EFFINGHAM — Months before Effingham quarterback Nate Shackelford delivered last week's come-from-behind victory in his first varsity start at quarterback, there was a certain level of annoyance.
In the summer months, as he prepared to be a quarterback — his natural position — again after spending last season as a wide receiver and defensive back, he couldn't find the arm strength that he previously possessed. In his mind, the football he launched from his right arm fell right into the receiver's arms. In reality, he was just short. It could have been a problem for the Hearts' offense and speedy receiver Tristin Duncan.
"I’m a perfectionist when it comes to this game," Shackelford said. "I want the ball where I want it. Where it is in my mind is where I want it placed in the receiver’s hands. When, every now and then, and more early than now, the balls wouldn’t be quite where I would like and it was frustrating."
Last year, former quarterback Landon Wolfe, and his big arm, couldn't overthrow Duncan. If Wolfe put the pass out there, Duncan found a way under it. The connection worked and was instrumental in a run to the Class 4A state quarterfinals. In the summer, Effingham coach Brett Hefner wondered aloud to his coaches if Shackelford could simply get the ball to Duncan for big plays.
“I don’t know if he’s going to have the arm to get it down the field to him," Hefner told his coaches.
What Hefner and Shackelford didn't realize, though, was it was simply a natural progression back to the quarterback position. The arm strength and stamina came with more reps as Shackelford's body adapted to the workload. In a Week 1 win against Breese Mater Dei, there were no residual effects of those under-thrown passes so many months ago. Shackelford was 15-of-22 for 317 yards and three touchdowns. The strong performance wasn't an official stamp of being comfortable in the position. In fact, he knew when the first day of practice began on Aug. 12 that he was completely back in quarterback mode, and those growing pains in the summer were long gone.
“Everything felt fluid," Shackelford said. "There were definitely things I still needed to work on and still need to work on, but it felt like I got a majority of my mechanics and stuff back and I definitely felt good."
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Being a quarterback wasn't anything new for Shackelford, a 6-foot senior. He'd played the position his entire life and even took reps and played a few snaps for Effingham as a sophomore and a junior. But last year Hefner knew he couldn't keep Shackelford off the field, but he had Wolfe at quarterback. They had to get creative. Shackelford played receiver and cornerback for the Hearts and played those positions in big, meaningful games on the way to 271 receiving yards and four touchdowns and an interception.
“I want to win," Shackelford said. "If coach felt like the best spot for me to play was receiver to help this team win, I was more than willing to do so. Coach could have told me to play center and I would have been more than willing to put on about 20 pounds and try to play center for them — I might not have been very good, but I would have done it. I love the game of football."
It was a precarious position for Shackelford. He had to take enough reps at quarterback to be ready if Wolfe went down with an injury, and in turn missed valuable reps he could have used as he learned how to play receiver. Back and forth he went from one position to another in practice.
“That was the balance where we felt like he was getting short changed at receiver because we were making sure he was ready quarterback-wise," Hefner said.
Eventually, Shackelford approached Hefner and said he preferred to get reps with the receivers. Hefner obliged, sensing that Wolfe would remain in good health — he did — and that Shackelford could expand his game by getting more reps at the position he was actually playing in games.
In that year as a receiver, he learned the ins and outs of the position, and he's able to translate that to being a quarterback. He knows receivers' step counts and where they prefer the passes on certain routes. That knowledge is the payoff from going back and forth last year.
“Just the hectic of going around and switching," Shackelford said. "It was fun. I’d say playing receiver last year was some of the most fun I’ve had playing football in general, but playing quarterback is still the best position. There’s something about the leadership role."