Football preview: What it takes to be the best quarterback

Northwestern-bound Lloyd Yates showed signs of being an elite quarterback as early as his sophomore year at Oak Park-River Forest, calling an audible that helped the Huskies win in overtime against Hinsdale Central. | Brian O’Mahoney/for Sun-Times Media
Northwestern-bound Lloyd Yates showed signs of being an elite quarterback as early as his sophomore year at Oak Park-River Forest, calling an audible that helped the Huskies win in overtime against Hinsdale Central. | Brian O’Mahoney/for Sun-Times Media

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Lloyd Yates flashed his quarterback potential late in his sophomore year with Oak Park-River Forest.

It was the seventh game of the season, and the Huskies had just scored to get within one point of Hinsdale Central in overtime on the road. Oak Park-River Forest decided to attempt a 2-point conversion, and the call from the sideline was a speed option to the right side, where the Huskies had three receivers lined up.

The play — which called for Yates to take the snap and run right, either keeping the ball himself or pitching it to a back — had worked throughout the game, but in overtime Yates noticed that the Red Devils were overloading the strong side. The rookie quarterback changed the play, flipping it to the other side.

The Huskies got the two points, and the 42-41 win.

“They had effectively negated our advantage,” Oak Park-River Forest coach John Hoerster said of the Hinsdale Central defense. “For us to be successful, he had to do something. For him to be able to notice what they were doing and get us in a better position proved a lot to me.”

Along with the physical attributes it takes to be successful — strong arm, quick release, nimble feet — quarterbacks must be able to understand the game and read its ever-evolving situations. Maine South offensive coordinator Charlie Bliss likens playing quarterback to putting together a puzzle with the pieces in constant motion.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Yates, for example, has physical tools and “can do it all athletically,” according to Hoerster.

“But he has the mental makeup to make good decisions and be smart with the football,” said Hoerster, who played quarterback at York and at the University of Dayton.

That combination doesn’t always happen naturally.

Yates, who gave a verbal commitment to Northwestern in July, said he takes pride in studying the game. He watches a lot hours of film, both at school and on his own with the aid of a website called Hudl.

“I really look at myself,” he said. “What did I do wrong? How can I improve? What did I do right? I just want to be better than the game before, make better reads, know when to run.”

That type of effort can help win the trust of a coaching staff, which is something even the most talented quarterbacks must accomplish. Like Yates, Stevenson’s Willie Bourbon has been starting at quarterback since his sophomore season. As the 6-1, 195-pounder has developed, his coaches have gradually given him more freedom.

“Sophomore year they gave me the play, but last year even if it was a run play, I had some options to pass,” Bourbon said. “If it was a pass play, there were several checks out of those. I had more range of decisions last year, where to go with the ball and how to get it there.”

“The more games you see, the more the coach trusts you.”

But even a trustworthy quarterback will make mistakes, which is something Bliss has seen firsthand.

Few coaches in the state know more about developing a high-level quarterback than Bliss, who was a star quarterback at Chicago’s Schurz and Northeastern Illinois University before playing semi-pro football.

He arrived as a coach at Maine South in 1989 and has helped the program to five state championships. Matt Alviti, one of Bliss’ recent quarterbacks, is a redshirt freshman at Northwestern who is competing for a backup spot.

Bliss has another good one this season in junior Brian Collis. In a 34-21 win over Oak Park-River Forest in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs last season, Collis overcame two interceptions to throw three touchdowns, including one with no time left in the first half and another after a 12-play drive to open the third quarter.

“Reading the game was one of the toughest things to deal with, dealing with something thrown your way,” said Collis, who is 6-2 and 185 pounds. “You will make mistakes, but you have to be able to recognize what is going on in the game and be able to bounce back.”

Mistakes are inevitable, but the top quarterbacks are able to regroup.

“You have to have a kid who loves to compete,” Bliss said. “Some don’t want to work and want to be good. I know that sounds crazy. You’ve got to be able to handle the position.”

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