JACKSONVILLE — There was a time when Zion Webb was the next big thing at Jacksonville State football.
He was a redshirting freshman quarterback. JSU assistant coaches privately described him as the next Eli Jenkins, perhaps better at that stage.
One assistant, who has since moved on, couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
“We could win a natty with him,” he said.
Three years and change later, JSU’s road with Zion begins in earnest with Webb’s first collegiate start, against Tennessee Tech on Sunday at 3 p.m. on Burgess-Snow Field.
It comes after many game appearances for Webb.
It comes in a spring season necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and while Zerrick Cooper recovers from the broken leg he suffered in JSU’s final game of an abbreviated fall schedule.
It comes, however. Finally, and Webb signals determination to handle his first start as he’s handled the wait … like a pro.
“Right now, it’s just stay focused and do my job,” Webb said. “Don’t try and do too much and be a hero. Just get the ball to the guys that are athletic and can make plays and go from there.”
It’s hardly been a failing on the redshirt junior’s part that it took so long for the first start to get here. As a redshirt, he learned behind Bryant Horn, who went on to become first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference in 2017 while Kendrick Doss played the backup and change-of-pace guy.
Then Cooper transferred from Clemson and went about attacking JSU’s passing records over the 2018, 2019 seasons and the 2020 fall season.
Webb was always there and frequently played … a series here, mop-up time there in many OVC blowouts. He’s rushed for 589 yards and seven touchdowns and thrown for 707 yards and six scores.
Webb’s most extended look came in 2018, when he produced 901 total yards and was responsible for 11 scores, mostly in mop-up duty. He rushed for a team-high 103 yards and a touchdown and passed for 137 more and three scores in a 56-7 rout at Eastern Kentucky.
His most memorable game came at Florida International last fall. In relief of the injured Cooper, a hobbled Webb led JSU to a 19-10 victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Webb declined to fully specify his ailments and limitations in that game.
“I don’t want to put all of that out there,” he said.
He acknowledges a bum knee, which he says has mended in the three months since. Suffice to say, he wasn’t as likely to pull the ball down and run at FIU, not as likely as he normally would.
“He had a grade 2 MCL sprain,” JSU coach John Grass said. “We really almost did not dress him out for that game. We didn’t know if he was capable of playing, and we dressed him out as an emergency situation.”
Webb came into the FIU game with “a handful of plays,” Grass said, and the runs sure worked. Running backs Josh Samuel (163) and Uriah West (116) gave JSU two 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since Horn and Roc Thomas did it to Tennessee State in 2017.
So, what will JSU’s offense look like with a healthy Webb and the same running backs? The same offense, just with more of a running threat at quarterback and a run emphasis.
“We’ll look totally different with him in the spring than we did in that (FIU) game,” Grass said. “We do want to run the football, but we do want to be balanced. …
“We’re going to be able to run the ball much better than we did in ’19. I think we proved that in the fall.”
An offensive line improved through experience helped JSU’s running game to resurface in the fall. As for the balance part of JSU’s offense with Webb, think deep.
Webb is a true dual-threat quarterback. Opponents must account for him on run-pass options, which means an extra defender in the box.
Webb will have a chance to show the most improved part of his game.
“He throws the deep ball really well,” Grass said. “We will try to get matchups down the field and throw the ball deep.”
Webb said the deep-ball touch has come through emphasis with current quarterbacks coach Tyler Allen, who arrived from West Virginia after the 2019 season.
“We weren’t pretty big on deep balls,” Webb said. “We never really hit them, but we’ve been working all summer and all fall just to get better on those deep balls.
“We’re definitely going to try to connect on those.”