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Armstrong high school quarterbacks emerge as rushing threats

| Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, 12:02 a.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Freeport quarterback Brendan Lynch breaks Shady Side Academy defenders' tackles and runs for yardage during action on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 at James Swartz Memorial Field in Freeport. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Louis B. Ruediger
Kittanning quarterback Kevin Barnes drives for extra yardage on a quarterback keep in the first half against Greensburg Central Catholic at David 'Red' Ullom Field on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Valley News Dispatch
Apollo-Ridge quarterback Jesse Zelonka (center) battles his way to the goal line against Leechburg on Friday, September 21, 2012 at Veterans Memorial Field. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch

To find several of the area's most prolific ball carriers this fall, look no further than the guys who take snaps.

A few quarterbacks are among the rushing leaders in the Alle-Kiski Valley and Armstrong County. To an extent, they are the beneficiaries of favorable schemes and play-calling. But Kittanning's Kevin Barnes, Freeport's Brendan Lynch and Apollo-Ridge's Jesse Zelonka also possess abilities that make them more versatile than most at the position.

“This is kind of unique for me,” said Kittanning coach Frank Fabian, who installed the shotgun spread offense that he previously used at District 9's Redbank Valley. “Most of the kids I had in the past (at quarterback) were big kids and kind of mudders. We mostly used them for short-yardage situations. … But Kevin showed from early on that he has the ability to go the distance.”

Relying so heavily on the quarterback as a rusher bothered Fabian for a bit. But Barnes' durability and productivity — 178 rushes for 741 yards and six touchdowns — through seven weeks eased doubts.

“There's a saying,” Fabian said. “Ships are safe in port, but that's not what ships are made for.”

Fabian's spread system fit with the versatility of Barnes, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound former running back and wide receiver whose carries come from a mix of quarterback-specific runs, give-or-keep read plays and scrambles.

“I like the freedom,” said Barnes, who reached 1,000 yards passing last week. “I'm usually looking to keep it and run (when scrambling). But if I know there's a guy open beforehand, I'll throw it. Usually though, I'm looking to pick up yardage.”

A shift in offensive systems also led to Lynch's emergence as a major running threat.

Coach John Gaillot switched Freeport from an I-formation-based offense to the shotgun zone fly, which relies on motion sweeps and multiple ball carriers, including the quarterback.

“We needed to spread people out but still focus on running the ball,” Gaillot said. “This way, they have to account for three backs instead of one.”

Lynch, a 5-11, 175-pound senior and third-year starter at quarterback, welcomed the change, even if it meant he'd finish with his fewest pass attempts of his three seasons — as a sophomore, he passed 122 times and had 1,326 yards, and as a junior, he threw 67 times and finished with 602 yards. Responsible for 276 rushing yards as a sophomore and 442 as a junior, he'd finally flourish on the ground.

“There's a lot more variety of things they can do with me,” said Lynch, who has rushed 95 times for 850 yards and completed 24 of 49 pass attempts for 501 yards. “I think this offense we're running is perfect for all of us. It fits our skill set.”

What combination of runs and passes will produce the most wins has been debated at Apollo-Ridge, where Zelonka, a 5-11, 151-pound junior and former running back, seemingly alternates between big games by air and by land.

In last week's upset win over Eastern Conference leader Northgate, Zelonka rushed for a season-high 141 yards and passed for just 95, his second lowest total of the season.

In Week 2, Zelonka passed for a season-high 272 yards and gained just 4 yards on the ground.

He is yet to account for fewer than 100 yards of total offense.

“I'd make it like 60-40 run,” Zelonka said of the ratio he prefers for quarterback plays. “I think us running the quarterback is very effective.

“The one thing my brother (Jeff, the quarterbacks coach) told me about (second-year coach John) Skiba is that from day one, he's been comfortable with running the quarterback.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wwest@tribweb.com or 724-543-1303.

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