Phillips Big Blue Football '07

Quarterback Evolution

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Tuesday, October, 09 By Alan Siegel
Staff writer

Charles Darwin would've loved studying the quarterback.

At an early age, he is led into the jungle, where he's forced to fight off predators.

If he's weak, he'll fall behind. If he's strong, he'll lead the pack.

Long before he began ascending the football food chain, before he was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Boston College, Matt Ryan was a seventh grader who needed to be nudged forward.

"The first time you're out there, it's like 'Oh, my God,'" he said. "There's (defenders) running around your face. You struggle with it."

As a quarterback grows older, the process branches off into a multi-pronged course of study.

Here in New England, several young athletes are developing into polished QBs. Their ever-changing, ever-growing list of responsibilities demands constant attention.

"I think it's completely a position that is evolving," Ryan said. "And it continues to evolve."

The Origin of Species

Mike Pierce's moment of panic occurred on Oct. 28, 2005, hours before his first varsity start at Andover High.

"All day in school I was just thinking about not messing up," he said.

Only a sophomore, Pierce wasn't yet ready to drive a car, let alone drive an offense.

"All the responsibility is on you," he said. "The whole offense is on your back, waiting for you."

It's an imposing task. One that's impossible to hide from, especially for a teenager.

"All eyes are on you," said former Pinkerton quarterback Bryan Farris, who's now a post-grad at Phillips Academy. "When you screw up, everybody knows you screwed up."

Thankfully, Pierce said, the coaches took the wheel from him that first Friday evening. He completed 9 of 11 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown, but he didn't feel responsible for the outcome, a 37-26 Andover win.

"The game wasn't in my hands at all," he said. "It was definitely a fun experience."

Simplicity seems to keep a young quarterback out of trouble. The game, however, is no longer simple.

"It's not football of 25 years ago," said Andover quarterbacks coach Pat Finn, a former Eagle-Tribune All-Star signal-caller for the Golden Warriors. "It's not just 'sling it around and see what happens.'

When I played here, you never saw anything other than a cover-3 (zone) defense. Now, not only does the defense change game to game, it changes down to down."

In a world where high school games are shown on ESPN and parents shell out thousands of dollars to send their sons to private quarterback camps, on-field innovations feel like afterthoughts.

Farris and Pierce, who represent two different sub-species of quarterback, might disagree.

They are students of the position, the former a 6-3, 210-pound pocket passer, the latter a 6-foot, 203-pound scrambler.

They have both matured in recent months.

Every week, Pierce said, a few more plays are added to the Golden Warriors' spread offense. As a senior, he can call his own audibles. Like Farris, he's encouraged to take a calculated risk on occasion.

But, Finn said, "A quarterback, more than anybody, needs to know the situation he's in." The question is, he added, "Is taking a risk worth it?"

Not always. Two weeks ago against Dracut, Pierce learned that the hard way. Andover led by 17 points with 32 seconds remaining in the second quarter. With his team driving, he tried to squeeze a pass past defensive back Jared Gauthier, who picked the ball off and ran it back 75 yards for a touchdown.

"The worst thing that could happen, happened," Finn said. "Football games in high school are 44 minutes. You may have to punt, and that's not the worst thing in the world."

Farris, on the other hand, described a recent risk that was worth taking. Last Sunday against the Tufts JV team, he took the snap then watched the defense shift its coverage toward his two primary receivers.

"It triggered in my head right away," he said. "I knew to throw the ball to my third option."

He proceeded to sprint out of the pocket and hit Ryan McCarthy | his third option | for a 33-yard score. "That was a completely different mind-set for me," said Farris, whose team eked out a 21-20 win.

It's a lesson both quarterbacks are learning.

"I think he's doing a better job getting to second and third receivers on his reads," Finn said of Pierce. "…When he was a sophomore, he was definitely going to go to his first read no matter what."

The first option is always the most enticing. Just ask a lurking safety.

"Mike's learning," Finn said. "It's just experience. There's nothing like live action."

The prototype

If a computer program could create the perfect quarterback, a picture of Matt Ryan would probably pop up on the monitor screen.

After looking at his numbers and talking football with him, it's hard to believe the 6-foot-5, 220-pound passer once struggled with the position.

As an incoming freshman, Ryan spent the summer of 2003 wondering how, exactly, he was going to survive. Everything in training camp confused him, especially pass protection.

"It's something in high school you don't really worry about," Ryan said. "You kind of just drop back and try to avoid whoever's rushing. You never really know what the offensive line is doing."

He learned the plays and pass routes next. Then he began facing a live defense, which ate him up at first. To Ryan, the Eagles' quarter-quarter-half zone, which attacked him with four defensive backs, looked more like an organic chemistry problem than a football formation.

"I was throwing into double coverage every time," he said. "I just couldn't understand the rotation. It probably took me until midway through my second year for the light bulb to kind of go off. I must've thrown 20 or 30 interceptions into it in practice."

Needless to say, "I'm thankful I redshirted," he admitted with a smile.

It gave him time to actually learn the offense, which at first, seemed to contain more moving parts than a Rolex. Repetition, he said, saved him. He ran plays over and over, on the field and in his head.

Other than recognizing his desire to win | which he's helping seventh-ranked BC do at a record rate this fall | the affable Ryan isn't quite sure how he achieved his current state.

Accuracy is one tangible skill that's lifted him from an unknown to a possible high first-round NFL pick. His completion percentage has remained steady; in 2005 it was 62.1 percent, in 2006 it was 61.6 percent, and this year, it's 62.7 percent.

"I haven't done a bad job," he said. "But there are certainly throws if you can just get it another inch this way …"

That's where repetition, he said, comes in. He's constantly critiquing his throws, repeating pass patterns and making sure he's hitting targets.

"I don't know the science of it," he said, "but somehow you have to beat it into your brain that's what you need to do."

Of all the accurate strikes he's made so far this fall, none, he said, illustrated his growth as a quarterback more than the 10-yard touchdown he threw to Brandon Robinson against Wake Forest in the season opener. The spectacular throw and catch drew oohs and aahs on SportsCenter. It was a double-move route, Ryan said. He put the ball on Robinson's back shoulder, away from the two defenders blanketing the receiver.

"I think it's a throw that takes a lot of confidence to make," Ryan said. "I think it's a throw you had to have made in practice. I have. I think it's something that finally transitioned onto the field. I'm happy it did."

Thankfully for the Eagles, the days of throwing 30 training-camp interceptions are over.

"We still give him a hard time," said DeJuan Tribble, BC's second-team All-ACC cornerback. "But he's an excellent player. He challenges us every day. That's what I like about Matt Ryan."

The alternate route

The way he's built, Pierce knows it isn't wise to think he'll play quarterback at a Division 1-A school.

"They look at a certain type of quarterback," he said. "Basically, you have to be 6-3 and above. If you're not that, they don't give you much of a look. "I'm not as much selling myself as a quarterback; I'm selling myself as an athlete."

He spoke without a hint of bitterness. It's reality, that's all.

Rare exceptions do exist. Sometimes they even make big-time schools look foolish.

University of New Hampshire quarterback Ricky Santos was spurned by Division 1-A schools, despite throwing 79 touchdowns (second most in state history) | including 35 his senior year | at Bellingham (Mass.) High School.

Like Ryan, the 6-2, 215-pound Santos redshirted in 2003. Then, in 2004 he got his chance.

In his first career start, he threw for 385 yards and five touchdowns to lead the 1-AA Wildcats over Division 1-A Rutgers, 35-24. It was instant karma for Santos, whose unique style has resulted in dozens of passing records and the 2006 Walter Payton Award as the 1-AA national player of the year.

He thrives in chaotic situations, routinely turning broken plays into first downs with his feet and gunning touchdown passes while on the run. He operates UNH's spread offense like his own electric football game.

"He's phenomenal with moving parts," said first-year UNH associate head coach John Perry, who grew up in Andover. "His reaction time is great. When things break down, he can always buy himself an extra second."

On one play against James Madison in September, Perry said, the senior QB scrambled about 10 yards to his right. Instead of tucking the ball and sprinting up field, he waited for a cornerback to step up. When he did, Santos flipped the ball "Doug Flutie-style," Perry said, to Keith LeVan for a 3-yard TD.

To most fans, the play probably looked risky, even reckless. Santos, who left yesterday's win over Delaware with a shoulder injury, is actually encouraged to make those kinds of decisions, which have resulted in some gaudy statistics over the past four years.

"Does it look good?" is a less important question than "Does it work well?"

And above all, physical skill takes a back seat to instinct and preparation.

"You have to play the quarterback position with your mind first," Perry said.

The king of the jungle

Tom Martinez never offers advice.

As Tom Brady's passing guru, he waits for the star quarterback to come to him.

Every year since Brady was 13, Martinez has worked with the fellow Bay Area native. Their routine is simple.

When Brady arrives with a throwing ailment, Martinez will ask him to demonstrate.

Brady will then throw one or two passes. If Martinez notices a mechanical bug in the delivery, he'll point it out and correct it.

"God that feels smooth," Brady usually says afterward.

Martinez, once a three-sport coach at the College of San Mateo in Northern California, is happily retired. But working with the 6-5, 225-pound Brady, he said, is still a joy.

"I'm not sure that the average fan appreciates how smart and how quick his trigger is," Martinez said. "You see (the defense), you process it, and the ball's gotta go. His process factor is unbelievable."

Brady is what Martinez called "pocket tough." In other words, when his pass protection breaks down, even if the likes of Dwight Freeney and Shawne Merriman are flying in, he doesn't bail out.

"There are other quarterbacks in the NFL, they're what I like to call 'pocket soft,'" said Martinez, who recently tutored Oakland Raiders rookie JaMarcus Russell, the top overall pick in the draft. "As soon as the pocket starts to crumble, they panic. If you go back in history, a guy like Steve Young or Fran Tarkenton, or any of those guys, the first thing they did if it got fuzzy or confusing, they'd tuck the ball and run."

Brady's pocket toughness, Martinez said, was on display Monday night.

On second-and-four from his team's 27, the Cincinnati defense surged forward, collapsing the pocket. Instead of taking off, Brady stepped forward and dumped the ball to Kevin Faulk, who ran upfield for a 23-yard gain.

Without about two seconds to work with, Brady generated a solution to the problem.

"When a car is running really well, you don't think about anything," Martinez said. "It's fluid, efficient. You would never think anything could go wrong with the thing."

Bolstered by a full arsenal of weapons this fall, the undisputed king of the New England football jungle is humming like a Ferrari.

"Each year there's a different thing to work on," Martinez said. "But right now, it's hard to see where the flaws are."

Awed local QBs like Pierce, Farris and even Ryan, watch closely when Brady goes out on the hunt.

"He's killing it out there," Ryan said. "The way he looks off receivers and looks off coverage, he just knows where his guys are going to be. He doesn't have to stare them down. And he's just so smooth about it, too."

Ryan, like every other young quarterback in America, can only hope to evolve into that kind of player.

Alan Siegel is an Eagle-Tribune sports writer. E-mail him at ASiegel@eagletribune.com.

New England quarterbacks at a glance

Mike Pierce, Andover High: Through five games, the senior has thrown for 1,076 yards (69 of 134), seven touchdowns and five interceptions, and rushed for six more scores for the Golden Warriors (3-2). In 2006, he threw for 1,304 yards and 13 TDs, rushed for 580 yards and added 14 scores on the ground. Big numbers landed him on the Eagle-Tribune All-Star team. Getting looks from 1-AA schools, including University of New Hampshire.

Bryan Farris, Phillips Academy: In his first two starts this season, the post-grad threw seven TD passes (7) and 562 passing yards (25 of 40) with an INT for the Big Blue (2-0). A two-time Eagle-Tribune All-star at Pinkerton Academy, he threw for area-best 1,763 yards and 10 TDs in 2006. One of the most accurate high school passers (61.0 percent) in area history. Hopes to attend an Ivy League school.

Ricky Santos, UNH: The senior, who left Saturday's win over Delaware in the second quarter with a shoulder injury, has thrown for 1,268 yards (115 of 159), eight TDs and two INTs with a 153.40 quarterback rating for the Wildcats (3-2). Threw for 29 TDs and 3,125 yards | the third straight season he surpassed 3,000 | and rushed for 12 scores in 2006, winning the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top player in 1-AA football. In three-plus seasons, has broken every conceivable Wildcats offensive record.

Matt Ryan, Boston College: The fifth-year senior has led the Eagles to their best start (6-0) in 65 years. Has thrown for 1,857 yards (160 of 255), 15 TDs and five INTs with a 139.41 rating. Named first-team All-ACC in 2006 after throwing for 4,806 yards and 25 TDs while leading BC to a 9-3 record. Played all of last season with a nagging foot injury that required surgery in the offseason. ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks him No. 7 on his "Top 25 Big Board" of NFL prospects.

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