Guess who’s back

Quarterback’s return has Firebirds thinking big in 2009

Free State Quarterback Camren Torneden had a monster junior season in leading the Firebirds to an appearance in the 6A state title game. Torneden, who thrives on proving he’s not too small to play quarterback, will return for his final season in the fall.

Free State quarterback Camren Torneden zips past Olathe Northwest senior defensive lineman Rick Haynes for a touchdown on Oct. 31, 2008, at Haskell Stadium. Torneden led the Firebirds to an appearance in the state title game last season and will return for his senior year.

Call him the anti-Kerry Meier.

Last year at this time, Free State High’s Camren Torneden was working on his route-running, focusing on looking the ball all the way into his hands and dreaming up ways to extend his yards-after-catch numbers.

Since then, it’s been a receiver-turned-quarterback scenario for Torneden, the dynamic Free State QB who helped lead the Firebirds all the way to the Class 6A state title game last season as a junior.

Unlike Meier, who found a home and ultimately became a star at wideout for the Kansas University football team after being beat out for the starting quarterback job, Torneden always knew he could excel at quarterback. Like Meier, Torneden was determined to do whatever it took to make his chance at playing a new position work.

“My dad always tells me, ‘When you get that one chance, step up and make the best of it,'” Torneden said. “That’s what I tried to do.”

Thrust under center during the fourth quarter of a disappointing, season-opening loss to Shawnee Mission West, Torneden provided the Firebirds with a spark despite having little chance to change the outcome. It was the Texas native’s first taste of what he could do at the 6A level in Kansas and his confidence soared with every snap.

“I remember it vividly,” Torneden said. “Even though we didn’t get many yards, we turned it around. I knew Monday at practice that I’d have a shot to play the position when coach finally told me to go work with the quarterbacks.”

It’s not something Torneden ever actually thought would happen. At least not last season.

“I thought we were set there,” he said. “I was just focused on helping the team however I could.”

QB fits best

As it turned out, Torneden helped FSHS at quarterback, where he became an all-Sunflower League performer and teamed with running back Chucky Hunter to give the Firebirds one of the most productive one-two combinations in the state.

There’s a lot of shiny newness surrounding Torneden these days. For starters, a black, four-door, Jeep Grand Cherokee has replaced the old school pickup truck he used to drive, his times in drills like the shuttle run (down to 3.87 seconds from 4.2) and the 40-yard dash (now below 4.5 seconds) are considerably lower than they were a season ago, and, instead of focusing on being the best receiver he can, he’s searching for ways to be an even better quarterback than he was during last year’s dream season.

After watching him transform from an unknown commodity into a defense’s worst nightmare, there aren’t many out there who doubt what the 5-foot-7, 160-pound wrecking ball is capable of doing for an encore.

“I think he’s got a great chance to be better than he was last year,” FSHS coach Bob Lisher said. “He’s got a year of experience behind center now, and that in itself is going to make him a better player. At any position, the more experience you have, the better off you’ll be.”

Putting in the time

Torneden is not relying solely on his 12-plus games of experience to make him better. In the past three months alone he’s been to four different camps, including one at Ohio State University, and he’s made it a point to stick around the Firebirds’ new field as long as possible to work out with teammates and throw the football.

With Hunter and several offensive linemen gone from last year’s team, the importance of the Firebirds’ passing game figures to be magnified this season. Torneden is well aware of that and has made great strides in that department.

“After practice, I’ll throw for 20-30 minutes, just working on getting routes down or working on timing or throwing the deep ball to stretch out my arm,” he said. “I have gotten better. I can see it. I can tell.

“I’m more accurate and precise with my throws,” he added. “My timing has gotten better and I understand coverages a lot more. I’ve started to come into the habit that if I can’t find anything, I won’t force it. I’ll just throw it away and play for the next down.”

Such an epiphany was music to Lisher’s ears.

“I would much rather see him run the ball or throw it away than force it down into coverage,” Lisher said. “I have a lot of confidence in his ability to make a play with his legs and would rather see him try to do that than force a throw into a tough spot.”

That’s the part of the position Torneden likes best, making plays. He thrives in the spotlight, stares challenges square in the eyes and relishes the times when people say he can’t do something or, worse yet, belabor the point that he’s too small. He heard such doubts throughout his childhood in Texas and continues to pick up criticism in Kansas.

“Every game they say something creative,” Torneden said. “Same thing, people talking about my size. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve heard it enough. That’s the thing about being small. Say what you want, but it’s an advantage. Whether it’s fitting through holes or not being seen or people not being able to reach out and grab you. I try to use it all to my advantage.”

One more run

With his senior season right around the corner, Torneden has become comfortable with the praise he received for last year’s play and the jeers he’s absorbed his entire life. Now, his focus is on being the senior leader that the Firebirds need him to be if they hope to follow up last year’s run with something similar.

“Obviously, quarterback is kind of a visible position, people look at you and watch you during the summer to see what you’re doing,” Lisher said. “Kids expect the quarterback to set the example and he’s done that.”

Torneden knows that, on many levels, this is his team now. He’s prepared to do whatever it takes to lead the guys in green when it’s called for and is willing to get out of the way when necessary.

“It gives me a lot of confidence and makes me want to stay on top and be a good leader and a good role model for this program,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure but, like any adversity, you just deal with it and look past it and get those around you in the best position to succeed. Being a quarterback, you have to know every position, what everyone’s doing on both sides of the ball. I’m more confident now. It’s easier. And I have a better understanding of the position.

“I know I’m seen as a running quarterback, but I can do more than that. And I’m ready to do more.”