PORTAGE — Last year, when Portage quarterback Zack Warchus entered the huddle, he rarely said much.
At times, he didn't say anything.
Now, the senior is issuing commands and directing his teammates. Warchus enters his second season as a starter ready to lead what could be a potent Portage offense — a big reason the Indians enter the season ranked No. 10 in The Times Top 10.
“Last year, there was a huge learning curve,” Portage coach Darren Rodriguez said. “He played well at times and did some really good things. Then like any first year quarterback, he had some things that he had to do a little bit better job at. It's good to have him now, Year Two. I really think you can tell, picking up coverages, understanding stuff.”
Warchus got the chance to step in for Anthony Maceo in the sectional final against Crown Point two seasons ago, but Rodriguez said he knew that experience alone wouldn't prepare him to start.
Last season, Warchus completed 54-of-122 passes for 798 yards to go with five touchdowns and seven interceptions as the Indians went 4-6. Portage suffered numerous injuries to its offensive line, and Rodriguez said Warchus never got a chance to feel completely comfortable in the pocket.
Warchus saved his best for last, though. In Portage's last two games of the season, Warchus went a combined 22-for-37 for 304 yards, a touchdown and two picks against LaPorte and CP. He added 17 rushes for 138 yards and a score against the Slicers.
They were arguably Warchus' two best games of the season, and the team believes he has the talent around him to extend that play into 2019. H-back Scott Hansen returns, and Portage features a stable of young speedsters at wide receiver that includes Mey-sin Hollowell, Kody Taylor and Tylee Swopes.
Rodriguez said that deep group could allow Portage to utilize its short passing game more.
“We've got a lot of explosive young guys who can get open,” Warchus said. “It makes my job easy. They just catch the ball and run with it so I can sling it around a little bit.”
Defensively, Portage returns four of 11 starters. The Indians lose their top three leading tackles in TeAngelo Rayner, Jordan Warner and Joshua Warmick. Rodriguez has had to get creative by assessing which offensive players could be fits on the defensive side.
Xavier Alvarez could be Portage's top returner at linebacker, and Hansen will return to safety as a two-way player. The coaching staff continues to try to find which players fit where, and that could extend into the regular season.
“That's what I think, as a staff, is our biggest concern,” Rodriguez said. “We have some kids, I think, that can do things. But it's gonna be more trial and error. They're gonna have to get their feet wet. No matter what, they're gonna be guys who are playing for the first time on a Friday night.”
The upperclassmen, including Warchus and Hansen, will play a major role in helping the new faces handle the pressure. Hansen said that while it may take a couple of games for the new starters to adjust to the speed of play, he's confident they'll settle in. Plus, they'll have an experienced offense to lean on.
What's Hansen's advice to the young guys?
“They have to keep going, keep their heads up, because there's so much adversity in a football game. They can't stay focused on one play. They've just gotta keep going.”