Zach Maynard’s favorite memory involves snow — lots of snow. It was a cold North Carolina winter, and he and his brother, Keenan, were playing in their grandmother’s backyard. A cardboard box was lying around, so they broke it down into makeshift snowboards to see who could slide down the hill longest.
“We got messed up pretty bad,” he says. “It was a lot of crash landings.”
He laughs, his voice a low giggle as he plays back what seems like yesterday. Whatever scrapes and bruises have been forgotten, tossed aside so that only the euphoric highs are left.
His career is unfolding the same way.
Zach Maynard has played five games as the starting quarterback of the Cal football team. There is a tepid consensus that he is an upgrade over the recent assembly line under center, and the argument has some merit. He’s had a penchant for big plays, and his mobility sets him apart from almost any other quarterback of the Jeff Tedford era. He does not, above all, ever appear rattled.
His raw stats do not support this conclusion. Maynard is currently the least accurate passer in the Pac-12, ranked dead last among starters with a 51.4 completion percentage. UCLA’s Richard Brehaut, one spot up, is more than four percent better. Cal’s own Kevin Riley completed 55.4 percent of his 844 attempts over four seasons, and was riding smoothly at 60.0 in his final season before he tore up his knee. Maynard commands a far more vertical offense, but the comparisons are nonetheless unflattering.
The story of this junior transfer has one immediate parallel: Russell Wilson — the dynamic quarterback out of N.C. State — left for Wisconsin, upped his completion rate 16 percent and turned the Badgers from a good team into an undefeated title contender this fall. Clearly, Zach Maynard is not Russell Wilson.
So why all the confidence? Maynard’s first official pass attempt of the season ended up in the arms of Fresno State cornerback L.J. Jones. The football gods have crafted few crueler starts, but his teammates weren’t fazed.
“I usually get mad when quarterbacks throw picks,” said running back Isi Sofele, one day after the season-opening win, a result that may have helped temper any anger. “But when Zach threw it, I just dusted it off … I have a lot of faith in Zach. It was different for me because I usually get mad. I know he can handle a mistake like that. He didn’t get mad. He just walked off the field and was like, ‘It’s all good.’”
The Bears are a more daring team now. Already, they’ve attempted 14 fourth downs, more than everyone else in the conference except Arizona. Cal has only converted six, but the 14 tries have equaled or eclipsed all but two of its past nine season totals. If the Bears are not a significantly better team, they are at least a more ambitious one. They trust Maynard to take his shots, and they will live with his blunders.
Riley — Maynard’s true predecessor once you discount Brock Mansion’s four forgettable starts in injury relief — never had the same benefit of the doubt, at least not from fans. Riley’s career started when, as a sophomore, he ran out the clock on Cal’s No. 2 national ranking. That, coupled with a positional tug of war between him and Nate Longshore, has come to define his time in Berkeley.
Late last season, Riley admitted that the constant shuffle likely affected both their play; his fatal flaw can perhaps be described as thinking too much.
This is not something that seems to plague Maynard’s psyche. Asked whether he was concerned that his cross-country journey would end on the bench, Maynard said, “That was the least of my worries.” When you consider the stakes, it is a puzzling response.
He likely would not be at Cal had his brother, wide receiver extraordinaire Keenan Allen, not defected from Alabama as the No. 5 recruit in the country. Allen would not have left the Crimson Tide had Maynard not decided to transfer from Buffalo. That, in turn, may not have happened had head coach Turner Gill not left for Kansas.
The gangly lefty spent most of the past year training at Contra Costa College, where he had to make up schoolwork before he could enroll at Cal. That meant roughly 21 months away from competitive football, a stretch of time that could have seen him buried on the depth chart. But this, again, was the least of his worries.
On the field, this sort of deliberate ignorance has tremendous advantages. Yes, he’s coming off an atrocious game at Oregon, where more than half his passes hit the ground as he struggled with a thigh contusion. And yes, he is about to face a USC squad that Cal hasn’t defeated for seven years running. The critics might be circling, but Maynard has tunneled himself off. He is not one to live in the past — or, for that matter, the future.
If his interception against the Bulldogs was the low point, his final drive against Washington three weeks ago was the high. Backed up on its own 20, with 3:49 and two timeouts remaining, Cal rolled with its offense on fourth-and-three. It was the sort of play that has been, for several years now, unimaginable for a Tedford-coached team. That drive fell short when Maynard floated a potential touchdown out of bounds, but it is a microcosm of how he plays. He is not afraid to fail — and if he does fail, he will fail brilliantly.
“I was thinking we had to go for it,” he says. “We’re a good third-down team; why can’t we be a good fourth-down team?”
The simple answer is that fourth and third are very different downs, as are third and second, and second and first. Opposing teams do not behave the same way, and efficacy in one area has little correlation with the other.
But Zach Maynard does not care about these things, and that may be for the best.