Harper Woods and Micah Young are getting a truly proper introduction to the high profile Northwestern-Byrnes football rivalry.
The pair of junior quarterbacks take over for two college quarterbacks who combined for 135 touchdown passes last fall as high school seniors – Northwestern’s Woods succeeds Mason Rudolph, now at Oklahoma State, while Byrnes’ Young steps in for Shuler Bentley, now at Old Dominion.
As if the pressure of replacing those two record-setting high school signal-callers wasn’t enough, Woods and Young’s starting debuts will be nationally televised live on ESPNU in front of 6,000 or so fans at District Three Stadium.
“I think both of them are gonna have the nerves of a normal 15-, 16-year-old kid in that position,” said Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson. “But honestly, after a drive or two, it’s back to it’s white lines, 22 dudes and these reps are just a little more intense than what you took in scrimmages leading up to this.”
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The pressure on quarterbacks of these two programs is very real, and as such, Richardson has taken a play from college programs and made Woods off limits to the media during the week. Richardson said he wishes he’d done the same with Rudolph who had the unenviable task of replacing Gatorade National Player of the Year Justin Worley in 2011. By Rudolph’s senior year, Richardson didn’t have to put any such measures in place; Rudolph was so focused on winning a ring he didn’t want any mid-week distractions, especially as media, local and national, sought to speak with him on a weekly basis.
“I’m learning from past experiences,” Richardson said. “Everything needs to be ready for Friday night, and I just feel like this is one of the things we need to do to get him in the best state of mind.”
But with Bob Marley crooning in the background of his office on Tuesday, Richardson was happy to discuss his new QB, saying Woods has wholeheartedly embraced the chance to grab a starting spot and follow in the footsteps of the last three Northwestern quarterbacks who have gone on to college football at Furman, Tennessee and Oklahoma State.
“Harper’s a good kid, very outgoing, always smiling, and is gonna be a very good quarterback for us,” said Richardson.
Dedicated too. Woods attended all 43 summer workouts, one of just two Trojans players to do so. Accordingly, he’s packed some pounds on to his 6-foot frame.
“Just looking at him from this season to last season, he’s developed,” said Richardson. “He’s had a great offseason in the weight room. His dedication is there, he’s just young. I don’t care what position you play, inexperience eventually catches up with you, and the only way to get experience is by game reps. So, as prepared as we’ve tried to make him, as prepared as he’s tried to make himself, he’s never seen any reps like he’s seen Friday night.”
Because Northwestern’s and Byrnes’ 2013 teams were so often comfortably ahead of their opponents in the second halves of games, Woods and Young do have some game experience, though neither has made a varsity start.
As a sophomore, Young completed 14 of 22 passes for 244 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran the ball 26 times for 243 yards, nearly 10 yards per pop, scoring twice with his legs.
“He’s got a little bit of experience but it’s nothing like starting on the big stage versus a tremendous football club like Northwestern,” said Brian Lane, the Byrnes coach who came over from Woodruff to replace Bobby Bentley in the spring. “It’ll be exciting to see what he goes through and how he does.”
Based on the two Byrnes scrimmage films Northwestern has been watching, consider Richardson a fan of Young, who started every Byrnes junior-varsity game last season.
“Their quarterback is a big-time player, can really hurt you with his feet. He’s really, really good,” said the Trojans’ coach.
“I know he’s fast,” said Northwestern senior defensive end Chris Bouyer. “We’ve got to keep him in the pocket, keep him throwing and eventually, if he runs, we’ve just got to swarm to the football.”
From the Trojans’ film samples, Lane saw a well-coached, poised player in Woods, “just what you would expect from a Northwestern quarterback.” Woods completed 14 of 21 passes for 109 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The disparity between his yards-per-completion average of 7.8 and Young’s (17.4) illustrates one of the primary differences in the way Northwestern and Byrnes’ highfalutin offenses work; one goes long, while the other goes short. That hasn’t changed with Lane at the helm of the program he quarterbacked from 1992 to ‘94.
“Coach Bentley had his way of doing things, I have my way of doing things, so things are gonna be slightly different, but it’s still the same,” said Lane. “I’m going in, I want to throw the ball every down.”
With a number of Division I prospects, including Miami (OH) running back commitment Isaiah Hill and 6-foot-3 wide receiver Tavin Richardson, Byrnes has a slew of weapons to make Young’s job easier.
Kyle Richardson said his team could play its best defense Friday night, and it still may not be enough. It’s a different position for a Northwestern program that’s so often been the aggressor the last two seasons.
“We’ve got to be able to control some of that mentally, where we don’t get flustered because they’re in some of those spots where people normally aren’t in versus us,” said Richardson. “If we can maintain our mental, then our physical will catch up. Now how quick it catches up, I don’t know. We’ve got a lot of key spots that are taking reps for the first time in a key game.”
Friday night’s contest will be Northwestern’s third game on ESPN’s family of networks in four years, and second on national TV (last year’s Gaffney game aired online at ESPN3). Richardson said that the ESPN aspect isn’t a distraction for the Trojans, a sentiment echoed by his players.
“It’s pretty exciting, but we just prepare for it around here as another football game,” said Northwestern senior Dupree Hart. “At the end of the day, there’s gonna be a kickoff, there’s gonna be plays run on offense and plays run on defense and it just so happens that ESPN is gonna be there. So we’ve just got to get focused and ready to play a football game.”
Doing that is most important for Woods, who will no doubt have some butterflies hatching beneath his No. 18 jersey Friday evening.
“I think if he just comes out here and does what he’s been doing all summer, and don’t worry about the crowd and all that, then I think he’ll be pretty good,” said Hart. “It depends on what kind of person you are; some people let the crowd get to them, and some people ignore it.”
Both Richardson and Hart expressed confidence in Woods. But there is only one way to truly tell: kick the ball off and play, and see how fast those butterflies flit away.