ST. JOSEPH — Since the beginning of time — at least since the beginning of Dick Duval’s time at St. Joseph-Ogden — quarterback has been a favored position for the Spartans’ football team.
The varsity quarterback’s role is so vital for a team’s success that at SJ-O the player has been limited to offense only. There’s enough of a chance for an athlete to be injured while playing on one platoon, but the odds increase if the person is on the field longer.
“For that very reason, I’ve never had a quarterback start on defense since 1989,” Duval said.
As the Spartans prepare for Saturday’s 5 p.m. quarterfinal Class 3A home playoff game against unbeaten Williamsville, there’s an oddity in the lineup. Senior quarterback Dalton Walsh is one of the SJ-O regulars in the defensive secondary.
It’s more of a blip on the screen than a sign of things to come. Walsh’s dual roles came about by virtue of him being sidelined for the first two regular season games.
Sophomore Eli Oltean stepped in and played at a high level, completing more than 50 percent of his passes while throwing for 463 yards.
When the incumbent Walsh was ready to play, Duval decided he could throw the dice.
“Eli made us feel very comfortable,” Duval said. “Both are capable. I don’t feel one bit worried.”
Regardless of which athlete is behind center, the offense still will be tailback-oriented. The major difference is what else the quarterbacks offer.
“Dalton is more of a scrambler, and Eli is more of a pocket passer,” Duval said.
SJ-O (9-2) has been on a late-season run, winning seven consecutive games despite a season-ending injury to tailback Austin Hedrick during the streak.
“I wish that (injury) on no one,” Duval said, “but we were fortunate enough to have someone of the quality that Orion (Ciota) is to insert. He is not the same kind of runner.
“Austin is more power, straight-ahead. Because of his wrestling background, he had a hard-nosed mentality to go between the tackles. Orion, many times, is best-suited to be an outside-the-tackle runner.”
Hedrick finished his prep career with 1,200 yards rushing this season. Ciota has 931 yards entering the Spartans’ 12th game.
Walsh and Ciota (tailback/linebacker) are two of the Spartans’ five two-way starters. The others are Connor Janes (fullback/linebacker), Dylan Koss (tackle/defensive tackle) and Jake Stewart (flanker/defensive back).
One reason for SJ-O’s late-season surge involves Koss and his cohorts on the offensive line.
“When we started to make our run, we made some final changes and started to flip-flop our guards and tackles from strong side to quick side,” Duval said. “That made us more solid, and we’ve done a lot better job of running the ball.”
The bellwether is center Seth Griswell, whose position doesn’t change. Depending on the call, left tackle Koss and left guard Janssen Sage might move to the right side, while right tackle Ryan Koss and right guard Aaron Woller move to the opposite side.
Duval’s challenge is to make certain the play calls aren’t predictable.
“It’s not easy to figure out if we’re running from one side or the other,” he said. “We could be running behind one group, or we could be pulling (a guard) from one side.”
As for scouting, Duval likes to look at his playoff opponent’s most recent game, but his second choice for a game film varies from week to week.
“We like to get someone (on film) who runs the same stuff we do,” Duval said. “We try to get formations and tendencies, what they like to run out of certain sets, defensively when they like to blitz and who they blitz, and if there is a dominant player, where he lines up.”
In his assessment of Williamsville (11-0), Duval said, “First of all, they are probably one of the biggest teams physically we have faced. They are very athletic, even their linemen are athletic. They pose a lot of problems.”
The Bullets have played with heavy hearts since the day before their regular season finale.
Former coach Paul Jenkins — the father-in-law of current coach Aaron Kunz — passed away Oct. 24. Jenkins and Kunz are the only varsity football head coaches in the 42 years Williamsville has offered the sport.
A win by the Bullets on Saturday would give the school its second semifinal berth. The first was under Jenkins in 1988. Kunz has directed the Bullets to the quarterfinals four consecutive years.
For the second consecutive week, SJ-O is playing one of the two teams in Class 3A that had season defensive averages of less than 10 points per game. The Spartans are coming off a 35-0 win at Monticello. Williamsville allows 6.8 points per game.
The Bullets ousted Unity 45-7 last week and have yielded 11 touchdowns in 11 games. Senior quarterback Josh Lindsey leads Williamsville in passing yards (1,603) as well as rushing yards (1,273) and has accounted for 33 touchdowns between his arm and his feet. Williamsville has a 6-foot-8 defensive end (Tyler Burdine) and is led in tackling by junior linebacker Nick Cox (111 stops).
Saturday’s winner between Williamsville and SJ-O will be matched up with the survivor between Greenville (11-0) at Mount Carmel (10-1).