Gene's Blog: Small-town QBs... a 2016 update

The internet is an interesting place. People from different worlds -- even folks who've never met face to face -- can have their lives and stories intersect. The world web web keeps those stories alive and provides updated chapters as time passes.

Six years ago during the Tommies' 2010 football season, I wrote this blog on small-town quarterbacks in college football.

That 2010 story featured then St. Thomas junior Dakota Tracy, who came to campus from Geneva, Minn., population 449. Tracy was a first-year starter that season leading his team to an NCAA Division III quarterfinal appearance. In 2011 he helped UST reach the national semifinals.

The 5-foot-9 Tracy built a 28-2 record as a Tommie starter, including 24 consecutive regular-season wins. In his 14-game senior season alone he passed for 2,277 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for 499 yards and nine TDs. He was in Glenn Caruso's first recruiting class and helped the program's steady rise. Tracy will also be remembered on a select list of St. Thomas quarterbacks to post back-to-back victories over archrival St. John's.

Tracy's younger teammates carried on the tradition and eventually produced two NCAA championship-game berths. Tracy's successor at QB was Matt O'Connell, a native of Clear Lake, Wis., population 1,900. O'Connell helped St. Thomas to a 14-0 start and an NCAA runner-up finish in 2012.

Seven months after the 2010 blog was posted on Tommiesports.com, an email arrived from Colton, Wash. Through the magic of a Google search, a dad saw the story on Tommiesports.com. His son was a talented quarterback for his 8-man high school football team and liked the theme of finding talent off the beaten path.

 

Trying to Break Through

His son, Josh Straughan, was a three-sport all-stater on the plains of eastern Washington as a QB, point guard and pitcher-infielder. He also had a 3.90 gpa in the classroom.

Heading into his senior year, Josh was receiving little major-college recruiting interest, no thanks to being from a town of 431 residents in a rural area. No, you can't see Russia from the Starughan property, but on a clear day, the town of Moscow (Idaho) comes into view 24 miles to the northeast. Most recruiting attention Josh did get was self driven.

"Your article was very uplifting for both my boys," Gene Straughan wrote.

In a follow-up email he said, "Please let Coach (Glenn) Caruso and anyone else know about my sons. You never know something good may come out of it. Perhaps he will know someone who is looking for QBs."

The story that student worker Jake Navarro and I researched in 2010 left me with a soft spot for small-town athletes. Maybe it's because both my parents grew up in towns of fewer than 4,000 residents. Maybe it was the many folks I met from tiny towns in my college days as an Iowa Stater. Maybe I felt a connection because this dad had the quirky slogan "air it out football" in his e-mail address.

I shared with Gene Straughan an anecdote about my first sports writing job out of college, a small daily newspaper in the panhandle of Nebraska. One of the area high schools we covered in the sprawling ranch country was Rushville, a town with 1,100 residents, no parking meters and no stoplights. Rushville High had a classic dropback QB who was getting recruiting buzz.

I only stayed in that job for 17 months, but later learned that the player, Kelly Stouffer, was recruited to a junior college, blew up, and went on to take a scholarship at Colorado State. He had three successful seasons in Fort Collins, was named offensive MVP of the East-West Shrine Game, and was picked No. 6 by the St. Louis Rams in round one of the 1987 NFL draft.

(Unfortunately, Stouffer held out his rookie season in a contract dispute with a notoriously frugal owner. He was traded to Seattle and had a modest five-year career with the Seahawks and later had brief stints with the Dolphins and Panthers. He later coached his old Rushville High team for three seasons and commutes from his home area to weekend college football analyst gigs on ESPN and ABC).

While I'm no expert on Division I recruiting, I exchanged e-mails with Gene Straughan and tried to offer encouragement and ideas to get onto the radar of college recruiters. I didn't want to burst Josh's bubble, but there was this reality: A) quarterback is the most difficult position to get recruited at any level of college football, especially an 8-man player; and B) only about one percent of high-school football players go on and play in a scholarship program. It would seem like pushing a boulder up Mount Rainer if he wanted to go from 8-man football to Division I as a quarterback.

I also pointed out that every high-school recruit's circumstances are different. Chasing a dream in college athletics has many meanings: The Division I success stories are sweet, yet scores of people have chosen a smaller level like Division III and loved their on- and off-field experience.

Plus, for a handful of unique athletes, with the internet and the way scouting has evolved, it's not impossible these days for the top Division II or III or NAIA player to get exposure and get invited to an NFL tryout camp or a pro day.

Josh understandably wanted to see how good he could be in football at the highest level possible. His parents understandably wondered if they could afford pursuing a walk-on or non-athletic scholarship opportunity with a modest income and two future college tuition bills.

Josh went to several prospect camps in the summer of 2011 before his senior year. Some Division I coaches were intrigued when they watched Josh work out, and a couple hinted that a scholarship might come. But in the end only Alcorn State and Jackson State offered, and he didn't find the right academic and football fit at those schools.

The young man also looked at Division II and NAIA scholarship programs. He even considered going to the University of British Columbia in Canada.

 

Tuscaloosa Chapter

Eventually Josh took what he thought was his best opportunity and chose to play in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Not with Coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, however: but with a scholarship from Coach Teddy Keaton at crosstown NCAA Stillman College, a Division II Historically Black College which brought back its football program in 1999 after a 48-year hiatus.

In his first college game as a true freshman, with his team trailing 20-7, Josh came off the bench and rallied Stillman to a 28-27 victory. He started the final 10 games that fall. He grew into an all-conference and all-region player despite thrwing with a partially-torn labrum as a junior. He would go on to complete neary 500 passes and throw for 5,557 yards and score 55 touchdowns in 25 games for the Tigers.

He made a preseason Division II All-America team in 2015, but a shoulder injury prompted him to take a redshirt year to let his injury heal. Josh graduated early in December 2015 with a 3.90 grade-point average. Stillman didn't have a grad program for him. He still had one season of eligibility left and pursued the option to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing Division I as a fifth-year grad transfer.

He sent game film and received several FCS scholarship offers. He decided to visit Austin Peay (Tenn.) State, which competes in the Ohio Valley Conference. It seemed like a mutually-good fit and in mid-November he accepted a scholarship and enrolled there in grad school. A few weeks later that dream was dashed when APSU fired its coaches. The interim staff tried to keep Josh and said the team would still build around him. But when the new staff was hired it decided to go a different direction with its style of offense -- and with Josh's scholarship. By now it was nearly Christmas.

On Christmas Day 2015, he got a call from the newly-hired coach at Southern Illinois, and they discussed him coming to Carbondale, Ill., to visit. After that trip Josh was offered and accepted a scholarship with the school in the Missouri Valley Conference, regarded as the nation's best FCS league.

New SIU coach Nick Hill was a standout QB at Southern Illinois and later played in the NFL. Josh's position coach would be John Van Dam, who played at Michigan State and coached on the staffs at Alabama, Michigan, and Florida. Josh saw this as his chance to play D1 college football and learn everything about playing the quarterback position from two up-and-coming talented coaches.

 

Saluki Days

Josh enrolled last January in graduate school at SIU ready to compete in spring practices. Despite a broken finger on his throwing hand and having to learn a new offense, he came out of the spring in a tight race for the starting QB job. (I had to laugh when I saw that Josh was in a dead heat with a player from of all places, Ames, Iowa).

Josh was tabbed the Salukis' starter last August. Southern Illinois played at FBS Florida Atlantic in its opener and also faced several nationally-ranked FBS teams in the tough Missouri Valley. Josh led an offense that averaged 457 yards and 32 points a game. In the team's first eight games, he threw for 2,429 yards and 15 touchdowns with only four interceptions while completing 67 percent. He ranked in the top two in the conference in passing yards and total offense, and twice was selected conference Newcomer of the Week.

He was named the FCS Player of the Week by passing for 289 yards and four TDs in a 50-17 defeat of Murray State. His 380-yard passing day against ranked South Dakota State was one of four 300-yard days he recorded. That helped put him in the top 10 in several FCS stats.

Despite Josh's strong play and SIU's offensive success, the Salukis still had a 2-6 record in late October. With an eye on next season, the SIU coaches decided to start sophomore Sam Straub at QB over the final three games. Josh found himself as a backup for the first time in his life.

The sting was eased a bit when Josh was named to the Missouri Valley All-Newcomer Team, and when he accepted an invite to play in the Dec. 4 Natural Bowl all-star game in Daytona Beach.

Once again Josh stepped up. In Daytona Beach he hit a long scoring pass on the game's first play, threw for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns, and was named the bowl game's Most Valuable Player. His MVP performance earned him an invitation to play in the Jan. 15 FBS All-American Tropical Bowl, also in Daytona Beach.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is starting to hear from scouts and teams from the NFL, CFL, Arena, and international leagues. His four-year high-school ledger: 141 touchdowns, 11,000-plus passing yards. His four-year college ledger in Tuscaloosa and Carbondale: 70 touchdowns and 8,000-plus passing yards.

Ironically, the opposing all-star team at the FCS Bowl was coached by a fellow now on the staff at Austin Peay, which was winless this season. More irony: Josh's former team, Stillman College, discontinued its football program last spring.

It wasn't easy, and it wasn't a straight line, but Josh pushed a boulder up Mount Rainer into a starting QB job in Division I. If he's not the first 8-man prep quarterback ever to start for a Division I program, he's on a very short list. His faith, family support and persistence helped him beat the odds.

 

Oh, yes, Josh has a younger brother who came out of Colton to play Division I athletics. Jake Straughan, a 6-2 guard, plays basketball for the Idaho Vandals. He had a 23-point game last year as a redshirt freshman against Northern Colorado and was named the player of the game. Jake and Josh played on a small-class state championship team in baseball, and Jake later led Colton to a state title in basketball and baseball his senior year.

You can follow the adventures of the Straughan brothers here… on the internet. It's a place where young athletes from Colton, Wash., to Moscow, Idaho, to Geneva, Minn., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Carbondale, Ill. -- and everywhere in between -- can and do chase dreams on different stages.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at ejmcgivern@stthomas.edu