coming in late in that game at Notre Dame last season. But in general, he doesn’t foresee that being an issue for him.
Or least, he’s not planning on it being one.
“I think I did a good job of just zoning everything out and just playing football,” he said. “Obviously there are going to be some nerves, but I think after the first couple of plays it will be fine.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.