South Pointe’s mid-season quarterback switch could have torpedoed the team’s football state championship hopes.
But the two players involved – Greg Ruff and Zaylin Burris – handled the situation with aplomb, and both helped guide the Stallions through a prickly patch, into a nine-game winning streak and now the home sideline in Saturday’s 3A state championship game against Hartsville at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“The players accepted it and Greg’s done a great job,” said South Pointe coach Strait Herron. “Zaylin’s done a great job of staying positive.”
Burris was the incumbent QB starter after taking over midway through last season, his sophomore year, even leading the Stallions to a road playoff win over Goose Creek that sent them into the 4A Division II state semifinals. Burris spent the spring and summer as the No. 1 guy, but Ruff, a 5-foot-9, live-armed lefty, was never far behind.
Burris’ season got off to a bad start. He was injured during a preseason scrimmage, so Ruff started the season-opener, a 40-0 win over New Covenant. Burris started the next game against Rock Hill but had to come out after getting hit in the head, and Ruff threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-20 rivalry win.
The competition was nothing new; Ruff and Burris had battled for starting quarterback jobs since they were seventh-graders together at Saluda Trail Middle School. Oddly enough, in seventh grade, Ruff was the starter and Burris beat him out for the starting gig. But entering this season, five years later, Ruff said he “was having a lot of doubt. I didn’t think I was gonna get to play. It was rough for me.”
Ruff said after the Rock Hill game he had a feeling he might get a shot to start. The coaching staff wanted to stick with Burris, though, understanding that his struggles to that point were largely a product of nagging injuries and an inability to get in a groove. But the situation worsened before it was alleviated. York hammered the Stallions 48-7 the following week, the worst loss in South Pointe’s short history. Both Burris and Ruff played, but neither did well in a platoon situation, combining to complete just 11-of-24 passes for 89 yards and two interceptions.
Then Northwestern rushed out to a 20-0 halftime lead over South Pointe the next Friday. Burris went down with a cramp early in the second half and the coaching staff had to make a move.
“Once Greg came in, the electricity and the production in the second half against Northwestern was just something that we couldn’t deny,” said South Pointe offensive coordinator Jason McManus. “We saw the energy and enthusiasm, and, I call it ‘juice,’ that he brought to the team once he took over.”
Ruff completed 13-of-21 passes for 154 yards and four touchdowns in the second half, and also ran for 76 yards. He was an incomplete two-point conversion pass away from leading arguably the best comeback in South Pointe football history.
“You’re looking to do what’s best for the team,” Herron said Monday. “That’s all you can do. We just felt like in the second half of the Northwestern game when we made the change and put Greg in there, he just kind of took the reins and ran the show. When we got done, over the weekend we went back and watched the video and the coaches just made the decision that was the direction we needed to head.”
While Ruff felt good about his performance despite the loss, Burris was left to dwell on what appeared to be a looming demotion.
“I was kind of down about it, because I knew it was about to happen,” he said.
Burris went to South Pointe’s stadium the next morning and ran the stairs, trying to clear his mind.
“I figured that was the only way to get it out,” he said.
There was no explicit conversation; on the following Monday, Ruff practiced with the first teamers. Simple as that.
“Zaylin all summer long, we were preparing him to be the guy,” said McManus. “He had a great summer in the 7-on-7’s, and in the spring and we really thought he was going to take the next step. Really all it is, it was just bad luck. He got hurt, he got the concussion and he got cut open against Rock Hill, went out of the game with cramps against Northwestern.”
This is where it could have gotten messy.
“At first it was hard,” said Burris. “I talked to my mom about it and she asked me if I wanted to quit. I said ‘I can’t quit. I love football too much to quit.’ And she was like, ‘well, then you know what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to keep working, keep going and striving to be good.’ She just told me that God had a plan.”
But it didn’t get messy, or awkward, or outwardly emotional.
“Even with the switch we never…” Burris trailed off for a moment. “The next day (Ruff) texted me ‘keep your head up, you did good,’ and all that. We’ve always been friends.”
Besides, there wasn’t a whole lot for Burris to argue. He was used to competing with Ruff, and as he said, he simply was beaten out for the job.
“The proof of Greg’s production was evident,” said McManus. “(Zaylin) is such a good kid that all he wanted to do was be a part of this team. Immediately when we named Greg the starter, the defensive coaches were like, ‘(Zaylin) is starting on defense,’ because he’s such a great athlete.”
Burris wasn’t just shunted to the sidelines. He starts every practice by taking quarterback repetitions – just in case – and he’s played heavily as a linebacker/strong safety-type in the nine games since the switch, making 33 tackles. Burris plans to do put in the work to improve on that side of the ball in the coming months.
“I’ve already been thinking about the offseason, who I’m gonna work out with,” he said. “I’m just gonna work on a lot of different things. I might even try to play more than one position next year. But I definitely won’t stop trying to be a quarterback. I definitely won’t just give it up that easy. Greg came in and competed with me and made me better, so I’ll do the same thing with him.”
What an attitude, right? In an era where parents throw hissy fits if their kids don’t start, or transfer them to another school, Burris is making the best of the situation instead of running away. Maybe the person most relieved about Burris’ reaction was Ruff.
“He was okay with it. I talked to him about it and he was fine,” said Ruff, who has thrown for 30 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, while completing 70 percent of his passes. “It could have been real bad. He could have quit or anything, but he just took it and he’s a big part of our defense now.”
A situation that could have exploded like a fireworks warehouse ended up making South Pointe better. The team has rattled off nine straight wins with Ruff as the unquestioned starter, culminating in last week’s 40-21 win over A.C. Flora. Ruff completed 19-of-23 passes for 429 yards and six touchdowns, the latter two both school records. It was a performance that further vindicated the decision to make the switch at quarterback, and one that also underscored how well it was handled, especially by the two central characters, Ruff and Burris.
“They’re two great kids and all they want is what’s best for the team,” said Herron.
This season didn’t go as Burris would have planned it for himself. But he and his team are right where they want to be on Saturday.
“Like my mom said, God had a plan and I just stayed with it, kept it up,” he said. “I’m happy we’re here now, whoever’s at quarterback.”