The first thing you notice about Ben Smith and Stephen Baker is that they don’t fit tradition.
They don’t have the massive presence of Javon Chisley’s 6-foot, 220-pound frame, or the towering feel of Dylan Horne’s 6-foot-2 body. They aren’t built like the locomotive Dae’Quan Scott once was for Lee.
But Smith and Baker are, in fact, like the others in this way: they’re both nimble on their feet and elusive with the ball.
Smith and Baker, both juniors, will replace Chisley as Lee’s new quarterbacks this season, hoping to replicate the school record 2,343 rushing yards and 501 passing yards he recorded in 2013. But it’s still anyone’s guess who will stick consistently.
Early on, head coach David Tibbs said, he may opt for a platoon at the position.
“We do what we do, but obviously last year it changed a little with Javon,” Tibbs said. “[These guys], they run the ball and they’re dual-threat guys.”
A year ago, Lee ran through opponents with Chisley, a wrecking ball that averaged over 9 yards per carry. Teams knew what was he
aded their way and he still scored 23 touchdowns. He was coming off labrum surgery. They still couldn’t stop him and he smiled with a big, toothy grin after he did it.
Lee doesn’t have that physicality in 2014. While Smith and Baker aren’t shy about contact, they also won’t drag defenders in their wake, either.
At about 5-foot-8, Smith is a little undersized for the position, though he enters the season confident as a passer and decision-maker after leading the program’s freshman team at the position two years ago.
“I just have to read the defense and play smart,” Smith said of his goals.
Baker, meanwhile, is about 2 inches taller and offers some of the same attributes as Smith: making sound reads on defense and jettisoning to his feet when the pocket breaks down.
“Just being able to read the defense [is a strength],” Baker said. “Seeing where the defense is going and how to read it.”
But talk can be cheap early on, especially for two rookie signal-callers. Smith saw some time at the position a year ago for Chisley. The schedule will be the true test.
With big games against Wilson Memorial, Heritage-Lynchburg and Appomattox dotting the schedule over the first three weeks, Smith and Baker will experience their first crash course under center.
“I’m not going to think about it while I’m playing,” Baker said of the adjustment. “I’m just going to play the game I love to play and just go along with what happens.”
Like anything, it helps to get your feet wet, and with Lee, Tibbs thinks it all starts on defense. Both quarterbacks will also see time at cornerback, though not at the same time.
Lee’s 50 defense, which is transitioning out from last year’s crop of graduating seniors, remains perhaps the team’s best strength. With speed and a handful of veteran returners, the motto “turning defense into offense” may be more true than ever.
Seniors Quarran Harden (corner), at transfer from Stuarts Draft, Marcus Warren (linebacker) and Keishawn Witherspoon (nose guard) and junior Tavian Brown (safety) all will find themselves on the field together this year.
They will also find themselves behind either Smith or Baker on offense at fullback or running back in Lee’s spread offense, too. The team, on paper, has six capable offensive skill players on both sides of the ball.
But rather than the offense dictating how the defense plays, it will be the other way around at Lee.
“The luxury is we can put our best 11 guys on defense and share them on offense,” Tibbs said, “because some of them play the same position.”
So while the quarterbacks will have a big role, the running backs probably will fill in the gaps, too, giving the team a bit more diversity than it had in 2013.
While Lee isn’t rebuilding from scratch, it certainly is going through a surface restructuring, having to figure out just what kind of team it is after Chisley.
Neither Baker nor Smith have separated themselves from the competition just yet.
But soon enough, two new junior quarterbacks will put their stamp on Lee football. And so will this offense.