Stepping up: Firebirds have holes to fill at QB, RB

photo by: Richard Gwin

Free State sophomore QB Jordan Preston looks for a target at the Firebirds' football practice on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, at FSHS.

For the past decade, Free State High’s football program has enjoyed quarterback play at the highest level thanks to a heck of a string of talented QBs.

Ryan Murphy, Craig Rosenstengle, Camren Torneden, Dylan Perry, Kyle McFarland, Joe Dineen and Bryce Torneden all took their turn under center for the Firebirds and all helped deliver some of the biggest wins and most memorable plays in school history.

While that stretch might continue this fall, the identity of the player who will take the snaps for coach Bob Lisher’s squad is unknown at the moment.

“The quarterback competition is very open,” Lisher said Wednesday afternoon following the second day of the Firebirds’ non-contact summer camp. “It’s a little less known to us what’s gonna happen, but it should be a good competition. We’ll see who picks it up the fastest and go with that person.”

Competing for the job is a trio of QBs who arrived at this point through different paths. Junior Gage Foster was the primary back-up to Kansas-bound Bryce Torneden in 2015. Sophomore Jordan Preston received more game reps than Foster, but those came at the freshman level. And then there’s Topeka Hayden transfer Dallas Crittenden, a senior who started for Hayden as a junior in 2015.

Lisher said each quarterback brings something a little different to the competition and added that the weeklong camp was not necessarily the place the job will be won or lost, rather a good starting point for all three.

Of course, replacing Bryce Toreden’s production from the quarterback spot is just one of the challenges facing the Free State offense. Also gone is running back Sam Skwarlo and, as things stand today, the idea of reloading with two players who can slide in and produce the way that dynamic duo did just isn’t realistic.

“It takes all 11,” Lisher said. “Those guys were surrounded by some pretty good football players themselves last year. And that’s what we’re gonna have to have, 11 people giving the best they have.”

Two Firebirds who have the potential — and therefore the responsibility — to fill a good portion of those shoes are senior receiver Zack Sanders and senior running back Zion Bowlin. Both have extensive varsity experience and both said they learned a lot from the play-makers that came before them.

“Bryce has always been somebody I look up to, and he always helped me out a lot,” Sanders said. “Last year he always told me not to just be content with where I was. There’s always someone else out there working as hard or harder than you.”

Added Bowlin: “They were freak athletes, but I think we’ll be able to fill those roles pretty well.”

Lisher agreed and said one of the reasons the Firebirds have been so fortunate at the QB position over the past several years was the pride and passion of the players stepping in to fill the role left by the QB before him.

“They were great athletes and good football players,” he said of Torneden and Skwarlo. “But we’ve got some great athletes and good football players coming in behind them, too. They just have to get comfortable with being the main weapons out there now.”

As he addressed his team at the end of Wednesday’s three-hour camp, Lisher applauded the improvement he saw from Day 1 to Day 2 and mentioned the challenge his team faces on offense.

“Offensively, we’ve got some holes to fill,” he told the 90 or so Firebirds kneeling before him. “But we’ve got bodies there, so it’s not like the cupboard’s bare.”

Far from it, in fact. The Firebirds may be looking to replace their most visible and productive players from last season’s 8-4, state-semifinalist squad, but Lisher, his staff and Free State athletes like Bowlin and Sanders believe it can be done.

“We return people at every position on both sides of the ball,” Lisher said. “Even if they weren’t a starter, they were in the rotation. So we’re feeling pretty good about where we are now, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of potential, but that’s all it is, potential. So now we’ve gotta get our potential to come together as a team.”