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Open Mike: Replacing injured QB never easy task

SCRAMBLING — Freshman Gerald Hickson has started the last two games at QB for St. Francs. Photo courtesy of Ron Larson.
While the Buffalo Bills mull over their quarterback situation, contemplating who to throw in the fold after an injury to rookie starter E.J. Manuel, about 10 minutes down the street and to the right on Camp Road in Athol Springs, head coach Jerry Smith was facing a similar dilemma a few weeks back.

And, like Buffalo’s NFL team, Smith’s St. Francis squad had to turn to an inexperienced quarterback who, at this level, had never taken a snap for the varsity team. Sure, it may be a bit of a stretch to compare the two, but there are parallels that exist here. The most obvious: a football team never knows when its starting quarterback may go down and it is never easy to replace one.

The Bills are being second-guessed for having no one beside rookie free agent Jeff Tuel on their roster to come into a winnable game at Cleveland, after Manuel suffered the knee injury, and now they will turn to turn to practice squad QB Thad Lewis to take the reins.

And, while that may deserve some of this scrutiny, is any team ever really prepared to lose its quarterback? No matter how much a team may think it is, there is nothing quite like sending out someone cold, who is lacking the reps of a starter, to play the most important position on the field.

At St. Francis, the Red Raiders were heavily dependent on senior Jake Dolegala who, at 6-foot-3 with a strong arm and off what most everyone seems to agree was an outstanding offseason, should have had endless promise for 2013. However, a torn labrum suffered in a week three loss at Cathedral Prep in Pennsylvania ended the season of a player being recruited by a number of colleges at various levels.

So, in steps a freshman in Gerald Hickson, who Smith probably never envisioned hitting the field for the varsity this season, but is someone the veteran coach felt gave his team the best chance to win, at this time.

It was not easy; it hardly ever is, when the backup quarterback is inserted in at any level, but Hickson has already proved that having the backup quarterback in the fold does not have to signify the end of all hope. After taking some lumps during his starting debut against national-power Canisius, the freshman showed poise in marching St. Francis down the field a number of times, during a 27 – 20 loss to a highly-regarded St. Joe’s on Oct. 4.

The Red Raiders have run the ball more than planned this season, but Smith acknowledged that his team will have to complete some passes, to loosen up defenses. Hickson did just that Friday, throwing for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns, scoring on two fourth quarter drives, to keep the game within reach.

“Injuries are a part of life ... but, like anyone else, everybody has injuries and everybody is going to have something to deal with,” Smith said. “It’s part of what happens; you just have to buckle it up and somebody has to step in and do the job and it’s up to us coaches to coach him up.”

In fact, both teams had to resort to their backups at quarterback for Friday night’s game, after St. Joe’s sophomore Mike McCarthy suffered a concussion the week prior in the team’s first loss of the season, at the hands of Aquinas.

The Marauders were fortunate, though, in being able to look to a pair of experienced multi-season starting players in senior Tyler Hill and Nigel Davis, both of whom played a few games at the position last season. When the pro-style offense Hill was running in the first half yielded only a 7 – 6 lead into the third quarter, the Marauders had the luxury to move to more of a shotgun formation and used Davis’ speed to open some holes against what was an otherwise stout Red Raiders’ defense.

“Their quarterback, Dolegala, had really come on and looked really good; you hate to see a kid get hurt and cost himself a season, so they’re going through the same thing,” St. Joe’s head coach Dennis Gilbert said. “It’s that time of the year, where you have been out here eight weeks and you’re banging every week, so it happens. When one goes down, someone else has to step up, and we got that tonight.”

Not surprisingly, injuries at the position have been a part of the landscape in the Western New York high school football scene. Also locally, Hamburg’s Colin Daly suffered a season-ending injury in week two and junior Alex Suchan stepped in. Just this week, Suchan may have played his best football of the season in leading Hamburg to a 15 – 14 win against Iroquois on the road, during his third varsity start. Sure, the transition may not always be seamless, but opportunity is a powerful motivator and building confidence can become a game-changer, even for a backup.

So, maybe the Bills can take a page out of the playbook of some local high school teams that have yet to give up on their 2013 campaigns and fans can hold tight, for now, and not give up on the entire season, just yet.
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