WARRENSBURG — There's an inherent risk in letting your quarterback unleash his running abilities in practices. Most coaches, especially before their team even plays a game in the season, aren't keen on the idea of opening up their guy for a potential injury.
Typically, if a quarterback scrambles away, the coaching staff waits for a defender to put a couple hands on the runner and the play is blown dead. No risk necessary.
Before Warrensburg-Latham played Cerro Gordo-Bement in the opening week of last season, then first-year head coach Aaron Fricke was playing it safe. He had awarded the starting job to Nate Hayes, who could probably throw a 35-yard pass better than a five-yard out route.
The offense was still relatively vanilla, not yet tailored around Hayes' abilities. Hayes beat out Mitchell Leathers, who was a senior on the team. By the time the Cardinals left their home field on Aug. 24 with a 20-15, season-opening win over Cerro Gordo-Bement, Fricke was shocked — this Hayes kid has wheels.
He broke off a 76-yard touchdown for the first score of the season on a broken play. On the sidelines, Fricke told Hayes those types of plays won't always happen and that he missed two open receivers. That was before Hayes added a 93-yard rushing touchdown later in the game. Suddenly, Fricke and his coaching staff had to incorporate more running plays into the system.
“You have those kids who are gamers, where you can’t coach it, but they have this other gear in the game," Fricke said. "Those two long runs, those won the game for us Week 1 and that set the tone for us the rest of the season."
Flash forward a year, and the entire offense begins with Hayes, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior with bouncy hair, whiskery facial hair and a year of quarterbacking under his belt.
“It’s definitely going to be centered around what he can do and we’ll branch off from there," Fricke said.
Hayes didn't even play the position when he transferred from Eisenhower to Warrensburg following his freshman season. Midway through his sophomore year, former coach Scott Godfrey moved Hayes from a running back to a quarterback.
“I could always throw a ball, so it wasn’t really that hard for me," Hayes said.
In Hayes' first showing as a full-time starter, he threw for 1,442 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and showed his running ability with 879 yards and nine touchdowns, with four rushes coming on plays of 40 yards or more. Of course, Hayes wasn't particularly shocked that he could run. After all, he'd been a running back briefly as a sophomore before the position switch.
“In practice, I really can’t get hit," Hayes said. "There’s no point in me really trying to bust a play when it’s going to get called dead when someone slaps my shoulders. There’s no point in doing that in practice. ... Obviously everyone knew I could run, but I wasn’t that fast my sophomore year. Everyone was surprised I got faster."
As the season went on, Fricke started calling more designed quarterback runs, especially power runs to the inside to take advantage of Hayes' size, and needs Hayes to be an extension of that this season. There were times that throwing the ball was a rocky proposition last year. He was 11-of-29 for 133 yards and two interceptions in his first two games before finding his groove as a passer. In a Week 3 win over Sullivan-Okaw Valley, he was 9-of-16 for 201 yards and a touchdown. He followed that by going 10-of-16 for 141 yards and two scores in a win against Central A&M. In Week 5 against Shelbyville he was 7-of-14 for 206 yards and four passing touchdowns. Suddenly, he was figuring this job out.
“It took me a couple weeks to really start completing passes a lot," Hayes said.
Hayes was learning on the fly on Friday nights, but always had that gear to clean up any mistakes. He established a tone. Now, with just two returners on offense, it's Hayes' team and he's got plenty of on-the-spot training to help him.
“He had to make a lot of plays last year, and I don’t know if he was expecting that — having to be ‘the guy,'" Fricke said. "We put a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He had a good senior class around him, but he had to grow up quick. ... Now this year, I think he knows that he’s capable of those kinds of things and he can kind of be the leader now. It’s been interesting to kind of see that growth."