In middle school, make that freshman year, you would have been hard pressed to pick Nicco Stepina out as a sure-fire quarterback candidate. He wasn’t that fast and was one of the youngest in his grade — the senior just turned 17 this month.
But the Casey-Westfield leader is anything but unnoticeable now. Leading the Warriors through a transition on offense last year, he forged ahead with a new fast-paced offense — something the area had really never seen before. It was a happy coincidence for then first-year coach Jim Sullivan and offensive coordinator Tom Monken — the inaugural year they debuted the read-option offense, here came Stepina, who hit a growth and speed spurt at exactly the right time.
Stepina always had wanted to play quarterback. That had been his spot since the fifth grade, enjoying the spotlight and being a leader on the team. But in Casey, the Warriors are known for brutal, bruising football, nothing like what was run in 2012. So growing up, Stepina had never known much of a read-option besides what he saw on TV.
“I watched it on college, it just looked like so much fun racking up all those yards,” Stepina said. “I mean, we got a new offensive coordinator a couple seasons ago, but there’s time for a change. He put it in and we’ve believed in it since day one, and we’ve gotten really good now.”
Sullivan said Stepina was competing with a couple of other players for the spot last year, but once the staff saw his speed and athleticism, it became apparent he would be the guy for the system.
“Nicco fit athletically what we wanted to do,” Sullivan said. “He’s one the top athletes I’ve ever had. Not many athletes that can run a 4.4 40. He can do things you can’t teach.”
For actually running the offense though, Stepina said he needed all the practice he could get. While the athleticism may help in outmaneuvering a safety, you need to understand what the defense is planning to do to actually get there.
“Before every practice, we’d do the mesh drill with the running backs,” he said. “We’d watch read keys, we’d watch film, we’d work on different defensive formations, different defensive fronts.
“It’s a lot more presnap. You see, think of what you have to do before the play, more than a reaction during the play.”
He learned rather quickly. Opening Week 1 against Olney — who would go undefeated for the rest of the season — Stepina put up gaudy numbers. He rushed for 145 yards, including a touchdown, on just 12 carries and added a touchdown through the air.
From there though, it was up and down in terms of production. Mainly because Casey had two senior running backs in Dalton Livvix and Ajaye Meeks who were talented in their own right. Stepina still finished with respectable numbers — 714 yards rushing and 854 yards passing. He had a knack for getting it in the end zone, accounting for 25 total touchdowns.
That doesn’t seem to faze the quarterback. For Stepina, he doesn’t mind taking some extra time to run through the offense with some of the newer players because he knows how much Monken meant in helping him be prepared from day one.
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“Yeah, actually today after practice a couple kids were … forgetting plays,” Stepina said last week, “so I kept them after practice and went up to the whiteboard and drew out the plays and made them go through and point out what they had to do.
“They weren’t too happy that I kept them after practice, but it was needed.”
The teaching is something he’s used to. Stepina has two younger brothers, E.J. and Thor, and thanks to a little teaching from their older brother, Casey may have a couple of highly prepared players several years from now.
“I’ve always taught my little brothers. I mean, I taught Thor — my little brother, fourth-grader — the read-option, just messing around in the backyard,” Stepina said. “I showed him all of the passing routes, and draw them out for them so they know.
“So yeah, I guess, I’ve always wanted to be in that role because of being quarterback and being the leader. I feel like everyone needs to be prepared as much as me.”
That may be the key to Casey’s season this year. Stepina said it was key having the seniors on the field and deferring to them while playing a backup role. Now the leader, Stepina said he knows he needs to find players to replace his role last year, and Casey is working in a few wrinkles to assure that.
“This offseason, we’ve been working a lot on getting a pitch relationship,” Stepina said. “We kind of had a problem with that in the new offense. … We’ve been working on the pass offense as well, going through play-action stuff, spread-out stuff.”
Sullivan wants to improve the consistency — Stepina came away from last year with a 56 percent completion percentage.
“The things that we talked abut improving is his completion rate. He’s accurate, but he would gun stuff in there,” Sullivan said. “We joked with him we were going to let him throw it all over it place, and he wouldn’t have lasted long. We need that to be around 65 (percent).”
First on the schedule is Olney East Richland, and sure, Stepina and the rest of Casey want to win Week 1, but they have a larger goal in mind.
“I want to make it to Week 14,” he said. “I want to win a state championship with my team.”