South Charleston quarterback Jon Alexander loosens up before a recent practice.
Someone had to be the guy who followed Tyler Harris, and that someone turned out to be Jon Alexander.
Alexander, a mere sophomore, found himself taking over at quarterback last year for South Charleston with a daunting task - trying to live up to the accomplishments of Harris, the three-year starter who did just about everything one football player could do.
Harris directed the Black Eagles to back-to-back Class AAA state championships (2008-09) and the semifinals the following year. SC walked off the field a winner in 39 of 41 games those three years, though it later had to forfeit a playoff semifinal win in 2010.
Also, Harris won the 2009 Kennedy Award as the state's top player, was twice a first-team all-state pick and earned team MVP honors during the 2008 Super Six title win in Wheeling.
So when Alexander took over at quarterback last fall to lead a bunch of other youthful players, it was nearly a no-win situation. He certainly couldn't match Harris' production in that scenario and SC ended up 5-5 and out of the playoffs.
But when South Charleston coach John Messinger was pointing out his most-improved players last week, Alexander was at the top of the list.
"He's grown up,'' Messinger said. "He's matured a little bit. He's matured not only on the field, but in the classroom. Now he's never going to be a Tyler Harris-type and to me, that's wonderful. And I'm not saying that out of anything Tyler Harris ever did wrong because that was self-evident. Tyler was Tyler and there was none better, in my opinion. He was a winner.
"No matter what the situation or what the game or where you were on the field, you could always count on Tyler to get you to the end zone. Jon is starting to be that and understand that. But he's going to do it in a different way. He may not run over somebody like Tyler did, but he's got the ability to get around somebody.''
Alexander had his moments last year.
He threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over Ripley and ran for 96 yards in the same game. He passed for 173 yards and three scores on Nitro and rushed for 61 more. Against Riverside, Alexander threw for two TDs and ran for a third.
All told, he had 1,067 yards and 14 touchdowns passing and tacked on 429 yards and four scores on the ground. Not bad, especially for a sophomore and a first-year starter.
Messinger and his offensive coordinator, Donnie Mays, believe Alexander is ready to take the next step and guide the Black Eagles back to the glory days.
"What we're looking for from Jon, first and foremost, is we're looking for leadership,'' Messinger said. "We made it clear coming into this fall that this is his offense to run. He's got to go out there and he's got to make this offense click.
"Second, he's got to understand that he's got to play within his abilities. His numbers last year were pretty good. He's the kind of kid who can leave here in a couple years with better numbers than Tyler did, but he's just going to go about it in a different way.''
Messinger and his staff base their projections about Alexander on what they saw from him during the three-week summer practice period in June, when SC went against past trends and participated in a number of 7-on-7 workouts, which emphasize the pass.
"I've been a bit of an old curmudgeon when it comes to 7-on-7 and traveling around the country doing it,'' Messinger said. "This year, I really loosened up a little bit because I saw how important it could be to us, especially with the skills-position people and some of those young guys. Even though they got a whole year under their belt, they still didn't have that edge yet. So we attended a lot of 7-on-7s this spring, and it really helped us.
"It really helped Jon. He's finally realized what a read is to him. Your read is based on your defense, not your offense. And he's learned the little things. His arm's gotten stronger, his footwork's gotten better. No doubt he's learned to read defenses better.''
Alexander feels that his game is now at a higher level.
"I do,'' he said. "I had a lot of offseason work. [Mays] helped me a lot reading the defenses [in the 7-on-7s], and he was still behind me and in my ear. But now it's all natural, and I'm out there with the line in front of me.
"And then on top of that, my linemen have been working all offseason. All summer, they gave me more time and I can go through my progressions and read our plays a lot better, and make a lot better choices.''
So what's the most important thing Alexander learned in the offseason? He didn't hesitate to answer.
"No interceptions,'' he smiled. "My main goal is no interceptions.''
Not even Tyler Harris could do that.
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org