This time last year, Zion Turner was excited for his first junior varsity game at St. Thomas Aquinas High School (Fort Lauderdale, Florida). Despite being a freshman, he’d earned the starting quarterback position and was mentally preparing for his debut headed in to the Raiders’ season opener.
Now the stakes are higher.
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Like last season, Turner won the starting quarterback spot, but now the entire country will be dialed-in since Turner is leading the No. 1 team in USA Today’s Super 25.
“Not at all; I’m really looking forward to it,” Turner said. “I know there’s a lot of pressure, but that’s something that you expect playing at Aquinas. I’m ready to show what I can do.”
He’ll get the chance on Friday when the Raiders make the trek across the country to play at De La Salle High School (Concord, California). It’s St. Thomas Aquinas’ third cross-country trip in the last four years.
Tuner, 15, has never travelled across country for sports and said he’s less worried about nerves and more focused on “getting the job done.”
“I don’t really get nervous,” Turner said. “I’ve always played up, so that part is nothing new to me. I know we have a lot of hype, but, again, that’s normal for our program. Coach has prepared me for this.”
That said, Raiders coach Roger Harriott’s message to Turner is as simple as it is complex: “Relax.”
“I’m telling him to make every moment memorable and to enjoy the process,” Harriott said. “Don’t allow your nerves to hinder your performance like most people do.”
It helps that Turner, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 190 pounds, has all of the physical tools.
Even as a dual-threat quarterback, Turner prefers to stay in the pocket and pick the defense apart with his arm. He’s got great poise for his age and a high IQ, making key reads and throws in tight windows. His ability to extend plays and pick up first downs with his legs make him a headache for opposing defenses.
“He has the type of mentality that’s business-oriented,” Harriott said. “The key component to Zion’s game is his ability to make good decisions. He doesn’t put the team in compromising situations. He manages the offense well and takes care of the ball.”
Last season while splitting time with another quarterback, Turner threw for more than 700 yards and eight touchdowns and ran for four more touchdowns to help the Raiders to a 7-0 record.
And, despite not being a part of the varsity team that finished 13-2 and fell to Lakeland (Florida) High School in the Class 7A state title game last season, Turner said felt the loss as if he were under center.
“I was at the state title game when we lost, and I was just down about it,” said Turner, who already has an offer from Southern Mississippi. “I was mad. As soon as I got back I was in the gym every day preparing for the season. I didn’t want to be a part of another loss in the state title game. I’m so motivated that nothing matters but executing on the field. Nothing else.”
Not even the appointment of being the No. 1 team in the country.
“We know about it, but we really can’t feed in to that stuff or be moved by it,” Turner said. “We’re only thinking about this game. The seniors have been checking on me a lot this week, just lifting me up and making sure I’m staying loose. That helps a lot to have them in my corner. We all have the same goal, and we’re all remaining a family. That just makes me want to succeed so I don’t let my brothers down. It’s the perfect motivation for me.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY