What is Justin Anderson?
He could be a wide receiver, but he’s only got 548 yards this season through the air. He’s played five games under center, but has only amassed 188 passing yards. Could he really be a running back with 590 yards on a team dominated by Benji Cordova.
La Quinta coach Dan Armstrong installed his star athlete in at quarterback midway through the season, but he says his senior is much more than that.
“He’s a fierce competitor, and he doesn’t like to lose,” Armstrong said. “He sees things other guys just don’t see, and he has a way of making things happen.”
It’s hard to classify Anderson into just one box, because he doesn’t really fit anywhere, and that’s what has made him such a great asset for this Blackhawk squad. His coach and his teammates wouldn’t want him any other way.
Last season, Anderson got a handful of snaps at quarterback while the team’s starting quarterback, then-senior Michael Avina, was down with an injury for much of the regular season. Still, during that span, it was junior Andrew Garcia taking a bulk of the snaps under center while Anderson caught a total of 56 passes for 914 yards and seven scores on offense.
But everyone who knows Armstrong and the history of La Quinta football knows the Blackhawks have always been a run-first team, and that wasn’t going to change with bruising back Benji Cordova returning. Nearing 60 catches is a pretty solid high school season, but that still only amounts to just over four touches a game.
Armstrong decided Anderson had way too much talent to only touch the ball four times.
With the team’s premier rushing option more than decided, the coach approached Anderson about taking a larger role at quarterback.
Now on the surface, to some high school kids, the opportunity to play QB for a CIF title contender would be a dream. All the spotlight, all the praise, all the pressure. But at La Quinta, not necessarily all the numbers.
For kids worried about getting their highlight film together to send out to prospective college coaches, clips of taking shotgun snaps and handing it off doesn’t sound so glamorous anymore.
Anderson thought he might be one of those kids at first, but then he took a step back. It’s a CIF championship ring he wants, and that takes a team.
“At first, I thought it would bother me, but my mom talked to me about it, and I know that colleges will see I’m an athlete,” Anderson said. “I played wide receiver for two or three years, so colleges can look at my old film, but if my team needs me at quarterback, I’m fine playing there.
“Wherever I’m going to play, I’m going to give it 100 percent and give it my all.”
At the start of the season, that was at wide receiver and cornerback. Anderson certainly wowed coaches in practice at quarterback, but sided with Garcia’s game experience against the really rough portion of the Blackhawks’ schedule. Anderson put up steady numbers at wideout – 386 yards on 25 catches and three touchdowns.
But after a narrow 14-10 win over Palm Springs, a game Armstrong feels his team would truly dominate today with a different scheme, the coach decided they needed a switch.
“Any time he has the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to score, and it gives Benji a chance to not have to carry the ball 40 times a game,” Armstrong said.
Granted, the Blackhawks wouldn’t have too many more tough opponents before the playoffs began, but Armstrong needed Anderson to get his passing game ready for the postseason. Even for a guy who’s played in plenty of big games during two semifinal runs, he felt the nerves at the start.
“I was super nervous my first game at quarterback. I didn’t really know how I was going to see things,” he said. “It’s a tough position, but now I’m starting to get more relaxed and just focusing on being an athlete and making things happen.”
The way Anderson “sees things” is one of his best traits, according to Armstrong. A week after the Palm Springs game, the Blackhawk defense struggled mightily against Xavier Prep, holding onto a 63-42 win. With the Saints’ passing game torching La Quinta, Armstrong pulled Anderson from cornerback and moved him to safety, along with Cordova who had been a staple for the team at linebacker.
Since, the defense has only given up two touchdowns in four games.
“If you put him at safety, he can get his eyes in the backfield, and he has really good instincts and a good reaction time,” Armstrong said. “He does a really good job reading offensive linemen, which is hard to coach, and when he gets a chance, he really likes to hit.”
Now, on both sides of the ball, Anderson is in a spot where he may not make the highlight reel on a weekly basis, but when he’s gotten the chance in the latter half of the season, he’s seized it.
Against Cathedral City, Anderson tossed two first half interceptions, both which helped the Lions hang around early, looking for an upset. But Anderson only let it fuel him more.
“Justin is a good football player because he has a short memory,” Armstrong said. “After those picks, he was (mad) at himself for a second, and then he told me ‘I’ll go out and pick one off.’ ”
And it was Anderson’s interception in the second half with the Lions reeling that really but the nail in the coffin of a 62-14 blowout.
Four weeks ago in the Flag Game against Palm Desert, the Aztecs had obviously decided they were going to stop Cordova’s run game and take whatever else happened.
Anderson took that as an insult.
“So you want to go shut Benji down, but now you’re going to have to deal with me all night,” said Anderson, who totaled 181 rushing yards and one score in the win. “I was thinking ‘You go be on Benji all you want, and I’m going to shove the ball down your throat.’ ”
Not only having that mindset, but being able to produce like that on the field will be pivotal for another deep La Quinta playoff run. Playing in the rough Division 5 and facing Redlands, who beat Palm Springs 42-7, out of the gates, the Blackhawks won’t be able to solely rely on Cordova to carry them. Teams will simply be too good.
But with a dangerous backfield of Anderson, Cordova and sophomore tailback Derrick Kennedy, and with Garcia always a threat to both catch and throw the ball, La Quinta has a shot to send its retiring coach out on top.
At quarterback, even on a run-first team, Anderson will have full control of that now, and that means even more than big numbers for him.
“This is a team sport, so when all my teammates trust me, it makes a big difference,” he said. “My role is to be a big leader, and when things aren’t going our way, I have to pick the team back up.”
CIF football playoff schedule
D-4: Colony at Palm Springs, 7 p.m.
D-5: Redlands at La Quinta, 7 p.m.
D-11: Coachella Valley at Montebello, 7 p.m.
8-man D-2: Desert Christian Academy at Lancaster Baptist, 7 p.m.
Friday Night Hero
This week’s winner: Palm Desert kicker Jacob McIlroy led the Aztecs to the team’s second consecutive win to finish the season with the help of his two late field goals – one that pushed the game into overtime and another that sealed the victory.