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Year of the QB

Teams are throwing caution to the wind, ditching their ground games for aerial attacks.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002

Land O'Lakes' Drew Weatherford. Pasco's Ben Alford. Zephyrhills' James Adamo. Gulf's Jeff Blanchette. Pasco County has never seen a quarterback class like this one.

Passing yards are up in the county this season and so are touchdown passes as programs have transformed themselves to take advantage of this wealth of QB talent.

In his 25 years at Land O'Lakes, coach John Benedetto said he has never seen a class as talented, as accurate, as productive as this one.

"They're all outstanding," he said.

The surest sign in Pasco County that it is the year of the quarterback is in Dade City, where coach Ricky Thomas, who starred as a running back for the Pirates, has entrusted his team's future to third-year starter Alford.

"I never thought I would live to see the day when Pasco High School wouldn't have a dominating running back to control the clock," Thomas said. "We don't seem to have that this year, so I had to change my game plan. I had to, because I knew Ben was going to be the guy and I was going to have to put everything on his shoulders."

Like Pasco, Land O'Lakes has also enjoyed great running games and great running backs. But last year the Gators installed the spread offense, built around the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Weatherford, the mobile junior with the quick, pinpoint arm who started as a freshman. He rewrote the school passing records last year as a sophomore and should own every county passing record next year as a senior.

Alford and Weatherford have more than lived up to the hype. Weatherford, who passed for a school-record 1,475 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games last season has already thrown for more than 1,200 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions in six games this season.

After three years of carrying Pasco's struggling offense and fortunes, the 6-1, 180-pound Alford has been the surprise of 2002. The senior scrambler has transformed the Pirates into a passing team, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns.

They aren't the only ones. The most hyped preseason recruit in the county was Zephyrhills' 6-3, 220-pound pocket-passer James Adamo. After a slow start, the senior has thrown for thrown for more than 670 yards and equaled 2001's total of 10 touchdown passes.

Gulf 6-foot, 190-pound junior quarterback Jeff Blanchette has already doubled his 2001 output, throwing for more than 850 yards in six games in the Bucs' new Spread-I attack. He also has 270 rushing yards off the option.

Benedetto said with this much talent, why wouldn't coaches utilize it?

"If you have that type of quality quarterback, I think people are realizing you can do a lot of different things," he said. "And as a result, the quarterbacks are becoming more of a leader on the offense, and they should be.

"It's not so much the running back gaining 150 yards and three touchdowns anymore. Now you want the quarterback going 10-of-18 for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

"That's what it's coming down to now."

What makes these quarterbacks so great? For the big three -- Adamo, Alford and Weatherford -- the key has been reading defenses. All have the authority to call audibles and run different plays at the line of scrimmage, and they often do. Which is part of the reason why their teams are among the most successful: Land O'Lakes is 6-0, Zephyrhills 5-1 and Pasco 4-2.

"Last year, it was hard for me," Adamo said. "This year, it's coming to me a lot easier."

A summer passing league boosted Alford's accuracy and helped him bond with wideouts Johnny Peyton and Marcus Allen.

"I worked real hard in the summer," Alford said. "I'm not surprised by this. We came together, we jelled. It's not just me, it's the team. The team has gotten better and they've made me better.

Ah, humility. The trademark of the greats.

"It's not necessarily me," Weatherford said. "It's the people around me. I'm just really calm and I trust my line. It's easy when you have a lot of time and good receivers like Logan Payne and Keith Elser, Gio Benedetto and Michael Garcia.

"It just makes things easier than they appear when you have kids catching the ball."

Indeed, it is no coincidence that the best quarterback class in county history is matched by one of the most productive receiving corps as well. Land O'Lakes' Payne, perhaps the finest of the group, has nearly 600 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches.

Pasco's Peyton has nearly 400 yards and five touchdowns and Allen has more than 300 yards and four touchdown receptions. Zephyrhills' Tony Smiley has nearly 300 yards and six touchdown receptions, while Gulf's Sean Collins has more than 300 yards.

It's also true that a good passing game is difficult to defend at this level. High school defenders almost never face such complicated passing schemes, and true cover-corners are few and far between at the prep level.

"In high school, the receiver has such an advantage," he said. "For one thing, the corner, sometimes they're the best player on the team, but a lot of times they're not. This year, our receiver (Payne) is one of our best players. He knows where he's going, but the corner doesn't.

"It's just different to prepare for that. It's a complicated thing that most coaches in our county have not spent a lot of time on because they haven't had to."

But the quarterback still has to make it happen.

What has transformed Alford and Weatherford into the best of the best this season is an uncanny ability to avoid pressure and keep the play alive.

Last year, when these two left the pocket, they would have relished plowing over a tackler on their way to the first-down marker. Instead, this season, both are keeping their eyes downfield, moving around in the pocket to buy receivers extra time to get open.

Alford is the best example. His scrambling ability against pass rushers was the key in Pasco's 20-19 win over River Ridge.

"I'm faster this year, I'm better at scrambling," he said. "I'm better throwing on the run. Last year, I would have tucked it in and run. This year, I'm looking upfield for the pass."

Benedetto said his favorite Weatherford pass of the season was in a 42-12 win over Ridgewood, when the junior threw a touchdown pass to Payne while moving backward with two defenders in his face.

"I think the thing I do the best, when I'm rolling out or under pressure is I keep my eyes downfield," Weatherford said. "I'm not real slippery back there. But I'm always looking downfield because somebody always slips open."

"Whenever I roll out, I keep my eyes downfield. I'm not worried about getting hit or anything like that."

But gaudy statistics don't matter to this group. Wins do, especially in the postseason. Weatherford is 0-2 in the playoffs, Adamo 0-1 and Alford is still waiting to make his first trip.

"I haven't proven myself yet," Alford said. "I haven't taken my team to the playoffs yet."

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