Double Trouble: Dual Threat Quarterbacks Ignite Shore Offenses
Note: This article appears in the Shore Sports Network Journal football preview issue, which comes out Friday and is available for free at all Jersey Mike's and Super Wawa (with the gas stations) locations in Monmouth and Ocean counties as well as Shore Conference high schools.
Look around the Shore Conference, and it seems like every team has one.
“This is like the 'Year of the Dual Threat Quarterback' in the Shore,’’ said Brick senior Carmen Sclafani, one of the Shore’s best.
The proliferation of spread offenses has meant more and more teams trying to find an athletic quarterback who puts extra pressure on defenses because of his ability to take off and run for big gains as well as make plays downfield in the passing game. The first-, second-, and third-team All-Shore selections at quarterback by Shore Sports Network last year all return, and they are perfect examples of dual threats who run offenses that opponents have found a hard time slowing down. Sclafani, Toms River South senior Tymere Berry and Barnegat senior Cinjun Erskine are just three of numerous talented dual threat quarterbacks in the Shore.
Those type of quarterbacks are not a new phenomenon in the area, as Ocean’s Eddie Conti was doing it more than 20 years ago, Middletown South’s Brendan Kennedy ran and passed for more than 1,000 yards in an undefeated season in 2001, and Raritan’s Andrew Mandeville was a two-time All-State selection in 2004 and 2005. However, more and more pop up with every year as more teams move to a spread scheme.
Just in Sclafani’s division in Class A South, there’s Berry, Jackson Memorial’s Joe DeMaio, Lacey’s Conor Davies, Brick Memorial’s Joe Hans and Toms River North’s Mike Husni. Look around the rest of the Shore at the returning starting quarterbacks and there’s Neptune’s Royal Moore, Monmouth’s Jimmy Green, St. John Vianney’s Anthony Brown, Freehold Township’s Jack O’Brien, Long Branch’s Jordan Rodriguez, Matawan’s Jimmy Pierce, Point Boro’s Jack Fitzsimmons, Red Bank’s Jack Navitsky, Mater Dei Prep’s Christian Palmer – the list goes and on on.
Wall even revamped its whole offense from a multiple-I to the spread simply to suit the talents of junior Matt Cluley, who is a first-year starter at quarterback. Strong-armed dropback quarterbacks like Middletown North sophomore Donald Glenn, Manalapan senior Dan Anerella and Raritan senior Riley Sullivan used to be the norm and now are increasingly becoming the exception.
“I feel like everybody is looking for a dual threat quarterback,’’ Erskine said. “Every college team is trying to get one, even if it's for scout team. Having one gives you so many more plays that defenses have to account for.”
“Putting your best athlete at quarterback puts a lot more pressure on the defense,’’ Berry said. “They know that if they drop back too far cover, you can take off and make plays running the ball.”
It’s no surprise that the three teams with Erskine, Sclafani and Berry also went a combined 27-8 last season. In his first season with the Green Dragons after transferring from Toms River North, Sclafani was a crucial part of a team that won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title for its first state title since 1994. Erskine threw for 1,119 yards, ran for 652 yards and combined for 21 touchdowns to lead the Bengals to a school-record 10 wins, a Class B South title, and the program’s first berth in a state championship game in South Jersey Group III. Berry threw for 1,090 yards, ran for 815 yards and combined for 19 touchdowns to help Toms River South to eight wins and a trip to the South Jersey Group IV semifinals.
“It goes hand in hand, winning and having a quarterback who can both run and throw in an offense that’s effective,’’ Sclafani said. “It’s just the way all of football is going.”
Sclafani is now in his third year running the shotgun spread coordinated by his uncle, Chip LaBarca Jr. In 2012, he became the rare sophomore in Shore Conference history to run for more than 1,000 yards and also throw for more than 1,000. Last year, he ran for 1,194 Yards and 16 touchdowns and threw for 705 and 5 despite missing nearly two games with a knee injury.
“Last year was a transition year because the offense was new (at Brick),’’ Sclafani said. “This year we have already had five different guys score touchdowns in scrimmages.”
Berry and Erskine are also three-year starters, and what has made the offenses of all three particularly lethal has been the presence of talented runners in the backfield. Sclafani has senior Ray Fattaruso, who ran for 1,095 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, Berry has explosive senior Khaleel Greene in the triple option, and Erskine had standout A.J. Opre last year before he was injured and then had a group of talented runners like Tyler McGuinness, Paul Wickwire and even wideout Manny Bowen behind him.
Defenses are forced to hesitate or take a false step in the wrong direction because they have to respect the fake on zone read and other option plays. If they sell out and go right for the quarterback, it could mean watching the running back take off for a 70-yard touchdown. In addition to their athleticism, what makes the trio of Erskine, Sclafani and Berry difficult to stop is their decision-making. Their respective offenses put a lot of onus on the quarterback to make split-second decisions from what they see at the line of scrimmage.
“We go up to the line with three plays we can choose from,’’ Sclafani said. “Back in the old days, that didn't happen. You would go up to the line and it's ‘21 Dive’ or whatever. Now there's plays where I can give it, pull it or throw it. Communication is a lot different now. The game is quicker.”
“You’ve really got to trust what you see,’’ Berry said. “Everything happens so fast, but I’m able to slow it down in my mind.”
Each dual threat quarterback also presents different types of challenges. Sclafani has the speed to move the chains by darting 10 or 15 yards at any time and has a strong arm and a deep group of receivers.
At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, Erskine has the size to run over defenders and move the pile in short-yardage situations in addition to having a strong arm.
Berry is an explosive runner capable of scoring from anywhere on the field in the option but throws the ball well enough that the pass has to be respected, which is often not the case with triple option teams.
Even traditional power-running, pro-style teams like Red Bank Catholic have added offensive wrinkles to take advantage of a dual threat quarterback. Caseys junior Eddie Hahn has the speed to get to the outside and make big plays with his legs while also forcing teams to worry about him lofting a 40-yard strike downfield in the passing game. As Hahn takes over as the full-time starter after splitting time last year, that extra dimension could be crucial as RBC tries to close the gap with state power St. Joseph’s-Montvale, which has held the Caseys to 14 total points in knocking them out of the playoffs in the Non-Public Group III semifinals the last two years.
“I feel like the zone read, even at the college level, it's been taking over football because it’s so tough for defenses to stop when it’s done right,’’ Hahn said. “Our mindset is to line up, run the ball, and be more physical than other teams, but I definitely think that adding a wrinkle could help us, especially if we see St. Joe's again.”
Players who would have been used as tailbacks 15 years ago are increasingly being moved to quarterback. While some are groomed for the position, others like Lakewood senior Chapelle Cook, a Temple recruit, are put there because the coach wants the ball in the hand of his best athlete as often as possible. Cook was the starting tailback last year but has moved under center this season for the Piners.
“It’s just hard for the defense to cover because as soon as the linebackers drop, I can take off,’’ Cook said. “I love playing quarterback because I always have the ball in my hands, so I’ll just let my instincts take over and make a play.”
“I don't have the luxury of other places where kids grow up playing quarterback,’’ Lakewood coach L.J. Clark said. “Last year we tried a traditional quarterback kid and it didn't pan out. We said as a staff if we're going to lose, we're going to lose with a Division I kid back there.”
One of the biggest challenges in turning a great athlete into a dual threat quarterback besides working on throwing mechanics is usually getting him to be more patient on dropbacks and not just taking off and running if the first option on a play is not open.
“Coming up as a sophomore, that was a big thing for me,’’ Berry said. “Now being a three-year starter, I’ve really grown to trust the offensive line, and now I just sit in the pocket and trust them and put us in the best position to score.”
With the proliferation of the spread game and dual threat quarterbacks starring everywhere from the FBS level, a la Johnny Manziel, to the NFL, where Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl, dual threat quarterbacks are being recruited at that position. Ten years ago, those players were recruited more as running backs, wide receivers or defensive backs.
That is still the case in some instances, as Cook was recruited as a tailback and linebacker, and former Long Branch dual threat quarterback Miles Shuler is now a slot receiver at Northwestern University.
However, more and more schools are looking at these types of players without the notion of changing their position at the next level. Berry said he has been offered by Monmouth and Wagner as a quarterback, Erskine will play quarterback at Bucknell, Sclafani has been offered by St. Francis (Pa.) as a quarterback, and North Carolina State offered Hahn as a quarterback.
“They've been talking to me as a quarterback because they like my athleticism and feel with the whole way college football is going that if you can run the ball and throw, you're the whole package,’’ Hahn said.
“It's really exciting as a high school player to see that I'm not going to have to change up my game that much because schools are running it,’’ Erskine said.
Another way to gauge how much dual threat quarterbacks are transforming the Shore Conference is how many defenses are changing to try to stop them. Even staunch 4-4 teams over the years like Middletown South are going to the 4-2-5 or the 3-3-5 stack to focus on using defensive players who run well and tackle in space rather than big, physical, downhill players. The Eagles were shredded for 52 points in a Central Jersey Group IV playoff loss to Burlington Township and dual threat quarterback Khalil Trotman last year, so they have modified their scheme to account for quarterbacks who can hurt them running and passing.
“It seems like every team has one of those guys now,’’ said Middletown South coach Steve Antonucci, who has one of his own in junior Matt Mosquera. “It’s no longer just teams running power and iso at you and then throwing on third down. You have to account for a quarterback who can run.”
Versatile defenders like Red Bank Catholic senior linebacker Jamie Gordinier and Barnegat senior linebacker Manny Bowen are highly coveted by colleges trying to slow down spread offenses because of their ability to rush the passer from the edge, cover slot receivers, stuff the run and tackle quick skill players in space. That’s why Gordinier is headed to Miami and Bowen is going to Penn State.
“If you don’t have good linebackers who can make up for when we correctly read the defensive end, you’re screwed,’’ Sclafani said.
Sclafani, Berry, Erskine and the legion of dual threat quarterbacks emerging in the Shore hope to give plenty of defenses that sinking feeling all this fall.