Seniors step into QB roles after biding time elsewhere
Knoch quarterback Dakota Bruggeman has sympathy for his receivers when the weather's hot and practice seems never to end.
He's been there, sweating through sprints in the heat.
“When they're running routes, it's 90 degrees and the coaches are getting on them for not catching balls, I can honestly look around and say: ‘I know how you're feeling,' ” Bruggeman said. “I tell them I'm going to get you the ball on the spot so you can stop and get a drink because I've been in your shoes the past three years.”
As a quarterback in waiting, Bruggeman played three seasons at receiver for the Knights' varsity while patiently prepping for his big chance. As a freshman, he played varsity Friday nights and quarterbacked the junior varsity on Saturdays.
“When coach (Mike) King said I was needed at receiver, I was skeptical,” he said, “but after a while, I saw that I could help the team rather than sitting on the sidelines.”
At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, he's one of the WPIAL's better athletes. A few Division I programs have shown interest, some intrigued by his pass-catching skill.
But now a senior, Bruggeman no longer catches passes. He's now the one throwing them. And he believes those years of running pass routes made him wiser.
“I know how the routes are run, where they're going to be, and how deep they're going to be,” said Bruggeman, who threw two touchdown passes last Friday night.
As Bruggeman can attest, not all successful high school quarterbacks became starters as sophomores. It's a fact proven by Mt. Lebanon's Tyler Roth, Penn-Trafford's Dorian Stevens, Thomas Jefferson's Joe Carroll and Woodland Hills' Cody McClelland, who all are seniors and successful first-year starters.
The WPIAL has a number of senior starters this season who waited their turn. Some like Bruggeman played other positions while waiting for the depth chart to clear.
Roth played cornerback for two years and was an all-conference punter for the Blue Devils. Stevens played wideout and was third among Penn-Trafford receivers in catches a year ago. As quarterbacks, both have 4-1 records this year and their teams are ranked in Class AAAA.
“Every kid wants to be the starting quarterback,” said Roth, who threw for five touchdowns and 370 yards in last week's 39-36 overtime victory against Woodland Hills. “And it's very fun to be the quarterback of our new offense.”
The offense of first-year coach Mike Melnyk has more balance than the run-first approach of former coach Chris Haering. This new approach also was more complex, yet Roth learned it rather quickly, his coach said. Through five games, Roth's 1,135 passing yards rank fourth among WPIAL passers, and his 15 touchdown passes are third most. A year ago, Roth threw just three passes.
“He exceeded my expectations right from day one,” Melnyk said, “because he was the quickest learner of my offense. I like to think we run a pretty complex high school offense and ask our quarterback to do a lot of different things as far as making reads and checking protections.”
Carroll and McClelland, both first-year starters, also rank among the WPIAL's leading passers. Carroll leads the WPIAL with 21 touchdown passes. McClelland has thrown 12 for a Woodland Hills program that traditionally runs.
Bruggeman doesn't have the passing stats to match them, having thrown for 530 yards and seven touchdowns.
But he has led Knoch to a 4-1 record entering tonight's televised game with Franklin Regional. King guessed that Bruggeman might be the only senior quarterback to become a first-year starter in his 15 years coaching at Knoch, and praised Bruggeman for his patience.
“I'm fortunate I have kids like Dakota, who are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team,” King said, “but deep down, a quarterback wants to be a quarterback. I'm just glad he got his chance.”
Stevens, Penn-Trafford's first-year starter, hadn't played quarterback since midget football.
He played receiver as a sophomore and junior but won the starting quarterback job once three-year starter Zach Emerick graduated.
The biggest adjustment, Stevens said, was learning to cope with a real pass rush, something unseen in practice.
“You don't have guys coming after your head (in practice),” he said. “I was a little jittery my first game, but I've become more confident in the pocket, stepping up to make throws.”
Stevens threw two touchdowns in last week's 34-7 victory over Latrobe, a highlight in his dream-come-true season, he said.
There are others who made a similar transition, including Aliquippa's Malik Shegog, who started at defensive back for the top-ranked Quips in 2011. Jeannette's Seth Miller played receiver while waiting for Demetrius Cox to graduate. Bishop Canevin's Nico DiPaolo and Kittanning's Kevin Barnes, both top-15 passers, are new to the position. They're all having senior seasons some dream about, but Roth disagrees. There's more to his dream.
“The senior season that I would dream about is winning a WPIAL championship,” Roth said. “We haven't quite accomplished that yet, but I'm working toward it.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.