by Troy Misko
Sportsweek staff writer

There is perhaps no position in high school football in which experience is as vital as it is at quarterback.

Coaches will tell you that an experienced quarterback seems to make everything run more smoothly.

Typically speaking, the experienced varsity quarterback is an on-field general, an extension of the head coach or offensive coordinator.

He knows his offense, the skills of the teammates around him and where they should be in every situation.

He has studied the opponent’s defense and is well versed in its strengths and weaknesses.

He’s accustomed to the characteristics of the varsity game, especially the intensity and speed at which it’s played.

And he’s familiar with the bright lights on Friday night.

“If we’re going to have anybody back, it’s nice to have your quarterback returning just because that’s just the most mentally tough position on the field, for offense anyway,” Andover coach Rich Wilkie says.

Experience, however, isn’t required to be a successful varsity quarterback. Nor does an experienced quarterback guarantee success in the win column.

Andover’s Tyler Finnes and Blaine’s Eric Kline proved the former last year as first-year varsity starting quarterbacks. This fall they hope to disprove the latter.

Finnes and Kline, both seniors, return in 2010 a year older, a year wiser. They come back bigger and stronger than they were a year ago. They come back knowing what to expect of life as the starting quarterback of a big-school football program. And they come back eager to prove that the success they enjoyed last season wasn’t a fluke.

Finnes stepped into the starting signal-caller’s role at Andover last season with no varsity experience. He had played quarterback at the sophomore and junior varsity levels, but hadn’t truly experienced the pressures that come with being a varsity QB.

No matter. Surrounded by a bevy of offensive weapons — including seniors Jason Schneider, Zach Nelson and Chase  Vasquez — Finnes made a near-flawless transition to his new role.

He led the Huskies to five straight wins to start the season and promptly established himself as one of the metro area’s top quarterbacks.

“I’ve never had a quarterback, especially as a first-year junior starter, have as much early success as Tyler,” Wilkie said at the time.

Finnes, who threw for nearly 1100 yards and 15 touchdown passes in his first four varsity games, was ranked at or near the top of the metro’s passing leaders in touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage early in the season.

Meanwhile, Kline was getting his first taste of being a varsity quarterback at Blaine.

Kline spent his sophomore season on Blaine’s varsity roster as a wide receiver. He caught 25 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown as the Bengals advanced to the 2008 Prep Bowl.

But last season, with all-state quarterback James Peterson having graduated, the team sought a new quarterback. Kline, who had impressed coaches with his arm so much in practices as a sophomore that they made him a backup quarterback, was the answer.

He, like Finnes, wasted little time establishing himself as a viable threat at quarterback. But, perhaps unlike Finnes, Kline experienced an initial setback that left him questioning himself in his new role.

He threw an interception on this third play as quarterback.

“I was pretty confident going in,” Kline recalls. “The first two snaps went OK. Then, with the interception, I was just like, ‘What am I doing here?  What is this?’ ”

Kline recovered well enough to lead Blaine to a 53-20 victory over Osseo in that game. The Bengals lost their next game to Centennial, then did not lose again until facing Centennial in the 7AAAAA championship.

Kline was largely responsible for his team’s run.

Whatever questions might have existed before or during the season-opener were erased by his play during Blaine’s seven-game winning streak.

That interception he threw on his third play at quarterback? He apparently learned something from it. It would be more than five games and more than 150 pass attempts before he would throw another interception.

He threw only three on the season — versus 16 touchdown passes — in 240 attempts, becoming incredibly efficient in Blaine’s system.

He completed more than 83 percent of his passes in three different games, including going 29-for-34 for 305 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-14 win over Maple Grove.

“I think in one game he had 23 straight completions,”Blaine coach Shannon Gerrety said. “That’s just phenomenal. He’s very accurate. He doesn’t take a lot of chances. That’s our number one rule for quarterbacks — take care of the football.”

Finnes was similarly successful in taking care of the football for Andover. For much of the season, anyway.

He endured a rough stretch in which he threw 13 interceptions in four games. Still, he managed to guide the Huskies to triumphs in two of those games.

He finished the season with 15 interceptions in 307 attempts. But interceptions thrown can be a deceiving statistic. They show up as a stain on a quarterback’s record, but the stat doesn’t take into account things like receivers breaking off routes or running incorrect routes. It doesn’t account for passes tipped by receivers before ending up an opponent’s hands.

And it certainly doesn’t consider some of the game situations that don’t exactly favor a quarterback.

Said Wilkie of the games in which Finnes threw multiple interceptions:

“He did have a couple rough games in there that I think I would take credit for. He didn’t play very well against Anoka, but Anoka had a really good game plan and I didn’t coach very well. I didn’t call very good plays.

“So sometimes if kids aren’t having good games, especially my quarterback, I can take that responsibility because there’s probably a chance that I didn’t call a very good game or have a very good game plan.”

Those games were exceptions at Andover last year, as Finnes led his team to a 7-3 record and the Section 7AAAAA semifinal before losing to Centennial. Finnes finished the season with 25 touchdowns and more than 2200 yards passing.

In four games he went interception-free while throwing at least three touchdown passes, including in a 42-14 win over St. Francis in which he completed 18 of 20 attempts for 227 yards and four touchdowns.

As impressive as Finnes and Kline both were throwing the football, their respective passing statistics tell only part of what made them so successful last season.

Both were also adept at running the ball.

Finnes rushed for 622 yards and 10 touchdowns and Kline ran for 833 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those numbers were solid in themselves. Now consider how good they looked when those numbers were combined with their passing totals.

Finnes accumulated 2948 yards (rushing and passing) and 25 touchdowns. Kline was responsible for 2491 yards and 30 touchdowns.

“They’re both true dual-threat quarterbacks,” Wilkie said of both quarterbacks.

The ability of both players to tuck the ball and run can’t be overlooked when analyzing their impact on a game. It forces defenses to be wary of allowing their linemen to penetrate too deeply past the line of scrimmage or committing too many linebackers to pass coverage.

Both players have good size and speed — both are 6-4, weigh between 185 and 195 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds — and possess an uncanny ability of taking a broken play and turning it into positive yardage with their feet.

“I think if teams are going to design a game plan against us, they do have to account for Tyler’s running ability,” Wilkie said.

“It’s funny because last year he passed for a lot of yards and people asked him, ‘What kind of quarterback are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m a running quarterback.’ I’m sure he enjoys throwing passes for completions, but I think if he had to pick between the two, he’d just run it.

“I don’t know if Tyler was sacked last year.  I would have to go all the way back through the film to look at it. If he was sacked, it wasn’t a drop back where somebody came off the blind side, one of those 10-yard deals. It might have been where he was scrambling up and didn’t quite get back to the line of scrimmage.

“But I can’t remember him getting sacked last year. He’s pretty heads up back there about feeling pressure and moving around. And for a kid who likes to run the ball, I think that’s part of it too. He’s not afraid to say, ‘I didn’t get the right read; I’m out of here.’ ”

The situation isn’t much different at Blaine, with Kline running the offensive show.

“When people think of our team, they think, ‘You throw the ball so much, you’re going to turn the ball over,’ ” Gerrety said. “We’re not going to make dangerous throws. We would rather lose three yards or scramble. That’s what Eric really brings to the table — his ability to make stuff happen and make good decisions about where to throw the football and where not to throw it.”

Kline and Finnes both made plenty of good things happen for their teams, especially considering they were varsity rookies at their position.They mastered the learning curve in practically no time last season.

And they set the bar high for this season.

It could be difficult for Kline and Finnes to have better seasons than they did last year.
They came in as first-year starting quarterbacks with minimal expectations. Both exceeded those expectations and put together outstanding statistical seasons.

Both helped their teams win. Accordingly, both received good grades from their coaches for their on-field efforts.

“I would give Eric a B, maybe a B+,” Gerrety says of Kline’s junior season.

“If I’m rating him as a top quarterback in the state, I would give him a B+ as a junior.  Understand it was his first year. If I was rating him as a first-year guy — you know, did he meet first-year quarterback expectations? Absolutely. I would give him an A+.

“He’s not as A+ quarterback yet, though. But as a first-year starter as a junior, he did as well as you can do. He had three interceptions on the year. That’s pretty doggone good.”

Wilkie gave Finnes a similar review for his performance as a first-time starting varsity quarterback last year.

“I would say he had pretty much an ‘A’ season for us,” Wilkie says. I don’t think we could’ve gotten more out of him.”

Both Finnes and Kline, admittedly, benefitted last year from being immersed in a strong offensive system and being surrounded by some experienced and talented players.

“The system around me helps,” said Kline, who last year had senior Mike Thai take some of the attention off him by rushing for 868 yards and 16 touchdowns and catching 60 passes for four more touchdowns.

“I give all the credit to other players and the coaches because they put me in the right positions to make plays. We’ve always had pretty good skill on the outside. They’re always making plays. You just have to give the ball to them and let them make plays.

“The quarterback is just almost like a point guard. Just give the ball to the play-makers and let them make a play for you.”

Finnes had the likes of Schneider, Nelson and Vasquez as receivers. The three combined to catch 151 of Finnes’ 201 pass completions last season. They were on the receiving end of all but two of his 25 touchdown passes.

“I had the support of our great coaches and I had the chance to work with some of my teammates like Jason [Schneider], Zach [Nelson] and Chase [Vasquez],” Finnes said. “They kind of helped me to step into my role as quarterback.  They made it really easy to step into that role.”

Kline and Finnes both lost some of their primary weapons to graduation. Thai is gone from Blaine; Schneider, Nelson and Vasquez from Andover. The result is even higher expectations of both quarterbacks. They’ll be expected to become better, stronger leaders than they have ever been.

“I think it’s time to for Tyler to become — and this is true of all of the seniors, but maybe more so when you’re a quarterback — a more vocal leader,” Wilkie said.

“I think he’s going to see more this year where there are going to be big eyes looking at him. First-time starters are going to be looking to him for leadership. He has to be that guy to make people feel comfortable out there and make the adjustments on the fly on the field with guys and kind of become that coach on the field.

“I think that’s what we’ve been able to do with our past senior quarterbacks when they’ve had their second year.

They’re supposed to take control out there and really make their teammates better.

“From a physical standpoint, Tyler a good as any high school quarterback around. He has speed and a great arm. I would say the leadership is where he’ going to make his strides this year. He’s going to become a better leader and kind of that field-general thing where’s he able to make his teammates better.”

On that subject, Finnes said:

“…Last year there were other leaders to step up. I finally started to be a leader toward the end of the season. This year, especially, I think I’m going to try to help other kids out and make sure they know what they’re doing. I’m going to try to be a good motivator, just getting people going…”

At Blaine, Gerrety is going to do his best to help manage the expectations on Kline, while helping him become a great leader..

“I think the pressure changed a little bit,” Gerrety said. “I’ve worked with him on that, talked to him about that. I don’t want him to feel pressure. I want him just to do what he does. I want him to be a great leader for our program and compete with our kids and be the guy we all lean on when we need big plays. I have no doubt that he can do that.

“I think people expect a lot out of him, which is natural because he’s a returning starter and he led his team to the section championship game and threw only three interceptions on the season.

“We just want him to be a kid, to be a leader, and do the best he can do. With that expectation, I feel really confident that he’s going to have a great year.”


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