Evolution of quarterback has changed football in Georgia

Hutson Mason passed for 4,560 yards and 54 touchdowns as a senior at Lassiter. (Brant Sanderlin/AJC)

Much has been made this season of Georgia’s sudden reputation as the hotbed of elite quarterbacks. The two top football recruits nationally are Justin Fields of Harrison and Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville.

That’s not just 1-2 at quarterback, but for all positions. It’s the first time in the modern history of recruiting that a state could boast that for the sport’s marquee position.

A year ago, Georgia accomplished another first for itself when it had two five-star quarterbacks – Jake Fromm of Houston County and Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian. So make that four five-star QB recruits in two seasons.

Looking ahead, Marietta sophomore Harrison Bailey and Buford freshman Aaron McLaughlin are projected as possible five-star quarterbacks.

All of this follows the recent successes of Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, Georgia-trained quarterbacks who led their college teams to national titles, then went in the first round of the NFL Draft.

What in the name of Herschel Walker is going on?

“There are great coaches in Georgia at every level now developing these quarterbacks,” said Camden County coach Bob Sphire, who helped popularize the spread offense in the state while at North Gwinnett from 2006 to 2016. “When I came to Georgia, it was ground and pound. It was that Dave Hunter, Brookwood philosophy, old Georgia football. [Hunter’s Broncos crushed Valdosta 45-24 in the 1996 Class AAAA championship game without completing a pass.] We were fortunate to win a lot of games those first few years because people were not used to what we were doing.”

Here is a time line of milestones that show how Georgia has evolved into a training ground for great passers:

*1971: Valdosta coach Wright Bazemore was Georgia’s most famous and progressive coach, and his final team – the 1971 Wildcats – marked the pinnacle, the best of Bazemore’s 14 state champions. Valdosta had the best passing game the state had ever seen, and QB Stan Bounds, who would go to Ole Miss, set the state record for passing yards in a season with over 2,700 yards. Sophomore WR Stan Rome had 1,573 yards receiving, which was a national record. Valdosta averaged 48.4 points per game, an unheard-of total in those days. Valdosta great Buck Belue witnessed the ’71 team as a sixth-grader and idolized Bounds. “If cornerbacks played off in a soft zone, Rome ran a quick hitch,” Belue once said. “When the CBs moved closer, Baze had Bounds throw it deep to Rome. Unstoppable is what it was.” Bazemore’s final masterpiece didn’t take hold statewide, though. Those passing records, set in just 13 games, stood for years.

*1989: Al Pinkins, a 6-foot-6 quarterback and basketball star, broke Bounds’ state record and became the first Georgia player to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season (3,090). He led Mitchell-Baker to a state title under coach Jack Johnson. Mitchell-Baker would win the Class AA title again in 1992 with another all-state quarterback, Jake Rackley. “I think Mitchell-Baker was one of the first to really spread out and be successful,” said Americus-Sumter head coach Erik Soliday, who was head coach at Turner County then. “Jack Johnson was a great ball coach and really should get credit for starting it.”

*1994: After a 1-9 season, Americus coach Dan Ragle converted his Panthers from the double slot offense that Georgia Southern was running to the Air Raid. Americus went 8-3, starting a run of 10 straight playoff appearances. ”There were few if any teams in South Georgia at that time throwing the football,” said Rick Hurst, Americus’s offensive coordinator from 1994 to 1999. “Coach Ragle brought the Air Raid to the high school level and changed how the game was coached and played at that level.” In 1998, Fabian Walker would break Pinkins’ record with 3,187 yards passing. In 1999, Soliday became Americus’s head coach. Americus won state titles in 2000 and 2001, averaging 38.9 points. Robert Johnson in 2000 broke Walker’s record and threw for 3,279 yards. WR John Harris also broke Rome’s ancient record for receiving yards with 1,578 in Soliday’s spread offense. “Not to the extent we are spread today, not the no-huddle type, but we would get four wide and spread the field,” Soliday said. “We would mix the shotgun and under center about 50/50. Did not throw it as many times a game, either. Still had a pretty good running game that people had to respect. With the spread no-huddle of today, people are getting in a lot more plays per game, and the stats are reflecting that. … Robert Johnson could have twice the yards [in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense]. We pulled him in the third quarter of most games. Nobody ran the score up years ago like today.”

*2003: Charlton County’s Rich McWhorter, on the verge of his best run, filed away his old offensive schemes and adopted the most radical passing offense Georgia had yet seen in 2003. “We had the quarterback eight yards deep in the gun with five wide receivers,” McWhorter said. “Threw it every time.” The quarterback was Jeremy Privett, and he passed for a state-record 3,710 yards. Then came QB Dwight Dasher, who threw for 7,655 yards in a career while leading Charlton to three state titles (2004-06). The run-and-shoot wasn’t a permanent philosophy change for McWhorter, but an adaption to the talent in his school. When McWhorter’s personnel changed, he went back to run-based offenses and continued to win.

*2006: North Gwinnett had gone 45 years without a region championship when it hired Bob Sphire out of Lexington Catholic in Kentucky, where Sphire had helped change the face of Bluegrass high school football with spread offenses. Sphire won five region titles with five all-state quarterbacks in his 11 seasons at North Gwinnett and led the Bulldogs to two state finals.

*2008: Lassiter, a 27-year-old Cobb County school that had never won a region title or even a state-playoff game, hired an unknown head coach, Chip Lindsey, who discovered an unknown quarterback, Hutson Mason, and made him famous in the spread offense Lindsey had learned partly while working for Rush Propst at Hoover in Alabama. As a senior, Mason threw for a Georgia single-season record 4,560 yards and 54 touchdowns, and Lassiter won a region title and its first 12 games. It was old master Propst that deciphered the Lassiter spread, and Colquitt County beat Lassiter 46-17 in the quarterfinals, intercepting Mason five times. But Mason remains arguably the most influential high school quarterback in Georgia history. Lindsey is now the offensive coordinator at Auburn.

*2012: Gainesville’s Deshaun Watson, playing out of coach Bruce Miller’s spread offense, put together what might be the best season of a high school player in state history, proof of just how devastating a true dual-threat quarterback could be. Watson passed for 4,024 yards and 50 touchdowns and rushed for 1,441 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gainesville, the most successful program never to win a state title, finally broke through and won Class AAAAA.

*2015: Under Propst, running the spread offense he used to win five state titles at Hoover, Colquitt won back-to-back state titles in the highest classification with a 30-0 record. The Packers averaged 46.2 points per game over that stretch, maybe the most impressive two-year run of offense in state history. They were the first spread team to win the highest classification in Georgia. Propst has coached three all-state quarterbacks while at Colquitt.

*2016: Records continued to fall. Tylan Morton of Griffin threw for 4,741 yards, breaking Mason’s single-season mark. K’hari Lane of Macon County threw 56 TD passes, breaking another Mason record. Jake Fromm of Houston County came 352 yards short of Watson’s career-yards mark.

*2017: Watson survived Fromm’s assault, but Lawrence is on his trail. The Cartersville quarterback needs 2,247 yards and 38 touchdown passes to break Watson’s career records. And is Lawrence just a place-holder? Marietta’s Bailey broke Lawrence’s freshman records with 2,812 passing yards last season and threw for 332 in his opening game last week.

“It’s not just the quarterbacks, either,” Sphire said. “Ten years ago, these quarterbacks weren’t surrounded by the skill players to get the ball in space. Now you’re having all these basketball-type kids to come out. There was very little 7-on-7 when I got here. Now there are all these tournaments. … The spread makes it fun. It’s changed the way kids look at football.”

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