Making the grade on and off the field
by Pat Turner, goUTSA.com contributing writer
SAN ANTONIO — The past three years at UTSA have been a true blessing for Eric Soza.
While helping the Roadrunners get their football program off the ground, the senior quarterback has left his mark.
There have been ups and downs, but the former Beeville Jones High School standout has made the grade on and off the field with memorable results.
In addition to shining as UTSA’s starting quarterback, he’s been recognized for his community service. He was one of five finalists for the 2013 Coach John Wooden Citizenship Cup and is a nominee for this year’s American Football Coaches Association Allstate Good Works Team and the Senior CLASS Award. He also has earned a spot on the Manning (nation’s top QB) and Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award (top offensive player in Division I with ties to the state of Texas) preseason watch lists.
Soza also has shown a knack for ending a season in style.
Shortly after passing for 200 yards and two touchdowns and running for another in last year’s 38-31 victory against I-35 rival Texas State, the quarterback proposed to his girlfriend in the stands (she said yes).
Now, more challenges await Soza heading into his senior season.
Not only are the Roadrunners leaving the Western Athletic Conference for Conference USA, their non-conference schedule includes today’s opponent Oklahoma State in the home opener, as well as Arizona and Houston. UTSA opened the year last weekend with a 21-13 victory at New Mexico.
Since this season could be Soza’s final one wearing a football uniform, he wants to go out with a bang.
“I’ve grown up with football and never gotten tired of it,” said Soza, who is in graduate school after earning a degree in physical education in May. “This is the last go round. There’s the thought of never playing football again after this season.
“The seniors want to have a memorable year. If we don’t have a successful season, no one will get looked at (by the NFL scouts). If we do, that’s when the later opportunities will rise, so it’s important. Everyone is buying into the sense of urgency. We’re miles ahead of where we were last year. That’s a good sign.”
Soza has proven he can handle whatever obstacle comes in his direction.
As a sophomore, he passed for 2,148 yards and 14 touchdowns yards during UTSA’s 4-6 inaugural season.
Last year, he and the Roadrunners (8-4, 3-3 WAC) made more strides. Soza, who has won 12 games as UTSA’s starter, was more comfortable with the offense and people around him as evident by his 2,035 passing yards and 20 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Confidence was a reason for the comfort. He also felt more secure, as the offensive line allowed just seven sacks all season, the first coming against Rice in the sixth game. He believes that accomplishment, which ranked second nationally, was largely responsible for his breakthrough.
“All the success goes back to the coaches and the offensive line,” Soza said. “The stat I love the most was the seven sacks by the line. That protection is a big thing. If I am still on my feet, we can make plays.”
Now, a bigger challenge is coming.
Despite being picked seventh in C-USA’s West Division, Soza expects the Roadrunners to make their presence felt.
UTSA has more experience, especially on offense, where an experienced line and a steady supply of playmakers join Soza.
“The level of competition is going up, but we’re not scared,” he said. “We have a lot more game experience and that’s important. We embrace this opportunity and, now, we can see how good we really are. We have to go out there and leave our legacy but remember it’s still a game we love to play.”
Soza sets the example for being prepared. He works on his game non-stop, whether it’s working on passing drills with his receivers, spending time in the weight room or going over strategy with coaches.
At the same time, he keeps the mental approach sharp.
“You have to be tough skinned,” Soza said. “You’re given some tough situations, but you have to persevere and be a hard worker. I take pride in that. You’re the engine, so you have to keep the offense rolling.
“You have to do the right things, because you’re the leader on the team. Everyone looks up to you. You have to have ice in your veins and not be willing to make a mistake. The best thing is you get to touch a lot of people. I try to influence people as positively as I can and be there for my teammates.”
Although Soza has watched his game reach a higher level, the overall growth began earlier. That passion for football was inherited. His father, Chris, currently is the head coach at Alice High School and he had a successful playing career quarterbacking Alice and Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville).
His older brother, Justin, played the same position at Mathis and A&M-Kingsville, so when it was Eric’s time to play, he followed suit while playing for his father.
No doubt the family ties are a plus.
“We were consumed by athletics” said Soza, whose sister, Felicia, played basketball, also at A&M-Kingsville. “After school, my sister and I would take the bus to the (Mathis) high school. My mom (Colleen) was a teacher and we would go to her room, because we had to do our homework before went to practice. Then, we would go and be the water boy and water girl at practice. I would be my brother’s ball boy. When I saw my brother succeed, I wanted to do the same thing, too. It was in my blood.”
Learning how to succeed as a quarterback was a small portion of the education received from his father. There also were the life lessons and that’s why he gets involved in community activities.
Soza has served as president of UTSA’s student athlete advisory committee (SAAC), and after spending last year as the WAC’s SAAC vice president, he is holding the same position in the Roadrunners’ new conference.
“My parents always told us to have a positive approach on as many people as we can,” said Soza, who is also involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “I’ve enjoyed doing the community service projects. If we can read to kids or go to hospitals, that’s great. The bigger one was the extreme home makeover for the Wounded Warriors. That was a humbling experience. I’m really thankful for our soldiers.”
Achieving his goals at UTSA makes the accomplishments extra special.
Soza signed with Texas State out of high school but never felt comfortable.
Following his redshirt freshman season, he looked elsewhere and that’s when UTSA entered the picture.
The idea of building a program was exciting, but the clincher came from meeting head coach Larry Coker.
“When I came down here and met Coach Coker, I knew I wanted to play for him,” Soza said. “I saw what kind of guy he was and that (national championship) ring he was wearing had a lot to do with it. He talked to me like he had known me forever. We didn’t only talk about football. We talked about life. His phone was ringing off the hook, but he unplugged it. Later, I asked him why he did that and he said I was the most important person to him at that time. That made me feel special.”
Whatever happens, football will remain a big part of Soza’s life. He wants to be a coach like his father at the high school or college level. However, being an NFL quarterback would be a dream come true.
Such an opportunity might be a longshot, but Soza received an added dose of inspiration to pursue the goal while being interviewed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus for at Wooden Cup ceremony in April.
“He asked me if I wanted to play in the NFL,” he said. “I told him I wanted to continue playing but I had a Plan B and a Plan C just in case. He said if I wanted to keep playing that badly make sure it is Plan A. The way you do that is focus on the season and right now. That advice meant a lot because it came from the Golden Bear himself.”