Hunt gets the nod

Former Rebel named Maryville College starter

Both run well. Both can get some air under the deep ball. Both, Maryville College coach Tony Ierulli said, will play.

Only one can start Saturday’s opener, though.

“We’re going to go with Derek,” Ierulli said on Tuesday.

The Scots skipper then leaned back in his chair and exhaled.

It had been that close.

Former Maryville High School standout Derek Hunt will get the start at quarterback when the Scots open the 2008 season at Huntingdon (Ala.) College this weekend.

Kickoff is 1 p.m. EST.

WBCR, AM 1470, will have the broadcast.

Hunt dueled throughout fall camp with fellow sophomore Tim Conner to become Maryville’s new quarterback. Injury prohibited 2007 starter Lucas Wall from returning for his junior season, fueling a spirited competition to replace him.

Neither Conner nor Hunt threw a pass for Maryville a year ago. Hunt, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, didn’t even play football last season. Deciding between the two was difficult, Ierulli said.

“Derek didn’t get the job because of anything Tim didn’t do,” he said. “Our offensive coaches made a decision, and that’s the way they went. I let them coach.”

Hunt impressed from the first day of fall camp, pacing the backs, quarterbacks and receivers during conditioning. He looked fit. He ran at the front.

He’d also grown some since Ierulli first tried to recruit him out of Maryville High in 2006. The 5-foot-11, 165-pounder was now 6-1, 184 after a year away from the game.

Hunt’s career at Maryville High, where his dizzying accuracy his senior season helped the Rebels to the third of three consecutive Class 4A championships, likely held some sway with the Scots offensive coaches.

“Maybe it was just the intangibles,” Ierulli said. “He’s been in big games.”

He’s won a lot of them, too. It was the hunger to win a few more that brought him back to football, Hunt said.

“Coach Ierulli has done a great job,” said Hunt. “He’s turned this program around. We’ve got a chance to do some good things this year.”

Hunt said he thought he was done with football after four years at Maryville High. He’d been playing quarterback since he was 7, having quarterbacked his father David’s Grasshopper team.

At Maryville High, not only did the Rebels win three state championship his last three years, they won them with unbeaten, 15-0 seasons.

That’s a lot of football.

“I didn’t think I wanted to play anymore,” Hunt said. “I wanted to go out on a high note, and you certainly get an opportunity to do that at Maryville.

“You play 15 weeks, it’s grueling, and I thought I was maxed out.”

Attending Maryville High games last season, Hunt said he got the itch to play again. In October, he contacted Ierulli and asked if he was still interested. In January, Hunt said he hit the weights in earnest to make ready.

Hunt was prized for his decision making and his speed running the option at Maryville High. As he readies for his first season with the Scots, his arm has caught up. The zip on his passes now, a product of the added muscle and a summer spent throwing, is noticeable.

The tough part was Conner possesses many of the same skills, Ierulli said. It’s why Hunt and Conner will both play on Saturday.

“Both are expected to play against Huntingdon,” Ierulli said. “We’re hoping to use both all season.”

That’s fine by Hunt. He’s been there, done that and got the state championship ring to prove it.

He split time with tall, strong-armed passer Brent Burnette his junior and senior seasons at Maryville High. Burnette, now a freshman at Middle Tennessee State University, would own all the school’s passing records before finishing last year. Hunt completed 71 percent of his passes while sharing time with Burnette in 2006, the former’s senior year, Burnette’s junior campaign.

“He’s had to learn to be patient and wait for his opportunities,” Ierulli said.

If a similar scenario develops at Maryville College, Hunt said it can only be plus for the Scots. Ierulli naming him the starter couldn’t have been an easy decision.

“He said he didn’t feel like he could go wrong,” Hunt said. “I really think Tim and I could both lead this team where it wants to be.”

The good news is neither will have to do it alone.

Maryville, ranked third in the USA South Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, returns junior All-USA South running back Rommel Hightower as the crown jewel of its offense. The chiseled Lenoir City native rushed for 1,018 yards a year ago, becoming only the fourth Scot in school history to run for 1,000 yards in a season.

Former Scots Armand Akiboh holds the Maryville mark with 1,069 yards in 1996.

For 2008, Hightower has shed some muscle to regain some lost quickness.

“Rommel looks like Rommel when he was a freshman,” Ierulli said. “He put on about 10 pounds last year, and I don’t think he was as quick as he was as a freshman.”

Junior Nick Moore, 6.1 yards per carry a year ago, is also back. Together, Hightower and Moore give Maryville a potent, 1-2 punch.

The Scots return a veteran offensive line to block for the pair. On the outside, newcomer Wesley Idlette of Baylor highlights a receiving corps Ierulli hopes will provide the balance.

“He (Idlette) runs a legit 4.4 40,” Hunt said. “He can smoke!

“He’s got good hands, and he can jump. He’s going to make some plays this year.”

The Scots are no longer a team looking for respect in the USA South. They’re now the target of teams looking to gain it, Ierulli said.

“They’re starting to think of us as an upper echelon program,” he said. “My thoughts in coming to the conference were to compete for championships, year in and year out. We should always be in a position where we’re in the top three, competing for a championship.”

The gap between Maryville and the league’s front-runners has lessened each of Ierulli’s six seasons.

“For the most part, in the big games, we have not played well,” Ierulli said.

The Scots now have a quarterback who’s been there, done that many times over.

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