It wasn’t too long ago that Kyle McFarland was unfamiliar with the spotlight.
Just another Free State High student, nothing extraordinary about him, McFarland merely was a 6-foot-3 junior going about his day before football season started.
Fast-forward to now, and McFarland still carries himself as if nothing has changed. For a starting quarterback on a winning team one victory away from a district championship, McFarland is neither cocky nor imposing.
Though an amateur by definition, he is every bit professional and no-nonsense in his demeanor. Perhaps that is why McFarland, who had never started a varsity game entering this season, is now one of the most effective weapons in the Sunflower League.
Through the Firebirds’ 6-2 start, McFarland has passed for 1,253 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 803 yards and seven scores. Throw in his receiving yards, and he has accounted for 2,087 yards of total offense, good enough for second in the league.
FSHS coach Bob Lisher said he thought McFarland would step in as the team’s new QB this year and do a good job. What the coach has seen since the junior’s debut in Week 1, a 21-point loss at Olathe South, is what he called “a ton” of progress.
“There’s been a few bumps in the road, but he’s progressively gotten better,” Lisher said.
Much better, in fact. Friday, in leading Free State to its sixth win in seven games, McFarland set a school passing record with 277 yards in a come-from-behind district victory.
The QB admitted he and the team have come a long way since the first two weeks, which included a “not very pretty” win over Leavenworth.
“After that,” McFarland said, “we started getting it together, and everything started to click, and we started winning games.”
McFarland’s dual-threat ability in the backfield has been a significant part of that. Whether he’s dropping back to pass, carrying the ball on a designed run or scrambling to make a play, McFarland has made things happen for the Firebirds, senior guard Jimmy Fernandez said.
“He’s been pretty much the key to our offense,” Fernandez said. “With him we can do about anything.”
Part of what has made McFarland so successful, Lisher said, is his ability to scramble and keep his eyes up the field, scanning for an open receiver. And as the season goes on, the coach has gained increasing trust his QB to read the secondary. If there’s nothing there, Lisher knows McFarland can make something happen with his legs.
“That’s what we continue to preach,” Lisher said. “If you don’t like it, don’t force it. Run the football, throw the football away. We don’t like sacks. We don’t like interceptions.”
McFarland has only thrown eight picks in his 155 passing attempts. That, too, has improved with time.
“He doesn’t force things as much as he used to,” Lisher said of the junior. “It just makes us a better team.”
Team is a popular word among the Firebirds these days. McFarland said when he is improvising on the go, his teammates help him turn nothing into something.
“It helps when you can run on throws,” he said, “when the line opens up the holes and you can make plays on your feet.”
And Lisher is the first to point out none of the team’s offensive success is the result of McFarland alone.
“Kyle’s made plays, but he’s been given opportunities by the other guys around him,” he said.
The coach noted running and passing lanes alike are open because of the work done by the Free State offensive line, runs from Shawn Knighton keep opposing defenses honest, and the receiving corps can make plays or block.
From Ryan Patterson to Tye Hughes, on down the line to Keith Loneker, Calloway Schmidt and Chris Heller, the coach said he “could go on and on” about receivers doing a great job of blocking on the perimeter.
“It’s tough to run the ball if your receivers don’t block very well, and we’ve been able to do that,” he said.
It’s also tough to win without a solid defense, and Free State’s is best in the Sunflower League in points allowed, having given up just 14.6 a game.
As much of an impact as McFarland has made on the offensive side of the ball, his job isn’t done when the FSHS defense takes the field.
A starting cornerback, McFarland has shown the ability to limit or shut down the league’s two leading receivers, Olathe Northwest’s Willie Cauley and Olathe North’s Tanner Gentry. Gentry had just one reception for 13 yards, and McFarland took an interception out of the air with the 6-10 Cauley on his back.
The latter is a play that often gets brought up when McFarland’s defense is the subject. An athletic big man who has garnered basketball interest from SEC and Big 12 programs, Cauley couldn’t bring down that catch because McFarland used a basketball move.
“I knew it was gonna go to him, and I was just trying to box him out a little,” McFarland recalled of what he described as an under-thrown ball.
It was an athletic play that wowed McFarland’s FSHS teammates, Fernandez included.
“Kyle’s had a lot of big plays,” the senior lineman said. “That was a crazy play.”
The Firebirds hope he has some more of those in him when they take on crosstown rival Lawrence at 7 p.m. Friday in the regular-season finale. Though a victory over the Lions would earn FSHS a district title, McFarland’s teammates won’t expect him to be in their faces, spitting fiery words of encouragement.
As Lisher put it: “He’s not a real rah-rah guy.”
That’s fine with the other players, too, Fernandez said.
“He’s calm and collected. He’s not ever panicky, he’s not ever down about anything,” Fernandez explained. “He keeps all of our spirits up,”
Besides, if the Firebirds need inspiration from their no-nonsense leader, they know where to look.
“They see him making plays,” Lisher said, “and it makes them want to continue on and do their best.”