Boise State QB Jared Zabransky led the Broncos to a 22-4 record over the past two seasons
(More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February. On the weekend of April 28-29, the vast majority of those players will hear their names called in the 2007 NFL Draft. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will take a closer look at some of those names from the combine, and the stories behind them in our "Road to the Draft" series. These features are not meant to pinpoint the very top prospects in the draft, nor to reflect the Buccaneers' opinions or draft strategies. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Currently featured: Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky.)
The timing had to be perfect.
Drisan James had to receive the ball at the right moment in his route, giving him an opportunity to fake a turn upfield. Fellow receiver Jerard Rabb had to coordinate his route so that he was crossing underneath James at the split second he abandoned that up-fake and turned to pitch the ball. The whole dance had to pull the defenders in the area just enough to their left so that Rabb could streak around them to their right and down the sideline untouched.
Jared Zabransky, the man who started the whole thing by delivering a fourth-and-18 pass right on the money, got to watch the "hook-and-ladder" play unfold. James did sell the cut upfield and Rabb did flash by at the precisely perfect moment. Rabb took James' pitch and raced to the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown that tied the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between the upstart Boise State Broncos and the heavily-favored Oklahoma Sooners.
Even casual college football fans are aware of this whole sequence of events, of course. Striking a blow for schools outside the major conferences, Zabransky and the Broncos controlled the Fiesta Bowl much of the way, only to fall behind by a touchdown with less than a minute to play. In their desperate attempt to tie the game, they fell into that seemingly disastrous fourth-and-18 hole.
Then came the Rabb touchdown, Adrian Peterson's 25-yard touchdown run for Oklahoma on the first play of overtime, receiver Vinny Perretta's option pass to Derek Schouman in the end zone on another fourth down and – most wonderful of all – Ian Johnson's game-winning two-point conversion run on a Statue of Liberty handoff from Zabransky.
None of the previous paragraph would have happened – and we all would have been robbed of one of the greatest college football endings ever – if not for the perfect timing on the hook-and-ladder play. In a larger sense, that play was perfect timing for Zabransky's continuing football career, too.
See, Oklahoma had taken that aforementioned seven-point lead in the final minute when Zabransky threw his worst pass of the day, an interception that Marcus Walker returned 34 yards for a touchdown. It appeared as if the Broncos' day of destiny had been cancelled.
Instead, Zabransky rallied the troops. At the NFL Scouting Combine less than two months later, the Hermiston, Oregon native claimed that Fiesta Bowl end-game said a lot about him as a professional prospect.
"It tells everybody that I'm mentally tough," he said. "I can withstand and overcome. I think there were some question marks after my junior season about how strong I was, but when you throw an interception and you're down by seven with less than a minute to go and you pull out a victory, I think that answers a lot of questions."
It was noteworthy, perhaps, that Zabransky was in Indianapolis in February at all. Not a lot of combine invites have found their way to Boise over the years, and Zabransky has not often been listed among the most highly-regarded QB prospects. There has even been some conjecture that, as a talented athlete overall, he might have a better shot at wide receiver in the NFL.
But in Indy he was, and that might have had something to do with that unforgettable evening in Glendale, Arizona.
"I think it kind of launched me into another level," said Zabransky of the Fiesta Bowl. "My performance, I felt very positive about it. I think we played extremely well; we were well prepared for that game. I felt like I did some things that really turned some heads, opened some eyes and propelled me upward."
There's no doubt that game raised the profile of several Broncos players. Johnson made the talk-show circuit after the game, though that was largely because he continued his game-winning run right up to his cheerleader girlfriend and promptly proposed. Zabransky meanwhile, has been chosen as the cover man for EA Sports' new "NCAA Football 08" game, and Boise State is in negotiations to sell the movie and documentary rights to the Fiesta Bowl story.
Of course, none of that mattered in Indianapolis, where prospects are judged by cold numbers and, more subjectively, their performances in private meeting rooms with various groups of team officials. Zabransky hit the combine with confidence, certain he could justify his invitation and impress the scouts with his athleticism. He followed through on that confidence, too, running the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.56 seconds) of all the passers and excelling in the short shuttle, broad jump and vertical leap
On the other hand, it's not clear how any of those times will affect his draft status. Teams certainly value mobility, speed and athleticism in their quarterbacks, but those are the types of skills that make a good prospect even better. If scouts aren't convinced of a quarterback's passing ability, they won't elevate him too much on the basis of a good 40-yard dash. It's worth noting, however, that Zabransky also fared just fine in the ball-speed drill, indicating he may have a major league arm. His miles-per-hour reading of 55.2 wasn't the combine's best, but it was right in line with the scores of such well-regarded prospects as Michigan State's Drew Stanton (55.7) and Houston's Kevin Kolb (55.3).
And there is the question of what sort of offenses Zabransky would fare well in. He obviously did just fine in Boise State's adventurous attack, leading the Broncos to a 22-4 record over the last two seasons, and he would be a threat to run in any system. Last year, Zabransky completed 191 of 288 passes for 2,587 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions while also rushing 98 times for 363 yards and six more scores. He had a passer rating of 162.6, working largely out of the shotgun.
"I think I can do everything," said Zabransky. "I think I have a wide range of talent. My athleticism is going to be at the top of the quarterbacks list. I'm very confident and I'm ready for any system. I can drop back and sit in the pocket if you want me to, but if things break down I can get out of the pocket, run around some guys and make some guys miss."
And, obviously, he can come through in the clutch. That incredible sequence of events to finish the Fiesta Bowl made him and the rest of the '06 Broncos into Idaho heroes forever. The son of a potato farmer, he plans to buy a house in Boise, enjoy his adopted hometown and "ride the wave" of that acclaim.
First, though, he wants to ride the wave of his increased notoriety into a real opportunity at the professional level.
"We're still riding it, but it's time to make a transition to the next step," said Zabransky. "It's a big step for us, and me personally. Boise State guys have flown under the radar, but the more we win and the more things we do that are out there, people have noticed that we have some good players at that program."