USAC has veterans under center

Ferrum quarterback Tim Reynolds isn't usually in the conversation because he's not a prolific passer, but a third-year starter running the option is just as dangerous.
Ferrum athletics photo by Kim Black

Defensive coordinators in the USA South must toss and turn at night, familiar names dancing in their heads ... Morrast ... Reber ... Pittenger ... Reynolds ... Throndset ... Craig.  From top to bottom, you’d be hard-pressed to find a conference in the nation that boasts as many veteran signal-callers. For years, these quarterbacks have tormented opposing defenses, compiling some of the most eye-dropping numbers in Division III football.

Seniors Max Reber (Methodist) and Ryan Throndset (Greensboro) are in their fourth season as starters. Seniors Marcus Morrast (Christopher Newport) and Tim Reynolds (Ferrum) and junior Evan Pittenger (Maryville) are in their third season starting under center. Senior Graham Craig transferred to LaGrange last season and promptly led the nation in passing yards per game. Their years of experience make them difficult to game plan against.

“Each one of them is a little bit different. They all have their strengths and weaknesses,” said CNU head coach Matt Kelchner. “When a quarterback really understands his system, it’s really hard to throw them off. You have to pick your poison.”

Rather than being sidelined as a backup, Morrast contributed to the Captains offense as a running back during his freshman season and earned second team all-conference honors. He took the quarterback reins from Marcus Mayo the following year and continued to make an impact. This season has been his best performance yet. He has rushed for seven touchdowns and thrown for 10 more, producing 311 yards of offense per game. Most importantly, he has led the Captains to three straight wins to start conference play, by a total of just eight points. Morrast keyed the Captains’ thrilling 51-48 win over Methodist by passing for four touchdowns and rushing for two more, including the game winner in double overtime.

“We could always trust him,” said Kelchner. “Mentally, he knows what plays to put you in and get you out of.”  

There is a certain piece of mind that comes with experience leading an offense. The biggest difference for each of these players is felt most in the intangibles.

“I’ve learned a lot in every way, both on and off the field,” said Reynolds, the 2012 USA South Offensive Player of the Year. “I learned how to be a leader and how to deal with adversity. I am a lot calmer.”

After leading the Panthers to seven wins and a share of the conference title in his sophomore season, Reynolds has dealt with his share of adversity. The Panthers have only won two of their past 15 games, losing two heartbreakers to open conference play this year. Reynolds thrives in Ferrum’s spread triple option and has become more comfortable as a passer. He still does most of his damage on the ground, rushing for 416 yards and six touchdowns through the Panthers first four games.

Pittenger is also a run-heavy quarterback, averaging 73 yards rushing and scoring seven times on the ground in addition to his five passing scores this season. After spending a year away from football to play baseball at Chattanooga State, Pittenger has started every game since transferring to Maryville. The Scots have won 13 of their past 17 conference games and earned the league’s automatic playoff berth in 2013. No matter what type of offense these quarterbacks run, the numbers are dependent on preparation and execution.

“There are lot of great offenses in this conference. The offensive coordinators do a great job,” said Pittenger. “Ultimately, we have to have a good offensive line and the offense has to execute.”

The most prolific aerial attacks are led by Craig (353.6 yards/game, 16 TDs) and Reber (324.8, 12). Huntingdon sophomore Luke Bailey has quickly made his presence felt as the quarterback of the future in the USA South. The best single-game passing performance was put up by Throndset last season, as he passed for 575 yards and six scores in a one-point loss to Reber and the Monarchs.

“USA South offenses have evolved over the last few years. We’re putting people in the stands,” said second-year Methodist coach CJ Goss. “It’s not just great quarterbacks; the offensive coaching has evolved.”

The senior quarterbacks have also seen defenses evolve. As freshmen, opponents would often pin their ears back and blitz, trying to pressure the youngsters into mistakes. Now, the crafty veterans must deal with defenses disguising coverages and trying to wreak pre-snap havoc.

“I’ve noticed that defenses move around a lot more, putting a lot more on my plate to think about,” said Throndset, who passed for 575 yards and six scores in one game last season. “I take that as a sign of respect. I enjoy the extra challenge.”

As their final season winds down, the seniors also shared a deeper appreciation for the everyday minutia of college football. As much as they enjoy slinging the ball around on Saturdays, they have learned to cherish their time in the film room and helping teach their teammates in practices and meetings.

“When I got here, I thought I was ready, but I still had so much to learn,” said Reber, the 2013 USA South offensive player of the year. “I’m still growing as a person and trying to push myself to my limit and get better every single day.”

Max Reber, the reigning USAC offensive player of the year, is trying to wing Methodist's way into the playoffs.
Methodist athletics photo by Hayden Barzditis

The quarterbacks understand what their defensive teammates are up against each week. They already plan each week to score as many points as they can.

“You could be play any team in the conference and you never know what’s going to happen,” said Pittenger. “The offenses are all so explosive. It keeps you from getting complacent.”

In conference play, the quarterbacks know that they will need to lead their offense to the promised land on nearly every possession if they want to escape with a win. They recognize the tempo and efficiency with which their counterparts operate.

“It’s good competition. They keep me pushing myself,” said Throndset. “I think having those guys in the conference is good for me. Being a quarterback, you always want to put up points for your team and we expect that out of our offense.”

“As an individual, you want to compete against all the others in your position,” added Reynolds. “Of course, you want to be the top guy and the main guy.”

Next year, Pittenger might be the only senior starting quarterback in the conference. After the departure of Morrast, Reynolds, Craig, Reber, and Throndset, the league will have a different look and feel in 2015. The underclassmen starting now should take advantage of the opportunity to compete against these veterans.

“I’m always learning from those guys,” said Pittenger. “It makes me want to be better and push myself.”

Whichever team ends up atop the USA South will have survived a gauntlet of savvy quarterbacks. The conference has never been this loaded at the position. Defenses know that no matter how prepared they are, these veteran playmakers know how to beat them.

“It comes down to game reps. The more you do it, the better you get,” said Kelchner. “The game has slowed down and comes more easily to them. When people take chances, they’re getting burned. One small mistake can become a huge one.”

A majority of USA South coaches will have to reload next year at a position that has been so reliable for so long. For now, they plan on cherishing the time they have left with their offense’s leader. The position may be strong again next year, led by Bailey and Pittenger. It likely will not be as deep as it is in 2014. One thing is for certain: over the next six weeks, the USA South’s quarterbacks will put up big numbers in thrilling duels, leaving everything they have on the field.

“It’s fun to watch,” said Goss. “It makes for an exciting run to a conference title.”

Not just quarterbacks

There is one USA South playmaker who is carrying his offense from a different position. N.C. Wesleyan running back Jacques Alston is second in the nation with 215.4 all-purpose yards per game. He has rushed for 740 yards at a 7.7 yard per carry clip and has scored 11 total touchdowns. Most importantly, he has led the Battling Bishops to back-to-back 34-30 wins over conference rivals Ferrum and Averett, averaging 280.5 offensive yards and scoring seven touchdowns in the two victories.

Not just the USA South

Dickinson running back Cedric Madden had a breakout performance in the Red Devils 27-14 win over Franklin and Marshall. His 94-yard touchdown run in the third quarter set the tone as Dickinson rallied from a 14-3 halftime deficit by scoring the only 24 points of the second half. Madden scored three times in the half and finished the game with 252 total yards. Susquehanna’s Tim Wade carried 31 times for 202 yards as the winless Crusaders nearly came back to shock Muhlenberg, falling 24-20. Marvyille’s Trent Shuler has complemented Pittenger by rushing for 414 yards and five touchdowns. Shenandoah’s Cedrick Delaney leads the ODAC in rushing with 433 yards, averaging an impressive 6.9 yards per carry.

It was only a matter of time

As strong as Ursinus’s defense has played this season, it was inevitable that the Bears would pitch a shutout. Moravian came to Collegeville with a surprising 3-1 record and an average of 24 points per game. They left with a 3-2 record and the same amount of total points scored on the season. The Bears intercepted two passes to improve their total number of takeaways on the year to 17, tied for second in the nation. Sophomore linebacker Timothy Rafter leads the Bears with four picks.

Looking ahead

While the Centennial Conference enjoys its bye week, conference play is just ramping up in the ODAC and the USA South is in the thick of it. Christopher Newport must endure a long bus ride to Alabama to take on Huntingdon, which is starting to click with Bailey at quarterback. The Captains are the only team in the league that controls its own destiny and would like to keep it that way, but Morrast and company will face their toughest challenge yet.

How about this for a matchup of unbeatens? Emory and Henry and Bridgewater finished last season at the bottom of the ODAC standings. Now, both the Wasps and Eagles are 4-0 entering their matchup on Saturday. Jacob Wright scored three touchdowns, including the go-ahead touchdown reception with under four minutes to play, as Bridgewater edged Shenandoah in the conference opener. Youth is serving Emory and Henry -- freshman quarterback Kevin Saxton and freshman running back Isaiah Rodgers have led the Wasps’ resurgence.

What did I miss?

Do you know about any upcoming milestones, big games or new names in the Mid-Atlantic? Please share them with me. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is a writer based in Connecticut and a former online news editor for ESPN.com, as well as a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has written feature stories for ESPN.com, currently contributes fantasy football content to RotoBaller.com, and has been a regular contributor to D3sports.com sites since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing.

2012-2015 columnist: Adam Turer
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1999: Pat Coleman

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