Last week Eddie Gran received a commitment from South Florida quarterback, Nik Scalzo. An unheralded three-star recruit, we heard the Baker Mayfield comparisons and a few more anecdotes, but there’s much more to learn about UK’s next signal-caller.
To find out more about Scalzo, I sought somebody who knows him quite well, his coach at Cardinal Gibbons, Matt DuBuc. After a 15-minute conversation with KSR, there are a few things that should make you excited to see Scalzo in Kentucky blue.
1. Air Raid Roots
Scalzo has been tagged as a dual-threat quarterback by 247 Sports, but that’s not necessarily the case. Throughout his quarterbacking career, he’s led an Air Raid offense. That tag can often be misleading, especially for Kentucky fans who recall the years Tim Couch fired up the sirens at Commonwealth Stadium.
DuBuc runs the same offense Hal Mumme operated at Kentucky, because he learned it from Mumme’s most successful disciple, Mike Leach.
“It is very similar. I went to Texas Tech, so I know Mike Leach very well. It’s very similar to the Air Raid he ran at Texas Tech and Washington State.” DuBuc told KSR. “We’re running very similar things to what you saw when Leach was there, and Mumme, at Cardinal Gibbons.”
2. Scalzo Loves the Deep Ball
There are differences in the offense Scalzo runs and the one that Tim Couch ran at Kentucky. The foundation of that offense was to get the ball into open space, often with short passes, then let playmakers make plays.
“That’s how I teach it, but unfortunately, he likes to take the big shots,” DuBuc said with a laugh. “On almost every play we have a pre-snap read where we have a vertical route. If he feels like we can win on that vertical route, he’ll take it. We’re not necessarily dink and dunk. The Air Raid’s evolved a little bit more in the last few years where there’s a lot more vertical throws within the diamond concept, but if you want to throw for a lot of yards in this offense, you gotta utilize the backs. The backs are key.”
One of the running backs, Vincent Davis, is also a Kentucky target. More on him later.
3. He’s Always Been Undersized
DuBuc first began training Scalzo when the quarterback was in middle school. If he’s considered undersized now at 5’11”, you should have seen him then.
“He was a little 5’3″ kid when we started, but always had a really good arm and good feet, so I thought there was potential there.”
It did not take long for that potential to turn into production.
“His freshman year he threw for almost 2,000 yards on JV, and you could just tell — ball placement, moxie, athletic ability. He had those things and he’s smart. He came in here and got a 4.5 GPA. He’s just done it the right way.”
He was only about 5’8″ in that first season. As his game grew, luckily he did too.
4. The Comparisons to Mayfield, Manzeil are Fair
Following Scalzo’s commitment, many eyes rolled when he was compared to two of the last six Heisman Trophy winners. I’ll admit, I was one of them, but DuBuc makes a good case for the comparisons.
“I think he’s very similar to Baker Mayfield and Johnny Manzeil. I think he’s got a lot of their qualities as a playmaker. The one thing in the Air Raid — Tim Couch was not really able to, when the pocket collapsed, he had to get it out or throw it away and play on second down. Nik has that ability, even though we’re running the Air Raid, when things break down he’s able to continue the play, but look to throw and not to run. He gets a lot of balls out there to guys that they can’t cover for more than three or four seconds.”
5. Not a Runner
Scalzo has the dual-threat tag. His coach said it’s not because he’s going to run for 1,000 yards. He’s quick enough to escape the pocket, but once that happens, he looks to throw instead of run. That development of Scalzo’s game makes his coach proud.
“That’s natural for him. We had to break him a little bit when he got here — like a wild pony and put a saddle on him — because a lot of times when things broke down early, he ran out. I challenged him and in the later half of last year he really became a pocket passer. He ran when he needed to, but he wasn’t looking to run. He was looking to throw. I think that’s where his game has really taken the next step.”
DuBuc added: “The thing with most quarterbacks at 5’11, when things break down they run. This guy is looking to throw, and I think that’s why he’s thrown 50 touchdowns in two years.”
6. Eddie Gran is an Excellent Evaluator
Kentucky’s offensive coordinator has developed an outstanding reputation in South Florida. DuBuc has the utmost respect for the longtime SEC assistant who has developed relationships at Florida’s top high school programs.
“Eddie Gran does a phenomenal job recruiting the schools. He has a great eye for talent,” DuBuc said.
Where other schools only see Scalzo’s size, Gran sees a competent quarterback that can move an offense down the field efficiently.
“Eddie I would say is not taking a risk. He is taking the best player available. I think a lot of teams think, ‘You gotta be 6-foot or you gotta be 6-1.’ I think Eddie’s really figured out that one inch on somebody’s height isn’t going to change the day. Can they win? Can they perform? Can they lead people? Can they do the things necessary to move the chains? He sees that in Nik.”
7. They Gotta Beat American Heritage
Cardinal Gibbons has one team keeping them from getting over the hump. Coached by three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain, American Heritage was ranked No. 14 in the nation by the USA Today Super 25 at season’s end. I’ll let DuBuc explain how they got there…
“We were 11-2 last year and lost in the third round to American Heritage 58-57 in triple overtime on a blocked extra point. They ended up going 15-0 and winning the state championship with a running clock. That’s a district game for us. Nik and I in the two years I’ve been the head coach are 21-4, and all four losses are to American Heritage. We definitely got them on our sights.”
Scalzo and DuBuc will have another shot at American Heritage on October 12.
8. Talented Teammates
Scalzo isn’t UK’s only recruit at Cardinal Gibbons. Near the top of Gran’s recruiting board at running back is Vincent Davis. A three-star prospect, he holds offers from UK, Boston College, Syracuse and a dozen others.
“Vince is a 10.7 100 meters. He’s about 5’9″, 175 and can flat out guy,” DuBuc said. “He runs very hard for a smaller back. He’s a guy that you gotta get the ball in his hands any which way.”
Scalzo’s tight end, Nikolas Ognenovic, has traveled to Kentucky with his quarterback. The 6’5″ target rarely puts his hand in the dirt in Gibbons’ Air Raid offense, which essentially makes him another receiver, “but he’s 240 pounds.”
The other teammate Kentucky is recruiting, offensive lineman Jamari Williams, will choose between Kentucky and Louisville this Friday.
9. Where Scalzo Needs to Improve
Scalzo is far from a polished product. The high school junior needs to improve on his decision-making, among other things.
“You kind of always use the word “maturity” for every player. The maturity of understanding that you don’t have to take the deep shot. You don’t have to force the ball. You don’t have to run out of the pocket. Those are all maturity things.
“I think he’s a pretty good student of the game. By the time he gets up to you guys, he’ll probably be 6-foot 195, 200 pounds. He’s a workout guy. He works hard in the gym.”
10. A Playmaker
Nik Scalzo has come a long way since DuBuc first met the 5’3″ seventh grader. He’s grown physically and mentally. Scalzo was not handed a ticket to college football. He had to work to earn his offer from Kentucky. Scalzo was not born with god-gifted measurements, but he did receive one gift: the ability to make plays.
“He wanted to play in the ACC or SEC. He got those opportunities because he makes plays. That’s the bottom line.”