Tyrone Pope squinted his eyes toward the sideline during a recent morning practice, zeroing in on the flapping hands and flexing arms of the Suitland assistant football coach calling a play.
Last season, Pope watched as the backup while Wesley Wolfolk turned those same complex signals into easy yardage during the Rams’ run to the Maryland 4A state title game. Now, with Wolfolk graduated and the other two competitors for this year’s starting quarterback position unable to dress for the second day of practice, all eyes were on Pope to perform.
As the senior set up under center, his numerous responsibilities suddenly came to mind, unevenly teetering his focus toward the impending pass rush and away from the mechanics he had spent the previous 45 minutes fine-tuning.
“When we were over there, you had it,” an offensive assistant said. “But now you’re getting lazy with your feet, and the ball is coming out flat. What’s going on?”
Pope nodded, and on the next play he rediscovered his poise, completing a pass across the middle that drew praise from his coaches and teammates.
Suitland is one of several area football teams this season that must fill the void left by high-profile quarterbacks who graduated. Ten of the teams ranked in The Post preseason Top 20 will feature new players under center, including Briar Woods, which won three straight Virginia state titles behind All-Met Trace McSorley, Lake Braddock, which thrived under current North Carolina freshman Caleb Henderson, Washington Catholic Athletic Conference defending champion DeMatha and top-ranked Centreville.
“It can seem easy in drills, but it’s different on the field with all your reads and the different speeds of your receivers,” Pope said. “I text with Wesley some, and he just said don’t worry about the big play; it’s all about completions. I try to keep that in mind.”
Like any quarterback, having a short memory will be critical to the success of the new batch of starters. But one notion their coaches hope they won’t forget is that replacing a quarterback doesn’t necessarily mean replicating him.
“Ty isn’t Wesley, and neither are the other two guys fighting for the spot, Marlon [Brown] and Marvin [Jones], and that’s not a bad thing,” Suitland Coach Ed Shields said. “Our offense will look the same, but it’s not going to operate the same because they are different players. I think they’ll push each other to get better and to where we need to be as a team.”
While Pope is most familiar with the offense as last year’s backup, the sophomore Brown possesses dual-threat ability similar to Wolfolk, who totaled 3,185 yards and 38 touchdowns passing and rushing in 2013. Meanwhile, the speedy Jones has a unique perspective in reading defenses after playing wide receiver and safety last season.
“There’s a lot of people depending on you at quarterback, but you can’t worry about that or the guy you’re competing with,” Jones said. “You’ve just got to work hard and be confident.”
While the trio of quarterbacks at Suitland are competing to lead a team with just two returning starters, Jake Maffe draws confidence as Briar Woods’s new leader from the weapons around him. Though the senior doesn’t possess the rushing ability of McSorley, he does have security blankets in the form of targets such as wide receivers Brandon Polk (a Penn State recruit) and Tristan Carter and highly touted tight end Mark Birmingham.
“I actually thought it’d be more pressure once we started, but I realize moreso what a great opportunity I’m coming into,” said Maffe, who threw for 127 yards in backup duty last year. “I’ve been working out three times a week, working with quarterbacks coaches on my footwork and throwing with my teammates — whatever I could do to prepare myself.”
Maffe’s even-keeled approach was on display during the Falcons’ first scrimmage. With two running backs lined up beside him out of the shotgun, the senior had the option of handing the ball off or throwing to a receiver, based on what the defense showed. Though there was room to run, Maffe read the outside linebacker and threw a 15-yard bullet to Polk.
“With him, you wouldn’t know if it’s third and 20 or first and five out there; his demeanor never changes,” Falcons Coach Charlie Pierce said. “I’m sure there will be times where I want him to be a little more fired up, but that middle-of-the-road attitude will go a long way in not worrying about trying to live up to any expectations. And remember, there was a time when nobody knew about Trace McSorley.”
Had the Falcons’ starting running back not broken his leg in the the first game of McSorley’s 2010 freshman season, Pierce might not have known what he had in the freshman starter. But the injury forced Pierce to alter his system and hand the reins over to McSorley, who led the Falcons to the first of three consecutive state championships.
Henderson also had to prove his mettle after transferring as a junior from West Potomac to Lake Braddock, the same school where Michael Nebrich had set the bar high as the 2010 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year. Following a 2013 season in which Henderson earned the same honor, Kyle Edwards will be tasked with a similar challenge as the Bruins’ new leader.
As Henderson’s backup last year and while tagging along at practices during the past 12 years with his father, Billy, who has served as defensive coordinator at Annandale, Oakton and now Lake Braddock, Edwards has seized many opportunities to learn what it takes to excel at quarterback.
Before his sophomore season, Edwards joined Henderson on an unofficial visit to North Carolina, where he talked football with Tar Heels Coach Larry Fedora. The 6-footer also competed against some of the region’s best throwers in the local Nike Football Training Camps and polished his perspective at quarterback by starting at safety for the Bruins last season.
Yet for as smooth as the transition may initially appear for most of these quarterbacks, time will serve as the ultimate barometer, when the optimism of the preseason gives way to the reality of the regular season grind and playoff push.
“Yes, there are some big shoes to fill, but there’s definitely a feeder system at Braddock where guys have been learning from other guys for two years and when it’s their time to shine, they’ve been put in positions to make plays and do well,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, I have to be me. I realize I can only control what I can control, and I just have to trust my team and stay ready for any challenge.”