Three weeks ago, Severn quarterback Jamal Jones joked with friends that he planned to skip the first practice of his 2004 high school football season.
What would he miss, anyway? After a decade of organized football, he had already memorized the typical Day One format: a speech from the coach, some stretching and maybe a name game or two. Nothing essential.
"It's usually a pretty boring day," said Jones, a senior who will start for the third consecutive season. "That's what made what happened this year so surprising."
Ten minutes into Severn's first practice, with cursory introductions complete, Coach John Beckman looked at Jones, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Okay, Jamal. Get the team out on the field and run our offense."
"I'd never done that before," Beckman said. "But that's the great thing about having an experienced quarterback. You kind of get to operate at a faster speed."
Several Anne Arundel area teams are enjoying that same luxury this season. Of the 15 public and private school football teams, eight will bring back a starting quarterback. Three teams that made the playoffs last season return a starter: John Brown at Old Mill, Tony Marino at Broadneck and Greg Zingler at Severna Park.
In a league loaded with tenured quarterbacks, teams plan to throw more often and, they hope, more effectively. Coaches will expand their playbooks; they'll shrink their running games. In the name of experience, they'll load more responsibility on the quarterback. In return, they'll expect more completions, more touchdown passes and, most important, more wins.
"If you've got a good quarterback, you feel like you've got the world in your hands," said J.P. Hines, Zingler's coach at Severna Park. "There's no formula that defines a good one. But trust me, you'll know when a kid's got it. Something always gives it away."
It can be the voice.
When Marino talks in the huddle, 10 teammates fall silent. They believe in what he says. Last season he led them to 13 consecutive victories before they lost a close game to Damascus in the state championship. "We can do the same thing this year," Marino said. "We can go just as far." His teammates have no reason to doubt him.
"I'm a winner," Marino said. "I might not have the strongest arm or the best athletic ability, anything like that. But I think I know how to lead a team and get the ball moving. I know how to bring a group together."
It can be the arm.
During the second practice of the Severna Park season, Zingler zipped five consecutive 20-yard passes, none of them showing any arc. "Man," one receiver said, "you've got a cannon." That's why he took over as Severna Park's starting quarterback five games into last season, a sophomore with no varsity experience. He led the Falcons to the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and Hines dubbed him one of the school's all-time-great signal callers.
"I'm very confident in my arm strength," Zingler said. "Coach knows I can get the ball to people, so he wants to give me the opportunity to do that. He wants me to throw. That's what he tells me, 'Just keep throwing.' "
It can be the legs.
Jones is at his best when a play doesn't work. He spins out of the pocket and darts downfield. If Severn didn't have Deon Peters, one of the area's best running backs, Jones could rush for 1,000 yards in a season. As it is, he's already amassed that total over his career.
"I'd like to think I can be creative," Jones said. "I can throw it, sure. But I can run, too. That's sort of how I make my impact. I can take off and make things happen. That's my secret weapon."
All the returning quarterbacks have one: Old Mill's Brown is a natural leader; Meade's Quinzel Chestnut is a reliable decision maker; Glen Burnie's Brandon Howell is a calming influence; St. Mary's Matt Davis is crafty and athletic; North County's John Snyder is gutsy and determined.
They all have one more thing, too, and it's what their coaches find most valuable: a basic knowledge of their team's offense.
It takes most high school quarterbacks a few months to feel comfortable with an offense, coaches said, and that learning period is usually painful. Jones remembers his first game as a blurry mixture of nerves and confusion. "I really had no idea," he said, "what was going on."
During a quarterback's first year, most coaches never teach more than three or four basic play formations, and most of those involve the run. Last year, Broadneck, Old Mill and Severna Park relied primarily on a strong running game. But now, with experienced quarterbacks, Anne Arundel teams expect a little more diversity.
"We're working on a bunch of three-step drops," Zingler said.
"I plan on adding some things our kids have never seen before," Beckman said.
"We're going to air it out," Meade first-year coach Andrew Smith said. "We're going to shake things up on offense. You don't get too many good, experienced quarterbacks. So when you do, you better use them."