Hylton assistant football coach Jerry Williams can vividly recall a particular "jailbreak" pass rush that flushed Kenny Irby from the pocket last year in the Virginia AAA Division 6 state championship game. The quarterback scrambled toward the Bulldogs' sideline, where a Varina player folded him into the ground in front of the aghast Hylton bench.
"It might have been the hardest hit that any of our kids took the whole year," Williams said last week with lingering amazement. "I thought they killed him, I really did."
Instead, Irby got up and went about his business. What could have been a title game disaster became a turning point in the eventual 21-13 championship win.
"Because it happened right dead smack in front of all our coaches and the whole bench and everything," Williams said, "well, if he took a shot like that. ... There's your leader not laying down on the ground flopping around or half dead. He jumped right up and went back to the huddle. It was kind of a calming effect for us."
By all accounts, that's Irby: Cool. Composed. Collected. Level-headed. That's most fortunate for the Bulldogs, because they likely will need to tap into those traits a lot more often this season, now that they are without the leadership of graduated offensive lineman David Stevenson, known reverently, and almost exclusively, in the Hylton camp as "Big Dave." Or, as Williams calls Stevenson, "Kenny's security blanket."
Right now, Irby's "blanket" has a couple of holes in it. With only two returning offensive line starters -- Billy Reyers and John Brower -- this season will not only test Irby's leadership, but his mobility as well.
"He's not going to be able to sit there in the pocket and throw darts," said his father, Ken Irby Sr., who has coached his son on several baseball, football and basketball teams. "He'll have to be on the run and throw darts."
There are talented teammates, of course, but in many ways, this is Irby's squad. Defending the state title, extending the program's 16-game win streak, nurturing a green offensive line -- much of this falls squarely on the shoulders of the 6-foot-3, 210-pound humble quarterback considered one of the top prospects in the country at his position.
"There's no question to anybody who's in charge," Hylton Coach Bill Brown said. "I've never ever in the time I've known him seen him show a shadow of arrogance, and the coaches and players respect him for that."
Irby, who also punts and plays some defensive back, is a benevolent leader whose reserved manner comes naturally. When he began playing organized sports at age 7, he competed with athletes two or three years his senior.
"He was always a step ahead of most of the kids his age," his father said.
Though now older than many of his contemporaries, that precociousness gap has not narrowed. Williams, the coach who works most closely with him, said the quarterback has always acted two or three years ahead of his time. Although a well-developed 7-year-old playing with 9-year-olds might not sound like a big deal, that early exposure to such superior competition was as much a mental vitamin as a physical one.
"I played with older people, but I wasn't as good," said Irby, who is also an honorable mention all-Cardinal District basketball forward and baseball pitcher. "But after I started working at it, it really worked out for me. It just makes you mature faster."
Irby started the final game of his freshman year, a Division 6 Northwestern Region semifinal loss to Woodbridge, and the starting quarterback job has been his ever since. That makes him 20-5, a record that only enhances his standing with college recruiters who already like his size, speed (about 4.7 in the 40-yard dash) and arm strength.
"He gets mail from everyone in the country," Brown said.
Irby reads that mail about as calmly as he reads defenses. He has visited the University of North Carolina, and he planned trips to Michigan State and Syracuse that were nixed by scheduling conflicts. Tennessee is another consideration, but those are not the only four in the running.
Irby, the state coaches' pick as first-team quarterback last season, participated in the Nike Football Camp at Penn State in July, and his showing there prompted one high school football recruiting publication to gush, "Perhaps no national quarterback throws the ball as hard. ... [Irby] even broke a blood vessel in one coach's finger!"
Irby caused Potomac its share of pain last season. He led the Bulldogs to three wins over the Panthers by a combined score of 120-27. So if any opponent can offer an informed opinion of him, it is Potomac Coach Keith King, who served as the Panthers' defensive coordinator last season.
"He's the type of kid who can throw the football 60 or 70 yards standing flat-footed," said King, whose defense shut out three opponents and limited two others to one touchdown apiece. "And last year they had such a good running attack that if you tried to stop the run, he was capable of sitting back and picking you apart."
The Hylton coaching staff would like to see Irby do even more such picking. Despite his throwing for 1,210 yards with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions, he has one chronic bad habit, a mechanical hitch that at times causes him to release the ball with his arm a bit flat. That costs him time and, occasionally, accuracy.
"We harp on it every single day," said Williams, who sometimes runs Irby through a series of drills that involves passing from a knee or from a sitting position. "There were throws last year if he had gotten rid of it in a hurry the window to have hit the receiver would have been there.
He's got a powerful arm. He doesn't need to reach for any extra. He can just flip it and hit most of our routes."
Time in the pocket will be particularly precious this season until the offensive line stabilizes.
But at least the Bulldogs know what kind of reaction to expect from Irby if he has to pick himself up and dust himself off like after the wallop he absorbed in the state championship game.
"That could have happened a couple of years ago," Williams said, "and he would have given the exact same response."