Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

August 10, 2012

Storm brewing at QB

Brown and Baker battle in Richlands

RICHLANDS, Va. — The Richlands quarterback situation is a matter of Brown and Gray. Or possibly Gray and Brown.

Either way, Richlands head coach Greg Mance is excited about the prospects of juniors Ben Brown and Gray Baker working behind center this season for the Blue Tornado with the departure of Reece Strong.

“We have two quarterbacks, both of them are very, very athletic, they are probably better athletes than Reece,” Mance said. “Reece was just so smart on where to throw the ball and so accurate.

“Both of them are 6-2, they are athletic, they can throw on the run, they can throw in the pocket. It is just a matter of time getting them on the same page and understanding the scheme and where the ball is supposed to go.

“Once they figure it out, I think they both have a chance to be really good.”

Brown grew up around Richlands football, following in the footsteps of his brother, Timmy, who was a standout signal-caller for the Blue Tornado in the early 2000s.

“It is big expectations for us. Tim was such a great quarterback, it is going to be tough to live up to what he did, but I will do my best and try to maintain that standard,” Brown said. “He was more of a running quarterback, I am more of sit back in the pocket and throw.

“I have always wanted to play quarterback and be the next Timmy.”

Baker split playing time last season at Graham with Spencer Sheets. He decided to make the move to Richlands early in the summer and is seeking his share of the snaps for the Blue Tornado.  

“I had that last year with Spencer, I am used to that,” Baker said. “Whoever plays the best will be playing. Things change from game to game, but we will probably both get a good share of the reps during the games.”

Baker would only say the move was made for ‘personal reasons’ but it didn’t take him long to settle in.

“I love it, I love being here, it is a big family over here, that is for sure,” Baker said. “At the beginning of summer I came over here and I was accepted since the day I walked in and they made me feel like family.”

That duo will have the task of replacing a steady collection of talented quarterbacks in recent seasons at Richlands, including Strong, who was a standout behind center and as a kicker for the Blues.

Strong, who is preparing to join his brother, Bradley, to play baseball at Western Carolina, has worked with both signal-callers in the offseason. “

“I learned a lot from Reece, he has come out here this year and helped us a lot, me and Gray, and keeping us fine tuned,” Brown said. “It is a lot of pressure calling everything so we have to study the game and know what to do. My arm is probably not as strong as Reece, but I am getting there, it is getting stronger.”

Richlands was 11-1 last season, with its lone loss coming to Cave Spring in the Region IV title game. They lost plenty from that squad, including Strong, Devon Johnson, who is now at Marshall, and Josh Hess, who is playing at Richlands.

“It is tough, we lost a lot of good players on both offense and defense and it is going to be tough to replace them,” Brown said, “but we have some guys stepping up and trying to win those spots.”

That includes at quarterback, where the competition has been so close that Mance isn’t picking one starter. How about two?

“Right now they are both starting, we have two starters right now,” Mance said. “We had a hard time, we thought they would separate from each other, but they have both done so well we are going to play both of them.”

No complaints from either Brown or Baker. They’re friends, and plan to stay that way no matter who is on the field.

“We are pretty even on just about everything right now so we are still seeing who is going to get the upper hand,” Brown said. “You have just got to keep everything loose, encouraging each other, helping them with whatever they need.

“If he is better you want him in there to do good for the team.”

Baker added, “It is friendly competition, me and Ben are real good friends, we have known each other for a long time. We talk about it, it is fine, whatever happens happens. Hopefully we will both get a good share of the snaps.”

That is the plan.

“I like it because you can kind of package in something for both of them and try to take advantage of their strengths, but you have to be careful, you can get predictable when you get in the game if you are not careful,” Mance said. “They both have to be able to run the whole offense, which they can.

“They are both athletic, they are both tall, they can throw in the pocket, they can throw outside the pocket on the run. It is going to come down to consistency.”

They began working together this summer, sharing snaps in numerous 7-on-7 camps, including a national competition in Washington D.C. While the Blues didn’t have success in terms of wins, it definitely helped in their cohesion with the rest of the team.

“That was great, getting to know the offense and the routes and the players, that was a great experience,” Baker said. “We went up to D.C. for the nationals and that was just a good experience.”

Brown is still fairly new on the gridiron.

“I didn’t play football until I was in high school, but I have been around the game,” Brown said. “I have always wanted to play, my dad wouldn’t let me play in Little League, but I moved to high school and I kind of had to.”

Richlands has become a dominant force in recent seasons on the gridiron. No wonder both signal-callers are glad to be playing for the Blue Tornado.

“It is great playing for such a dynasty, you feel honored to come out here and be part of the team,” Brown said. “Everybody is trying to beat Richlands, no matter what it is, they are trying to beat Richlands.”

Baker was trying to do the same last season, but now he’ll be trying to beat Graham when the clubs meet in the third week in Bluefield.

“I don’t know if it will be weird, it will be exciting, hopefully it will turn out well,” Baker said. “I learned a lot of good things at Graham, but hopefully I will carry them on over here.”

Richlands has a pair of scrimmages before the season opener on Aug. 24 at Gate City. George Wythe will visit Ernie Hicks Stadium today at 5, and the Blues will host Bassett in a benefit game the following Friday.

Brown understands how important that experience will be in getting ready for the season ahead.

“We will do the best we can to try and prepare ourselves for Gate City and just execute and making sure we know what is going on.” said Brown, who would like to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a Pappy Thompson Award winner, an honor presented at the end of each school year by a regional newspaper.

“He actually won the Pappy Thompson Award his senior year,” Brown said. “Ever since he won it I have been wanting to be the next one to do it at Richlands so that is my dream right now, I am trying to work to that.”

Baker’s first impressions of Richlands football hasn’t changed since he arrived in town.

“Just the heart, everybody just wants to win, everybody will do whatever it takes and the work ethic is incredible,” Baker said. “It was a hard decision, but I like it here and I still have all my friends there so we are good either way.”

Continuing the tradition of winning is the task ahead for the Blues.

“It is definitely a tradition, you can’t hardly walk anywhere without an older gentlemen asking you how the season is going. I am not really used to that,” Baker said. “There are big footsteps to follow, but I think we can do it, we have a good team.”

The ultimate goal never changes in Richlands.

“We will be fine, I think we will make a good run to the end,” Baker said. “It is all the way to December, that is our goal.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

 at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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