Will the third year be the charm for Central Jersey area's veteran quarterbacks?

Will the third year be the charm for Central Jersey area's veteran quarterbacks?

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Will the third year be the charm for Central Jersey area's veteran quarterbacks?

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The perils of quarterbacking the varsity hit Anthony Zuhone in the form of a 215-pound freight train three years ago. Then a freshman at Manville High School, Zuhone got drilled for a sack by Bound Brook’s Andrew Campolattano, a four-time state wrestling champion.

“It was, ‘Welcome to varsity football,’ ” Zuhone recalled. “I was dropping back and he hit me from the backside. I got right back up.”

This week, as the curtain rises on the 2013 gridiron campaign, first-year quarterbacks from around the state will be shocked by similar welcomes. But not Zuhone, who enters his fourth season under center and has seen it all.

Incredibly, he’s not an outlier in the Mid-State 38 Conference. Three other senior quarterbacks — South Hunterdon’s Devon Troutman, Ridge’s Conor Hughes and North Plainfield’s Kyle Grant — started as sophomores and juniors. And Montgomery’s Chris Chugunov, a junior, played the position last fall after logging five games there as a freshman.

It’s rare to have one three-year starter in the area. With five raring to go, this is the Year of the Veteran Quarterback.

“The experience is huge,” Chugunov said. “You know how to study film. You work harder in the offseason. The game is slower; you understand more what you have to do to win.”

Taking your lumps

Two of these veteran starters — Hughes and Troutman — originally were backups pressed into action when the starter got hurt. Grant won the job in camp as a sophomore. Chugunov platooned as a freshman and played well enough to lock it up for the future. Zuhone was elevated during halftime of a midseason game.

“It was difficult, especially because I was a lot smaller than a lot of the other players,” Zuhone said. “Trying to lead a team of seniors as a freshman, it’s difficult to get everyone’s respect. I had to earn it.”

The physicality of varsity football — the advanced pace, the bigger players, the small margin for error — is the first hurdle new quarterbacks face.

“I started off really slow, and senior guys came to me and said, ‘If you want this job, you can’t be standing around here nervous,’ ” Grant said. “It took me a few games before I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ “

Hughes was 15 pounds lighter when his on-the-job training began as a sophomore.

“The main thing for me was to get bigger and stronger,” he said. “I had the arm strength but I felt my junior year I ran the ball a lot better.”

In the second game of his junior year, Hughes got rocked by an Immaculata defender on a scramble.

“I was running to the sideline to go out of bounds, and I was slowing down,” he said. “I wasn’t paying attention I guess and I took a pretty big hit. That was kind of a wake-up call — you go hard until the play is over.”

Part of the job is learning to how to take a hit.

“Most of the shots I’ve taken are after I released the ball — they’re ones that nobody really sees,” Chugunov said. “During the game, in that moment, the only thing you feel is the change in your breath. You don’t feel any pain in that moment. After the drive you walk back to the sideline and you feel the bruises on your ribs. But you can’t show that stuff to your team.”

Breaking it down

While a gifted athlete can grasp the physical demands of the quarterback position fairly quickly, the mental component takes a bit longer.

“It’s a huge difference coming back for that second year because you’ve seen everything one time now,” said North Hunterdon head coach John Mattes, whose quarterback, Marc Monks, also started last fall. “With Marc, there’s another level we can go to in terms of teaching him. We can get into reading defenses, looking for tendencies. For guys who have played three years, that’s even greater.”

Mattes would know. He was a three-year starter at Bethlehem Catholic (Pa.) from 1986-88, guiding a state title run as a senior. In 20 years on the sidelines, he’s coached just one other three-year quarterback.

“It’s a lot different from when I played,” he said. “The game is much more wide open. You didn’t see trips and four-wide until the early 1990s. Defensively, now teams are zone blitzing and running cover-2 on one side and cover-4 on the other side. You have to be a student of the game.”

Film study can be bewildering to varsity newcomers, but it’s an essential tool for quarterbacks.

“At first you look at film and coaches see things you won’t even think about,” Troutman said. “After a while you’re like, ‘Yeah, I did do that wrong,’ or ‘that could have been better.’ “

The emergence of Hudl, video software that streamlines scouting and enables athletes to pull up clips pretty much anywhere and anytime, turned film study into more of a lifestyle and less of a classroom experience. Grant watches film with his uncle James Grant, who played quarterback at Ramapo College.

“I start in August, seeing what teams did to us last year,” he said.

All five veteran quarterbacks said it takes time to learn how to get the most out of these study sessions.

“Slowly I came to the point where I started to read defenses,” Chugunov said. “Pre-snap reads, looking at coverages, stuff like that I had no clue about at first. I’m starting to master all that.”

It’s no coincidence then that three of the five teams with three-year starters are changing offenses this year to give their quarterback more decision-making power.

Leading the way

A quarterback’s physical and mental adjustments are, for the most part, quantifiable. Leadership is not. It’s an intangible that, like a sapling tree, grows stronger only with time.

“Leadership is the hardest one,” Mattes said. “You usually don’t see that until senior year. Guys who have played two or three years, other kids are going to look up to them because they’ve done it.”

That’s true for players at any position, but quarterback is where it counts most. A leader under center raises the mojo of an entire team, and the reverse also can be true. It helps to be settled as the established starter, and sometimes that’s beyond a coach’s control. For example, Justin Strother saw spot quarterback duty at Piscataway last year and at Plainfield in 2011 when teammates went down.

Now he’s the guy in Piscataway, and to hear his fellow veterans tell it, that will make a big difference.

“I don’t think I was much of a leader sophomore year,” Hughes said. “I was still maturing and learning the varsity-level stuff. Now I’m a captain, we have two other three-year starters, and we have a really good understanding of what it takes.”

It takes thick skin. Quarterbacks on all levels operate under a microscope, but the situation can be acute for a teenage denizen of football-mad schools and towns.

“A lot of people like to talk about football,” Grant said. “You get comments and feedback from the stands. I try not to let it affect me.”

Said Troutman, “You’ve got to get over things and go on to the next week. At first that’s a little tough, but over the years you get used to it.”

As Zuhone put it, “If you’re not good under pressure, it’s just not a good position for you.”

One thing that doesn’t change over time is the adrenaline rush of directing an offense. There’s a reason why players who win that job don’t leave it.

“What’s not to like?” Chugunov said. “You get to lead your team into battle every Friday night. To me there’s nothing better.”

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