The fourth quarterback: Improbable starter Blake Vinson leads Anson into football playoffs
ANSON — As summer workouts began to wind down, Anson football coach Chris Hagler told Blake Vinson he didn't have to keep coming to quarterback drills.
But that didn't deter the junior.
Vinson, then the fourth option at quarterback, continued to show up and work toward the position he coveted since switching from receiver on the JV.
Little did he — or anyone — know, Vinson would emerge as the starter for the Tigers, who open the playoffs Friday against Winters.
"I didn't really have any intention of being the quarterback at all," Vinson said. "Having this chance is a big opportunity. I'm glad I get to have it."
Started in the summer
Anson had a quarterback competition entering the year, although Hagler said senior Isaac Brann had a firm grasp on the starting job. Following him were Dylyn Pyle, Mason Hagler and Vinson, in that order.
Coach Hagler liked a little bit about each player, but Vinson, who stands 5-foot-10, 140 pounds, didn't quite stick out in the preseason.
It got to a point where Hagler was ready to trim the quarterback group to three, and he let Vinson know his best chance at playing would likely be at receiver.
"We felt like he might could play some receiver for us," Hagler said. "We really didn't have a spot for him other than that."
Vinson wasn't ready to give up on his dream position. Despite the offer to skip quarterback drills, the junior stayed after strength and conditioning workouts to keep perfecting his craft.
"Lo and behold, he just kept coming," Hagler said. "He just wouldn't quit. I don't know if he had nothing else to do, but he worked. That's his work habit. He works hard. He just kept coming, knowing he probably wasn't going to be the guy."
Waiting his turn
Brann, last year's backup, started the first game and had a solid performance against Winters, the Tigers' opponent Friday. The senior finished 10 of 16 passing for 138 yards and three touchdowns. Much of that was in the first half, prior to Brann hurting his knee.
Brann finished the game but later learned he had suffered a season-ending injury. That's what started Anson's quarterback carousel, which swung to Pyle for the next three games.
Pyle had never played quarterback, but Hagler banked on the junior's athleticism. Pyle was solid in the passing and running game in wins over Coleman and Dublin before the Tigers ran into a buzzsaw in No. 2-ranked Hamlin.
Anson needed to find itself offensively following the 48-6 drubbing, and Hagler decided a change at quarterback might do the trick. It allowed Pyle to move back to his original position at receiver, too.
The plan was to start Vinson in the nondistrict finale, but Albany canceled the game because of COVID-19. That made the junior's first start the district opener against rival Stamford.
"When (Hagler) first told me, I was pretty nervous," Vinson said. "My teammates stepped up and talked to me. I fit right in, and it was fun."
It was plenty fun for the Tigers, who held off Stamford 41-34 behind their improbable starter.
"It was pretty much a gamble," Hagler said. "We were headed into that Stamford game knowing that that was going to be the 'make' or the 'break' of the season...We really didn't know what we were getting (with Vinson). There were lots of unknowns."
Winning the locker room
Vinson finished 23 of 32 passing for 367 yards, four TDs and one interception. Jacob Jenkins helped out the new starter with eight catches for 210 yards and scoring grabs of 66, 38 and 64 yards.
Pyle fit right back in as well, catching 10 passes for 101 yards and a TD.
But the impact may have been even bigger than Vinson's numbers.
Coach Hagler said one of the most important attributes he wants from his signal-caller is leadership. Vinson put that on display after helping Anson dig out of a 22-14 halftime deficit.
Vinson's poise was more than enough to win over the locker room.
"He brought out confidence in everyone," senior receiver Julian Garcia said. "We knew he was going to make the right plays...He's been a great leader. The quarterback runs the whole show on offense, and he's played that part perfect. I couldn't ask more from him."
Vinson is the first to say he hasn't done it alone. The Tigers boast speedy receivers, and stout defense takes pressure off the junior. Senior lineman Wyatt Whitaker said the defense had to step up as Anson figured out the quarterback position, but he's confident the team is clicking heading into the postseason.
"There were times when we weren't putting up as many points as we usually do, so we had to make a stop (on defense)," Whitaker said. "But now, our quarterback Blake Vinson is doing a heck of a job...Just like the rest of us, he's getting better every week."
The Tigers (7-2 overall) went 4-1 through district with Vinson at the helm, their lone loss a 21-20 decision to league champion Hawley. Vinson threw four TDs in three of those games and has 16 on the season. He's thrown for 1,216 yards.
Friday will be another test for Vinson, who admitted he's nervous about his first playoff game. But the junior has cleared plenty of hurdles this year, starting in the summer.
"He did good the next game and the next game, and next thing you know, through four games he's piled up 1,000 yards passing," Hagler said. "...He's able to get it to those guys that we need him to get it to. He's a good manager of the game. He's pretty tough, physically and mentally.
"He started fitting all the things that we wanted, so here we are."