Zachariah Burton was looking forward to his final year as a wide receiver and defensive back on the William Penn football team.
Then, over the summer, coach Marvin Dooley approached him with a surprising request. The Colonials needed a quarterback, and he wanted Burton to step under center.
The 6-foot-2, 187-pound senior agreed to make the transition, and if he progresses as expected William Penn could be in the hunt for its second DIAA Division I state title in three years.
“He was set on being a receiver, and we were set on him being a receiver,” Dooley said. “We thought our quarterbacks would be farther along, but as we got closer we realized that weren’t going to have a quarterback ready for what we think can be a championship team.
“That position is crucial. He’s our best athlete, and our smartest football player. … We talked to him about being a leader of the team and what this would mean to the team, and how doing this would make us have a better chance of winning. He was sold right on it. He wants to win more than anybody.”
Burton had been the Colonials’ backup quarterback the last two years, but saw very little action there as three-year starter D.J. Johnson proved to be very durable. Burton’s primary offensive role came at receiver, as he hauled in 12 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns last season.
This year, he’ll be throwing the passes instead of catching them.
“I had to think about the rest of the team, how this puts us in a better position for a playoff push and even a championship run,” Burton said. “So I just bought in.”
Burton finished sixth in the Division I 100-meter dash and was a member of William Penn’s state champion 4×100 relay last spring. Dooley wanted that kind of speed at QB.
“There’s a chance for him to make something happen on every play for our offense,” the coach said. “By him just holding the football, it’s going to open up other things for other players. With him at receiver, I’m not sure we could get the ball to him.”
Now, he will be getting the ball to others.
“The coaches are working with me, helping me through the footwork, the arm motion, stretching, warmup, everything,” Burton said. “I feel like my passing is coming along really well.”
Burton has been an elite defensive back the past two years, and that won’t change. He defensed nine passes and made two interceptions and 20 tackles as a sophomore as the Colonials went 12-0 and won the Division I state title in 2014.
Then his stats swelled to 23 passes defensed, four picks and 36 tackles as the Colonials went 9-2 and reached the D-I semifinals last season.
College coaches noticed, as Virginia, Connecticut, Temple, Army and Stony Brook came calling. Burton decided to play his college football in the Atlantic Coast Conference, committing to Virginia (4-8 last season) and coach Bronco Mendenhall earlier this year.
“When I went down and met the whole staff, it really felt like a family,” Burton said. “They’re really turning the program around. They really have something going for them, and I believe they’re going to be a very good team in the next few years.”
He will play defensive back at Virginia, and Dooley believes a year as a high school QB will add to his defensive skills, too.
“As a defensive back, he’ll know what the quarterback is thinking,” Dooley said. “Now he’s been in that position. … It helps him know the game even better than he already did. This will blossom him into being an even better player in college.”
It’s not the first time this transition has happened in the Burton family. Zachariah’s father, Frank, was coming off a 40-catch season as a Brandywine High junior when he moved to quarterback for the Bulldogs in 1980. He went on to play defensive back and wide receiver at Delaware State, and has talked to his son about the benefits of getting quarterback experience.
“It helped me be able to read defenses better, especially as a receiver,” Frank said. “On the defense, it helped me to view how a quarterback would view us. So it helped me disguise a lot of schemes, because I knew what the quarterback was looking for.”
Dooley said Burton is ahead of schedule in the transition, smoothly taking ownership of the offense and managing the huddle. It’s all part of doing whatever he can to make his final year of high school football a success.
“This is my senior season, my last year,” Burton said. “This is the last time I’ll step on the field with most of these kids. These are the kids I came in here with, and I just can’t wait to see what we all have to bring to the table.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.