Wilde Lake quarterback Chris Forrest stepped back into the pocket as he scanned the field during a recent practice, waiting to see which receiver had separated from the defense. He glanced to his left, then to his right and found senior tight end Brandon Young between the linebackers and the safety.

On the next play, Forrest did not throw the ball. Instead, he eluded an array of defensive linemen and sprinted into the secondary for another big gain.

"That's the reason -- right there," Wilde Lake Coach Doug DuVall said, eyeing the 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior. "That's the reason I think we're going to be good."

DuVall believes Forrest's proficiency at throwing and running makes him the best quarterback in the county.

River Hill Coach Brian Van Deusen disagrees. He thinks that title belongs to his quarterback, senior Ben Hostetler, who last season led the league in passing and guided his team to its first playoff berth.

Over at Mount Hebron, senior Kyle Barnett's stellar short passing game helped his team earn its first spot in the playoffs in more than two decades -- and put his name in the school's record book.

And then there's Oakland Mills junior Nick Finney, who has thrown for more yards, produced more touchdowns and won more games than any of the other three. He has guided the Scorpions to the postseason in each of the previous two seasons.

It's too early to tell which of these signal callers -- or maybe someone at another county school -- will take a starring role this year, but this much is clear: The county's top returning quarterbacks each has an ability that sets him apart, and each will have a big impact on how well his team does this season.

"In high school football, there are some positions that even if you have an average player there, you can get by and still have the chance to be good," DuVall said. "But quarterback is not one of them. Everything starts with your quarterback."

On Quite a Run

During a game last season, Forrest scrutinized River Hill's defense before he called a play and saw something he liked: The linebackers had crept a few feet closer to the line of scrimmage. It was a subtle defensive shift, probably overlooked by most people in the stadium.

Forrest tucked the ball under his arm and cut right as his receiver blocked the cornerback. The linebackers' positioning gave Forrest room to turn the corner and race 68 yards into the end zone.

"I don't know if I make that play if the linebackers are farther away because they would have the angle on me," Forrest said. "There are a lot of quarterbacks who are good at throwing the ball, but there are not a lot of quarterbacks who can take off and run."

Forrest uses his speed to beat defenders, turning apparent short gains into long touchdown runs. He thrives in the wishbone offense, in which a mobile quarterback is essential for option plays. In an option play, Forrest runs parallel with a running back, with the choice of lateralling the ball or keeping it.

"What makes Chris so good is that he's probably the only quarterback in the county who can beat you just by running with the football," Mount Hebron Coach Larry Luthe said. "His speed gives them a big advantage because if you make a mistake, he's gone and it's hard to catch him."

Last year, Forrest had 116 carries for 889 yards and six touchdowns, and completed 35 of 69 passes for 615 yards with seven touchdowns and a county-low two interceptions.

"We can't run the offense we do without Chris because it's his speed that separates him from other quarterbacks," DuVall said. "He can beat you throwing the ball or running it."

The Answer Men

If Hostetler has questions about playing quarterback, he knows who to ask.

The county's leading passer last year can call his older brother, Matt, who graduated from River Hill in 2002 after becoming just one of three county players to throw for more than 3,000 yards. He now plays at Brown.

Or he could ask his father, Doug, a quarterback at Penn State in the mid-1970s.

He can also call his uncle, Jeff, who knows even more about the position than the rest of the family. Hostetler played in the National Football League for 12 seasons, during which he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl in 1994 and finished his career in 1997 with 16,430 yards passing and 94 touchdowns.

His biggest accomplishment came in the 1990-91 season when he replaced an injured Phil Simms in midseason and led the New York Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV.

"Playing quarterback runs in our family, so there is always someone to talk to about it," said Ben Hostetler, who completed 111 of 208 passes for 1,355 yards, with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. "There is always something you can learn about playing quarterback."

Quarterbacks must be able to read defenses and pick up blitz packages. Decisions must be made instantaneously, because defenses often change formations as the quarterback calls the play.

But learning is something the three-year honor roll student does well. His football knowledge improves every summer, when the family gathers at Bethany Beach for a week and two generations of quarterbacks play catch on the sand and discuss nuances of the game.

"Ben really knows the game of football, and I'm sure a lot of that has to do with his family," Van Deusen said. "He can read a defense. He can go through his reads and find who's open, even if it's his third option. There are not too many quarterbacks who have the composure to stay in the pocket and when the first two guys are covered, can find that third receiver who is open."

The Short Pass

The Vikings' Barnett might not be able to throw the football 50 yards accurately, but that has not stopped him from becoming perhaps the best quarterback in Mount Hebron history.

His philosophy? A well placed 15-yard pass can set just as big a gain as the bomb.

"The result is the same," said Barnett, who completed a county-high 58 percent of his 150 attempts last year. "There's a misconception that you have to be able to throw the ball deep to be good. A lot of quarterbacks go out there and work on arm strength by throwing 70-yard bombs, but that's not me. I work on being able to complete that short pass."

"Kyle has us run the same routes over and over again," said junior running back Chris Eccleston. "He wants to be perfect on every throw."

Barnett's short passes added up to some big numbers last season. He threw for 1,127 yards with a county-high 15 touchdowns, giving him a school-record 26 for his career.

Barnett led his team to four fourth-quarter comeback victories last season.

He threw a seven-yard pass to Mike Cutulle with 47 seconds remaining in a 14-8 victory over Hammond. "We had run that fade pattern where Mike would catch the ball over his shoulder at least a hundred times," Barnett said.

Three weeks later, he drove his team 53 yards in five plays to set up Toni Sackel's game-winning 30-yard field goal with 1.5 seconds left to defeat River Hill, 23-20.

"River Hill was playing to stop me from throwing the ball deep," Barnett said. "But I knew all along if I made good throws for 10 yards, my receivers would have room to run."

Handling Expectations

Oakland Mills' Finney found himself in a sea of orange and black-clad fans after he guided the Scorpions on a 15-play, 93-yard scoring drive in the final minutes to cap an 108-15 victory over Wilde Lake last September.

But Finney also experienced the other side of the game a few times during his two years as a starter. He walked off the field after some tough losses contemplating what he could have done differently.

"When you're the quarterback, you're the one everyone's looking at to win the game," Finney said. "That's something every quarterback needs to understand. I visualize every play in our playbook so I know what to do when the game is on the line."

What separates Finney from the rest of the county quarterbacks has been his ability to handle high expectations. As a freshman, he took over a team that had made the playoffs the previous season and guided it to return trips in each of his first two seasons.

Now a junior, Finney has already thrown for 2,117 yards and is on pace to become the county's all-time leading passer. His has a 14-7 record as a starter.

"You can't practice winning the big game; it's something you have to go out and do," said Finney, who threw for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. "The ball is in your hands every play, and there comes a lot of responsibility with that. When the game's over, it sometimes doesn't matter how well you played, it's just did your team win or lose?"

Wilde Lake quarterback Chris Forrest, above, can do damage running the ball, as he shows during a game last year. Right, River Hill's Ben Hostetler has many family members who have played quarterback. They include his older brother, Matt, who plays for Brown.Left, Mount Hebron senior Kyle Barnett, handing off, makes big gains going short -- he completed a league-best 58 percent of his 150 passes last year. Above, Oakland Mills junior Nick Finney already has thrown for 2,117 yards in his career. He also has a 14-7 record as a starting quarterback.The quarterbacks, from left, Wilde Lake's Chris Forrest, Mount Hebron's Kyle Barnett, Oakland Mills's Nick Finney and River Hill's Ben Hostetler.