Kieran DiGiorno knew the timing by heart.
Three steps back, a quick look toward the sideline, then a canon-quick pass to the space where he knew his receiver was going to be.
If quarterbacking was all about trust, the Naples senior knew by now the key to harnessing that ability was through repetition. And so here he was, firing passes on speed dial, long before his receivers were making their breaks.
The ball was finding their hands. Over and over again.
“His anticipation of the routes,” Naples head football coach Bill Kramer said. “He’s not waiting for a guy to get open. He’s throwing it before he’s open. That’s what really good quarterbacks do. He’s doing that probably better than any quarterback we’ve had here.”
Monday’s practice at Staver Field, just four days away from the Golden Eagles’ trip to Nathaniel Traz-Powell Stadium in Miami for a Class 6A semifinal game against Miami Central (8-2), solidified at least one idea for Kramer.
DiGiorno was the best high school football quarterback in Southwest Florida.
“You have to really have that trust and he does,” Kramer said. “And his receivers do. So, what it does is it makes us harder to defend.”
In 12 games, DiGiorno has rolled up 1,600 yards, totaled a school record 23 touchdowns and collected just three interceptions. Naples (11-1) hasn’t lost a game since its opening week matchup against Delray Beach Heritage.
DiGiorno may only finish behind two others in the area in passing yardage – Ida Baker senior Jordan Diggs (2,085 yards) and Marco Island junior Andrew Fowler (1,969) – though he will go down with a stellar completion percentage (57) and the most scores out of anyone.
“He throws the ball at the right point,” Naples sophomore receiver Wooby Theork said. “When we run routes at a certain amount of time, he knows when to throw the ball.”
DiGiorno has amassed over 100 yards passing in eight of his last nine games, including a 198-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 35-0 win against Charlotte in the Region 6A-3 Finals last Friday. He’s accumulated at least 170 yards passing four separate times.
But his season isn’t over just yet. And Friday will present a set of obstacles unlike most the Golden Eagles have faced this year. Once again, DiGiorno will have to diagnose a fast-changing field with his eyes and feet, navigating a pocket that could break down quicker than it has all season.
“Having Kieran know where he wants to throw the ball, who he wants to throw the ball to and then put a good ball out there, it helps us as a staff,” Naples offensive coordinator Paul Horne said. “As long as we give him time to throw the ball.”
It’s true, much of Naples’ success can be tied to its offensive line, which has given DiGiorno ample protection. They’ve both made strides throughout the year, Kramer said, like two intertwined DNA linking together.
A Week 1 loss to American Heritage taught DiGiorno a lesson about surviving under pressure. A season prior, he had started just one game and logged mostly backup snaps behind starter Michael Walker, who was largely a running quarterback in the team’s veer system.
“You never want to lose any game,” he said. “It’s tough to come out to your first regular season game and lose. But it was a learning experience. We just knew that we had to go out and practice harder and be more focused. I think it’s shown to be more helpful throughout the season.”
DiGiorno isn’t a running quarterback. He’s compiled just 77 yards on the ground all year, instead letting his elusive and highly-productive backs, Carlin Fils-aime and Antonio Carbonaro, do most of the work.
But that division has given Naples two clear dimensions, and it has helped DiGiorno find his rhythm.
After the loss, he followed with a solid performance in a win over Island Coast 63-0, then began to hit his stride in victories over Gulf Coast (42-6), Immokalee (63-7), Golden Gate (53-0), and Lely (69-7).
Against the Sharks, he passed for 182 yards and recorded three touchdown passes. He went 10-for-12 for 149 yards against Immokalee and then 7-for-8 for 113 yards against Golden Gate. He’s been near flawless in the playoffs, throwing for 496 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I would say he was just very patient,” Naples junior tight end Chris Hanlon said. “He’s very smart. He always tries to find the open guy.”
At 6-foot-3 and about 180-pounds, DiGiorno has prototypical size for the position. He can see over the defense, and has enough arm strength to find receivers, like standout Tyler Byrd, 40 yards down the field.
But the senior has learned that quarterbacking isn’t so much about the physical traits. Instead, he’s honed in on the mental side of the role, studying up on route progressions. He checks off on plays that break down and will focus on a simple play rather than a big one.
“I’m really starting to understand where the wideouts are going to be, what reads I’m making and just how to do my job better,” he said.
It also helps that Kramer, just two or three weeks into the season, gave DiGiorno more freedom. He described the adjustment as letting him “loose” on the field, but during practice you can see it. It’s less micro-manage and more have-at-it.
Horne said DiGiorno has taken a full understanding of the concepts the team runs, some of which have simple variances he can easily diagnose.
“Kieran is super smart to begin with,” Horne said of DiGiorno, who has drawn interest from Ivy football teams like Yale and Princeton. “Whatever football we’re asking of him starts with a higher intellectual capacity off the bat. Coach (Brock) Smith has done a phenomenal job mentoring him into understanding what we’re trying to do conceptually.”
In recent years, passing offenses have opened up across the state, and that’s yielded a higher percentage of quarterbacks passing for over 1,500 yards. According to MaxPreps.com’s database, 80 quarterbacks across Florida have accomplished that feat in 2015.
Naples is no different. Kramer’s traditional veer offense has morphed into an offense that relies more on the pass, though the Golden Eagles still hang their hat on running the ball effectively. Naples has won two state championships and been to three other state semifinal games before, winning one.
The major denominator in success has always founded on the Golden Eagles’ ability to run.
But with a confident quarterback leading the way, could this year be different? Could DiGiorno give Naples an edge it hasn’t had since it last won a state title in 2007?
“To be a quarterback anywhere, you’re going to get blamed for the bad things and you’re going to credit for some of the good things,” DiGiorno said. “But at the end of the day, you just have to push all of that aside and come to practice and play. Personally, I just want to come out and do my best and give my brothers around me the best chance to win.”