Backup Quarterbacks Sometimes Are Thrown into the Bright Lights
By Tyler Horka
That’s the number senior quarterback Matthew Gense wears on his red, white and blue Westlake Chaparrals jersey. And until the second week of this football season, it was higher than the number of passes he had attempted in his entire high school career.
The 5-foot-10, 156-pound Gense threw the ball four times last year as a junior. He watched from the sideline for all but three games as classmate Sam Ehlinger led the Austin-area team to the 2015 Texas 6A state title game. Westlake High School lost to Houston North Shore 21–14.
Then, in August, Ehlinger tore the meniscus in his left knee, sidelining the former Texas Associated Press Player of the Year for four weeks. In stepped Gense.
Backup quarterbacks such as Gense don’t often play. But few positions are more important, even among the starters.
Former University of Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert learned that in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against the University of Alabama. He was thrown into the fire when four-year starter Colt McCoy left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Gilbert threw four interceptions in a 37–21 loss to the Crimson Tide, showing how difficult it is for a backup quarterback to shine when the lights are the brightest.
“I think the hardest job is just trying to stay focused,” Gense said. “You hear it all the time as a backup quarterback, ‘You’re one play away..’ ”
Gense completed 10 of his 24 pass attempts for 107 yards and a single touchdown in the first start of his career. His team lost 21-14 to Las Vegas Liberty.
But Gense didn’t give up, and his team didn’t give up on him.
Ehlinger’s injury kept him out for three more weeks, gave giving Gense three more starts. The backup led Westlake to a 35-0 victory over Pflugerville, tossing for a touchdown and a career-high 126 yards passing. The Chaps rattled off two more consecutive wins under Gense’s command, as the senior settled into a rhythm he had never quite experienced as a high school quarterback.
“The best part about being a backup quarterback is you’re respected by your team,” Gense said. “I think that everybody knows the kind of situation that I’m in. They know that I could be in next play. So they got to respect me, just like I respect them.”
Westlake head coach Todd Dodge said he didn’t expect Gense to shine against a nationally ranked, out-of-state team in his first career start. But he did say he’s thoroughly impressed by the way his backup quarterback played in the three games since the loss to Liberty.
“One of the things that we preach around here all through the off-season and in everything we do is take inventory of things we can control, and injuries are not one of them,” Dodge said. “We talk about the next man up. Matt Gense, he’s held down the fort.”
It happens everywhere, from high school football to the NFL. Dallas Cowboys starter Tony Romo injured his back in the Cowboys’ third preseason game this year against the Seattle Seahawks. Many feared the Cowboys would endure a dreadful season like the previous year, when they went 4-12. Romo played in only four of those games but accounted for three of the wins.
The Cowboys didn’t have a Matthew Gense step up for them last year. Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore went a combined 1–11 as starting quarterbacks. This season, however, Dallas’ Gense appeared in the form of Dak Prescott, a fourth-round draft selection from Mississippi State University. Prescott has led the Cowboys to a 8–1 record, tied for tops in the NFC. He threw for 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions along the way.
Riley Dodge, Todd Dodge’s son, is a former high school standout quarterback from Southlake Carroll, where the two Dodges teamed up to win a state championship in 2006. Riley played for the University of North Texas and McNeese State University, starting at quarterback at both institutions. It wasn’t until Riley started coaching that he realized just how important the second quarterback on the depth chart really is.
“The most important person in the program is the backup quarterback,” Riley Dodge said. “When you have a star quarterback that is getting majority of the reps, you got to put a ton of time and energy into the backup. That’s something I really didn’t think of at a young age.”
It’s something Gense has thought about for two years playing behind Ehlinger. It’s certainly not something sophomore Taylor Anderson thought about coming into the season as Westlake’s third option at quarterback. But that changed quickly.
Gense injured his collarbone Sept. 30 against Hays and had surgery the following week. Ehlinger returned against Hays, but injured his thumb Oct. 7 against Lake Travis. He was done done for the year.
The field was then Anderson’s. Sophomore Sam Saxton stayed ready, too.