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How many young men get to start at quarterback for the Division I college football team in their hometown county when it battles its bitter backyard rival on Homecoming Saturday?
Raise your hand, George Bollas.
The former Aurora High School star will lead Kent State (1-3) into Saturday's 2016 Mid-American Conference opener against Akron (2-2) at Dix Stadium for the main event of Homecoming weekend. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.
Bollas is well aware that opportunities like the one he's currently preparing for are rare, and plans to enjoy it rather than overanalyze it.
“I wouldn't say pressure. It's more of a chip on my shoulder, I would say,” said Bollas, when asked how it feels to be the starting signal-caller for the Golden Flashes as an Aurora graduate. “It's fun because I have a lot of friends and coaches that come to the home games, and a lot of people watching on TV and following me. I've got a lot of people behind me and supporting me. I'll always appreciate that.”
Bollas will face the Zips for the second time in his career. He started last year's regular season finale, when the Flashes managed just 135 yards of total offense in a 20-0 loss at Akron.
Bollas went 1-5 as a starter in KSU's last six games of 2015, leading an injury-riddled unit that produced just 46 points in those six contests while playing underclassmen at virtually every position. The Flashes did not start one senior at the skill spots on offense against the Zips last November.
“Last year we were banged up. Including myself we were almost all freshmen and sophomores playing,” said Bollas. “This year we have more experience. We're a lot more comfortable with the offense.”
Comfort is a feeling Bollas has rarely experienced at Kent State.
Bollas (6-foot-3, 216) joined the Flashes after earning Chagrin Valley Conference Offensive MVP and All-Ohio honors as a senior at Aurora in 2013, when he rushed for 1,323 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing for 1,355 yards and 13 scores.
Things started slowly at the collegiate level for Bollas. He was virtually an afterthought at quarterback as a redshirt freshman in the spring of 2015, playing behind Nathan Strock and returning starter Colin Reardon.
But Strock was out of the program by the start of last season, and Bollas received his first chance to start midway through last year when the offense continued to struggle with Reardon at quarterback.
Despite finishing the 2015 season as the team's starting signal-caller, Bollas was pitted in a three-way competition for the job last spring and into the preseason along with freshman Justin Agner and redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell.
Agner and Mitchell received the first opportunities to start in 2016, but injuries to both players have put the ball right back in the hands of Bollas heading into the MAC season.
Being forced to rise from No. 3 on the depth chart for a second straight season obviously wasn't what Bollas preferred, but he didn't let the snub deter him.
“It can be frustrating, but at the same time it's all about the team,” said Bollas. “Whoever the coaches want to put in, that's who they want to try to help us win. You don't have any control over when you're getting in. But it didn't change how I've been working or anything like that. I'm always going to be ready.”
Flashes head coach Paul Haynes credited both Bollas and Reardon, who was converted to wide receiver last winter but switched back to quarterback due to the squad's needs this week, with always maintaining a team-first attitude through some difficult personal times.
“I commend those guys. You talk about team guys, they are team guys,” said Haynes. “From day one when these decisions were made it was what's best for the team, and those guys bought in to the team concept and what we're doing. They've always been prepared and not been a distraction in any way. Was it disappointing for them? Yeah, I'm sure it was. But again whatever's best for the team, those guys are all-in.”
Bollas gives the Flashes the luxury of experience as a third quarterback. He was thrown into the fire last week at No. 1 Alabama and directed a 73-yard march that ended when Bollas was stopped literally inches of the goal line on a fourth-and-goal run from the 7-yard line.
“That was fun getting in there, having the nice drive,” said Bollas. “But they were just another team. It's all about execution — execute our plays, drive down the field and score.”
The Flashes will attempt to execute a more run-oriented attack against Akron with Bollas at the controls. He's rushed nine times for 51 yards in limited action during KSU's first four games this fall, after gaining 275 yards on the ground last season (3.1 yards per carry).
“I think you've got to do what he does best,” said Haynes. “We're not going to put him in a situation to fail and just kind of say oh well. He is what he is, and we'll come up with a great game plan so he can execute it. It still comes down to execution, and what we can execute is very important. Those are the things that we will give him. We won't give him anymore, and we'll play good defense.”
After going 1-3 during the non-conference season and suffering some key injuries, few people outside of their own locker room are expecting much out of the Flashes this season. But that could all change if local boy Bollas can help steer Kent State to victory over the dreaded Zips in Saturday's conference opener.
“This is I think the biggest game, starting off the conference (season),” said Bollas. “If we win this game, we've got a good shot at having a great season. It would be a huge confidence booster. Akron's our rival, and it's always fun to get a chance to go at them. It's going to be exciting.”