DECATUR — Nicco Stepina looked down at his feet, laughed, then shook his head while reflecting on the time when he was first asked to become a passing quarterback.
Stepina, a Millikin junior, was a triple-option quarterback at Casey-Westfield High School, where he went 22-2 in two seasons as a starter. He was a decent passer, but an explosive runner.
When he transferred to Millikin in 2015 from a triple-option program in Lenoir-Rhyne, the Big Blue coaching staff at that time told him he’d need to learn a new, more spread-oriented offense in which his primary role would be to pass. Stepina wanted to play at Millikin, so he committed to it.
But within the first couple of weeks of spring football, he went into the offensive coordinator’s office and told him: “My head is spinning when I’m out there. I don’t know what’s going on.
“I kept thinking, this new offense isn’t going to work for me,” Stepina said.
But two years later, Stepina has successfully made the transition. Last year he was the conference’s most prolific passer, throwing for 2,467 yards and 22 touchdowns. Through two games this year, he’s been even more prolific while also cutting down his interceptions (he had 13 last year). So far he’s thrown for 668 yards and 10 touchdowns with no interceptions in two games.
“I had to learn to read coverages and learn pass protections … it was a whirlwind as a freshman,” Stepina said. “But I just had to take it slow and learn new things every day, and I think each year, even as what I’ve learned has gotten more in-depth, it’s gotten easier for me.”
Saturday against North Central, Millikin will face a quarterback Big Blue coach Dan Gritti considers to be the best in Division III — North Central sophomore Broc Rutter, last year’s College Conference Of Illinois And Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year.
Rutter, a Naperville Neuqua Valley grad, originally enrolled at Indiana State, but transferred to North Central, where he became the team’s starting quarterback as a freshman and completed 230 of 351 passes for 3,237 yards and 38 touchdowns. So far this year he’s passed for 508 yards and three touchdowns.
“His arm talent is off the charts, but he plays within the context of the offense — he doesn’t try to do too much,” Gritti said. “He knows his opportunities will come. And when you give them to him, he’s going to take them, and then some.”
But, Gritti said he thinks Stepina has taken the next step as a quarterback, and this game is the perfect chance to prove he’s Rutter’s equal or better.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can make the argument that Nicco isn’t the second-best quarterback in our conference, and therefore one of the top 10 in the country,” Gritti said. “If Nicco goes out and has a great game and leads us to a win, I think you’re making the argument that he’s the best quarterback in the conference and one of the top five in the country.”