ELYRIA -- The rapid revolutions of a tight spiral are enough to make a physicist’s head spin with excitement.
The arc created as the ball travels from the quarterback to his target can send a mathematician scrambling for a compass.
Even the average sports fan has to leap from his seat as the ball drifts over the receiver’s shoulder and into his hands for a huge gain.
Yes, a perfectly thrown pass is a thing of beauty. And the skies over Lorain County have become a lot prettier on Friday nights in the fall during recent years.
The passing game has entrenched itself in high school football, and never before this season have area fans had the opportunity to see so many highly ranked quarterbacks in action.
Leading the way is Midview senior Cody Callaway.
He’s the first Lorain County quarterback to earn a Division I college scholarship in nearly two decades, and is the
top-ranked Division II quarterback and listed No. 5 overall in Ohio by JJHuddle.com.
Not far behind are Elyria Catholic senior Jeremy Holley — ranked No. 25 in the state — and Columbia senior Jay Banyasz, who’s ranked as one of the top Division V defensive backs but is just as formidable with a ball in his hands.
The quarterbacks have become stars because of their physical prowess — all three stand 6-foot-3 or taller — and their natural athletic talent, but also because the high school passing game has become more complex and most of the area’s programs have been ahead of the curve in implementing the pass-happy schemes.
“It’s such a quarterback-driven game at the high school level now that you have to have a guy that is comfortable back there,” said Columbia coach Jason Ward, who was a high school quarterback. “That’s where that experience helps. Teams like us, that have a quarterback that’s returning, that’s going to be comfortable in the pocket, that’s going to be comfortable dropping back or being in the shotgun or being in the pistol, or reading the end or reading defenders … it’s just so important to groom a guy nowadays.”
Evolution of the pass
Passing wasn’t even a legal option when football started being played more than a century ago, and after it was added it took many years to catch on and for coaches to learn how to use it effectively.
Progress was slow, but today NFL teams base their offenses on the pass, college coaches create new concepts every year and high schools have embraced the higher-risk, greater-reward strategy.
“That’s the fun part of coaching … learning new things,” Midview coach Bill Albright said. “As a coach, you’re always striving to improve yourself. To allow your kids to be competitive, I think you have to adapt to what the kids can do best. That’s the job of the coach. It’s his responsibility to learn the game, to learn the different aspects.”
It can be an odd sight for longtime high school football fans who are used to teams lining up in the I-formation, handing the ball to a running back for a short (and sometimes long) gain and then repeating the process.
But passing caught on, and high school coaching staffs are implementing systems that doctorate candidates might find confusing.
“When I first started coaching, there was a lot of what people call quick game,” Elyria Catholic coach Mike Polevacik said. “A lot of 1, 2, 3, throw type of stuff — simple hitch, a slant, a fade route. If you had multiple receivers, they’d each do quick-game routes.
“The game has evolved to full-progression routes. If the inside is covered, you progress to the midlevel option, and if that guy’s covered you progress to the deep option. It’s reading multiple parts of the defense and progressing through reads, and if the defense does this, then we do that. It’s kind of a punch, counter-punch type of thing. We try to have answers within our progression-read system in our offense. It used to be just step and throw. Now it’s step and read, then re-gather your footwork and read the next route, then re-gather again and read the third route.”
Passing hasn’t just grown in popularity, it becomes more important as a quarterback moves up levels.
“When you start off in junior football, you maybe throw the football once or twice a game,” Holley said. “The older you get, the more you throw the ball. Even in middle school, we threw it maybe three or four times a game. Then I get to high school and it’s a whole different game. We’re throwing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time. So it’s a big adjustment.”
A team effort
It’s an adjustment the quarterback doesn’t have to make on his own.
While there’s plenty of work a quarterback has to put in to learn the intricacies of a passing attack, the other 10 players on offense share the burden.
Most quarterbacks immediately point to the five men in front of them — the center, two guards and two tackles that make up the offensive line — as an instrumental part of a completed pass.
“The offensive linemen’s names aren’t always in the paper, but we all know on our team who gets the job done,” Callaway said. “I wish they got a little more credit for what they do because I can’t do anything without the time they give me. Patrick Forrer, our center, has been with me since I started football, since third grade. So he’s been snapping me the ball for nine years now. Offense starts off with a snap, so that’s been good.”
The receivers share 50 percent of the load in a completion. They have to run the routes correctly, get open and catch the ball for it to be a success.
“It’s all about being quick off the ball, being willing to go up and get a bad ball or a high-thrown ball,” Banyasz said. “It’s all about just trusting one another. You have to have confidence.”
The running back, once the focal point of nearly every offense, can’t be forgotten in the passing game. He’s an extra body in protection, catches out of the backfield and draws the linebackers and safeties toward the line of scrimmage with successful rushes.
“They are the safety valve for the offensive line. They sometimes pick up the blitzing linebacker, who’s the most dangerous to the quarterback,” Banyasz said. “They’re the ones that leak out when nobody’s open. They make plays when there’s nobody else left to make plays. They are definitely beneficial to have.”
Once everyone is on the same page, it’s again on the quarterback to make sure the play runs smoothly.
That is when mental skills dwarf physical attributes. The most successful high school quarterbacks get the job done with their brains first and arms second.
“(Banyasz) loves it … he loves the chess match,” Ward said. “I’m hoping at some point he becomes a coach himself because he’s so smart, he loves the game and he does see things in his mind before they happen.
“He’s one step ahead in terms of the play-calling. He told me today that 80 percent of the plays that I called in our team session at practice today he knew I was going to call before I called it.”
The mental workout begins weeks — sometimes months — before the first football is snapped.
Quarterbacks know what the other 10 players are supposed to do on every play. They learn the receivers’ routes and what order to look for them on each play. They study the opposing defense to discover tendencies.
Basically, the quarterback needs to have a deep understanding of what the other 21 players on the field are capable of at all times.
“A lot of teams will give you different looks,” Holley said. “(They) will only keep three in the box, sometimes maybe four in the box, maybe a five-man rush … They’ll try and play games with you.”
“They try to disguise their coverage,” Callaway said. “They might line up in a Cover-3 with one safety, then right before I snap the ball they move into a Cover-2. I have to have my eyes upfield and try to pick out what they’re doing.”
Reading the defense is just one of the quarterback’s responsibilities before the play begins. The to-do list has a multitude of tasks from the huddle to the snap.
“The first thing you have to do is you have to make sure everyone’s in the right position. You can’t run the play if everyone’s not where they’re supposed to be,” Banyasz said. “Then you look at the defense and you have to make sure the play called is going to be successful against that type of defense. If not, I’m lucky enough to have the option to check out of that and put our team in the best position to gain yards.
“There’s definitely a lot of small, quick decisions you have to make if you want to have a successful play.”
The decision-making doesn’t stop there. Once the ball is in the quarterback’s hands, the mental aspect is kicked up a notch as his eyes begin to scan the action that is happening at breakneck speed all around him.
The process seems exhausting, but those who excel at it say it becomes second nature. Holley can list the steps he takes when he approaches the line like he’s reading them off a page.
“There’s a ton of things going through your mind,” he said. “You want to get an overall look at the defense, see what they are running. Then you want to read your keys, see what route combination looks best. Then you want to set up your protection, change up your cadence, let your line know what blitzes might be coming and then snap the ball, make your reads, get the ball out on time and, hopefully, it’s a good play.”
Honing the skill
A great mind, large frame and cannon for an arm aren’t the only things elite high school quarterbacks have in common. They have a tremendous work ethic.
Hours are spent in front of a computer watching film, in the weight room building strength and on the field developing speed.
Then there are the camps, clinics and personal trainers.
“I went to Terry Copacia’s (All-State) Quarterback School out of (North Canton) Hoover High School the past couple years, as well as working with Pat Adams at Xpress Sports Training (in Valley City) to get my speed up and my agility up,” Banyasz said. “Then there’s camps like Kent State, Bowling Green, OU … there’s a bunch of different camps you have to go to in order to prepare yourself. You have to stay hungry and have to be willing to work hard.”
Callaway, who will be playing at Bowling Green next year, went on a Raw Talent bus tour that stopped at 12 elite college camps that included Ohio State, Michigan and Cincinnati.
Holley attended a half dozen college camps, and had no problem picking out the one that impressed him the most.
“I’d have to say Louisville … there were 200 to 300 quarterbacks there,” he said. “It was definitely a humbling experience. There were all these great college coaches, and Teddy Bridgewater was there and a couple former Louisville quarterbacks. You try and pick their brains a little bit and take something away from that.”
Plenty has been taken away from the visits, the hours of hard work and the years of experience.
Now these senior quarterbacks hope to prove their programs are among the best. And they plan to keep the fans out of their seats with picturesque passes.