Western Pennsylvania has been called the cradle of quarterbacks. Then that would make this the baby boomers age for "dual-threat quarterbacks."
The nursery of Western Pennsylvania high school football is filling up with those who were born with special talents -- to pass and run.
No matter if it's the WPIAL or City League. No matter if it's big schools or small schools. There is a proliferation of those "dual-threat QBs," the vogue term used to describe teenagers who have special powers with their arm and legs -- and who have helped change the world of high school football. Heck, even national scouting services now rank quarterbacks in categories of "dual-threat" and "pro-style."
Varsity Xtra: A look at the WPIAL football semifinals
The PG's Mike White and Terry Shields break down the WPIAL highs chool football semifinal games. (Video by Andrew Rush; 11/11/2013)
Look at the WPIAL semifinals tonight and you'll see a number of teams with highly successful dual-threat quarterbacks. Many other teams that didn't make it this far also had a talented runner and thrower wrapped into one package.
The popularity of spread offenses has been the major reason for the rise in the number of dual-threat quarterbacks in the WPIAL in the past few years, and it might have peaked this season. Never before have there been so many quarterbacks who have been double trouble to opponents.
Go back decades ago and most teams had a quarterback who maybe threw well -- or ran well. But not both.
"I definitely think the game has changed with these quarterbacks, or maybe evolved is a better word," said George Novak, the longtime coach at Woodland Hills. "I think it used to be that the quarterback had to be able to throw the ball and run a quarterback sneak every once in a while if you needed a yard. Now, you spread teams out and the quarterback has to be your second or third runner."
Or maybe even the best runner. Never before have so many quarterbacks put up big statistics, and led their team to big success. Here are a few examples:
* If Texas A & M's Johnny Manziel is "Johnny Football," then Sto-Rox has the "Lenny Football" of the WPIAL. Senior quarterback Lenny Williams is the all-time WPIAL leader in passing yardage and surpassed 8,000 for his career last week. But he also has 2,226 yards rushing the past three seasons and is the first player in WPIAL history with more than 10,000 yards offense.
* This year, Ringgold junior Nico Law is believed to be the first player in WPIAL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and throwing in the regular season. Past quarterbacks have reached 1,000 in both categories, but never in the regular season.
* JaQuan Davidson helped turn around Elizabeth Forward's program the past two years and this season threw for 1,038 yards and ran for 1,109 in 10 games.
* Seneca Valley junior T.J. Holl had a terrific season running his father's offense (Don Holl is the Raiders' coach). Holl completed 117 of 188 for 1,804 yards and also rushed 168 times for 723 yards.
"I think Don Holl is probably the best coach at running the spread offense," Novak said. "He does everything out of it -- option, the run-and-shoot, the no huddle. He's pretty smart."
* Neshannock is one win away from playing for a WPIAL championship for the first time in school history. Junior quarterback Ernie Burkes has fueled the run, throwing for 1,054 yards and rushing for 1,041.
* Quaker Valley made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and played host to a playoff game for the first time in school history. Junior quarterback Dane Jackson finished with 975 yards passing and 1,111 yards running.
* Woodland Hills has played the past few games without 1,000-yard rusher Miles Sanders, so the Wolverines have relied more on the running and passing of quarterback Harry Randall. Last week, Randall rushed for 172 yards to help the Wolverines defeat Seneca Valley, 28-14.
* Kittanning went undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1976 and one of the major reasons for the Wildcats' uprising was 5-foot-5 quarterback Braydon Toy, who was a slotback last season. Toy completed 102 of 138 for 1,629 yards and also rushed for 816.
Coaches from veteran to new believe there are three main reasons for all the successful run/pass quarterbacks. First, is a trickle-down effect of the style of football from college and pro to high school. Second, is the popularity of spread offenses. Lastly, is the strategy of high school coaches often now putting the best athlete on the team at quarterback instead of maybe running back.
"I think it depends on the athletes you have on your team because you can't do this every year [having a good quarterback who can run and throw]," Novak said "We, traditionally, used to put our best athlete at tailback."
Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane has guided the Warriors to the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals for the first time since 1997. His quarterback, Brett Laffoon, is more of a classic drop-back quarterback, but Laffoon has still run 35 times for 209 yards. A year ago, Ruane moved Dorian Stevens from receiver to quarterback.
"I think the game has evolved more to the point where teams are putting their best athletes at quarterback," Ruane said. "If you have a kid who can run like a running back, but throw a little bit also, it opens up a lot of stuff."
Teams also are putting players at quarterback, no matter their size. For example, Neshannock's Burkes is only 5 feet 10. Neshannock coach Fred Mozzocio, who played decades ago at New Castle under legendary Lindy Lauro, installed the spread offense when he became the Lancers' coach last year.
"Back when I played for Lindy in the 1980s, we were just smash-mouth and didn't try to trick anyone," Mozzocio said. "Then when I was an assistant at New Castle, I was an offensive line coach and loved running the ball. I wasn't a big fan of the spread. But we went to the University of Kansas and learned the spread from [coach] Mark Mangino. When we came back from Kansas and started using the offense in our scrimmages, I saw what it can do for you. It's pretty nice because it can do so many things for you based on what defenses are giving you."
Upper St. Clair's Jim Render, the winningest coach in WPIAL history, used to be a big fan of Ohio State's "three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust" offensive philosophy that coach Woody Hayes made popular. But even Render now uses some spread offense ideas and has had some excellent dual-threat quarterbacks the past few years in Dakota Conwell and Pete Coughlin.
This year, Upper St. Clair relies heavily on its running backs, but quarterback Joe Repischak also has run 53 times for 307 yards.
"I wish I would've had some of these offensive ideas back when I had some other quarterbacks like Mac McArdle [in the mid 1990s]," Render said with a laugh. "I really think there are a couple reasons for these quarterbacks. First, I really think when Tim Teblow played at Florida he kind of revolutionized that position a little bit and I think people thought, 'Well that's pretty good.'
"Secondly, I think in our local area, you have to look at what [Jeannette's] Terrelle Pryor did with his running and passing. I think both of those guys affected things.
"When you talk about Pryor, he was always the best athlete on the field when he was in junior high, the best athlete when he was in high school and the best athlete at Ohio State. Then he gets to the pros and people say he can't play. I used to scratch my head at that and think I must be the dumbest person in the world. Terrelle Pryor can't play in the pros but all these stumblebums can. He's finally proving that maybe I was right in my thinking."
Despite the success of some dual-threat quarterbacks in the WPIAL, it doesn't mean that is the only way to win. Plenty of teams still don't run the spread. They might simply have an excellent drop-back quarterback. Or teams have some excellent running backs and just need a quarterback to "manage" the game.
Look at South Fayette. The Lions are undefeated and average 48 points a game. Yes, they do use the spread offense and Brett Brumbaugh has thrown for 2,529 yards. But he has rushed for only 3 yards.
"Fortunately, he can just throw the heck out of the ball so he doesn't run," South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. "No matter what you run, you have to have a special kid to put stress on defenses."
"Dual-threat" quarterbacks are everywhere nowadays in the WPIAL and City League. But the leagues did have some successful dual-threat quarterbacks in years past. Here are some notable ones you might remember from the past three decades (year listed is graduation year):
Major Harris, Brashear, 1986 -- He gave defenses fits with his scrambling ability more than on set running plays. And he also was an excellent passer, leading the WPIAL and City League in passing yardage in 1985. He went on to play at West Virginia and twice finished in the top five in Heisman Trophy voting. He was the first NCAA Division I-A quarterback to pass for 5,000 yards and run for 2,000 yards.
Eric Kasperowicz, North Hills, 1994 -- Kasperowicz was a Parade All-American quarterback who led North Hills to a PIAA title in 1993. He finished his career with 5,500 yards passing and close to 1,300 yards rushing. He went on to play linebacker at Pitt and is now the coach at Pine-Richland.
Rod Rutherford, Perry, 1999 -- In 1998, Rutherford used his passing and running to help Perry reach the PIAA Class AAA title game, where it lost to Berwick. Rutherford was a supreme athlete and went on to play quarterback at Pitt, where he set the school single-season record for passing.
Steve Breaston, Woodland Hills, 2002 -- Breaston and West Allegheny's Tyler Palko were the Post-Gazette co-Players of the Year in 2001. Breaston was one of the most exciting WPIAL players in decades. As a senior, he rushed for 1,718 yards and threw for 600. He averaged 41.9 yards on touchdowns either throwing, running or on punt returns. He became a receiver at the Univeristy of Michigan and also played in the NFL.
Tyler Palko, West Alleghen, 2002 -- He led West Allegheny to three consecutive WPIAL titles and three consecutive appearances in the PIAA Class AAA title game. He finished his career with 5,553 yards passing and 1,681 yards rushing before going on to a fine career at Pitt. He also spent some time in the NFL.
Terrelle Pryor, Jeannette, 2008 -- Nobody in Pennsylvania high school football history ran and threw like Pryor. He is the only player in the state to have 4,000 yards throwing and 4,000 rushing for his career. He helped Jeannette win a PIAA title in 2007, went on to play at Ohio State and is now the starting quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
Mack Leftwich, North Allegheny, 2013 -- Leftwich played only two years in the WPIAL and won two WPIAL titles and one PIAA championship. In those two seasons, he had 5,554 yards passing and more than 1,400 rushing.
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh