Boston College’s offensive coordinator Todd Fitch thinks this whole Darius Wade conversation is ridiculous.
For weeks, we’ve clamored about the guy—both the media and fans who have been anxiously waiting since that extra point went wide right in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl.
“How tenacious is he?”
“Has he stepped up in the locker room?”
“Is he the answer?”
Fitch doesn’t buy into the hype. He refuses to think about his new quarterback’s future career. Come September, a coach’s mind only operates one Saturday at a time. He won’t dare analyze players with that word. You know, the P-word that graces all young and talented QBs. He doesn’t know what kind of leader Wade’s going to be or how he’ll handle himself in adverse situations. For goodness sake, this kid hasn’t even started a single game yet.
“It’s hard for a guy who hasn’t played to step up and say ‘follow me’ when nobody’s seen him play,” Fitch said.
That may be true. But that won’t stop everyone from wondering the same thing …
Who exactly is Darius Wade?
A large part of the anxiety over this mysterious new quarterback stems from the love affair BC had with its last one.
On a wet and emotional night in Chestnut Hill, BC found itself in a typical spot. The Eagles had fought hard with No. 9 University of Southern California for more than three quarters and held a slim 30-24 lead. With a little over three minutes left in the game, the momentum was shifting in a dangerous direction. Though the program has produced its decent share of upsets, the list of disappointing outcomes always feels far longer.
Yet this year felt different, because the Eagles had a “miracle man” behind center: quarterback Tyler Murphy. The transfer showed early flashes of his incredible ability to dance around opposing defenses with his legs in games against UMass and Pittsburgh. It looked like a golden opportunity for him to join the upper echelon of the legends of the maroon and gold.
Sure enough, he was off. Murphy faked a handoff, edged to his left, and found a hole through three USC defenders. The 40,000 fans in the Alumni Stadium bleachers jumped and screamed as Murphy dashed down the field for a 66-yard touchdown. After reaching the end zone, Murphy immediately aimed for the lower levels of the student section to receive pats on the back from his now adoring admirers.
You can count Wade among those who idolize him.
Moments like that make people forget about the bad. But fond memories don’t make the bad outcomes disappear.
BC had the chance to pull off another upset a month later. Down 17-13 to Clemson in the frigid rain, again at Alumni Stadium, the Eagles marched down the field with several of their patented long runs, most of which came from Murphy.
But with about a minute left and the ball at Clemson’s 26-yard line, the Tigers forced Murphy to expose his biggest weakness—his lack of a strong and accurate arm. He failed to connect with his receivers on four consecutive plays, solidifying the loss. He wasn’t solely to blame for the defeat—missed extra points, timeouts left on the board, and a dropped pass also played a role—but it’s fair to wonder what the result would have been if BC had a quarterback with a quarterback’s arm.
Last year, the Eagles’ production on the ground made that question a minor issue. BC’s offense with Murphy at the helm operated in a run-heavy, zone read scheme. The Eagles had more rushing attempts than all but nine of the 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. As a result, BC gained 3,307 yards on the ground—No. 16 in the FBS—with 31 touchdowns. Murphy, to his credit, darted around defensive linemen for 1,184 yards, shattering BC’s single-season and career records for rushing yards by a quarterback.
This, however, created a lack of balance in the offense. BC attempted a mere 243 passes—the seventh-fewest in college football—for only 1,681 yards. Given the absence of a coherent passing game, it’s understandable why the Eagles lost down the stretch to Clemson. Head coach Steve Addazio’s scheme for Murphy couldn’t have a lot of effective passing plays, even in crunch time, because of his lack of talent in the aerial attack.
That doesn’t make it a viable excuse. Not every offense can achieve a perfect 50-50 split between running and passing, but a team must have multiple effective options in a way that BC didn’t in 2014. Only that will keep a defense constantly guessing, especially ones as elite as the ones BC will face this year.
What if it doesn’t have to be like that anymore?
Before you dream of that scenario, we have to solve the question of who he is. To do that, Wade will need to check out on the Makings of a Good Quarterback List. Can he throw the ball, yet also be a dynamic dual-threat scorer? What will he do against high-level competition, especially in the face of adversity? Will he assume his natural quarterbacking role as a leader?
Let’s start with Wade on the field, first. Like Fitch said, we can’t really know for sure how Wade will fit into this offense. What we do know is that he is not built for that run-heavy system.
There are a few things Wade believes. The southpaw prides himself on his strong throws with tight spirals. He believes moving the ball through the air is where big plays happen. He stays patient in the pocket, running through every single read before taking off with his legs. And with all due respect to Andre Williams’ thighs and Sherman Alston’s sweeps, he believes that nothing hypes up a team quite like a few beautiful completions.
Wade practices his beliefs, and you don’t have to just take his word for it. Mark DelPercio, his head coach at Middletown High School in Delaware, praises Wade for the great zip and spin he can put on the ball. The numbers don’t lie, either. In his senior season, Wade passed for 2,662 yards at a 64 completion percentage, with 35 touchdowns and only three interceptions, running away with the 2013 Delaware Gatorade Football Player of the Year Award.
But what happens when he’s facing the tough competition in the ACC?
Wade will be the first to tell you that BC defensive coordinator Don Brown is throwing a hell storm of defensive schemes with plenty of seven- and eight-man rushes at him throughout training camp. Given the strength of BC’s defensive front, it has made Wade and the offense look foolish.
“He is literally a mad genius,” Wade said. “We’re struggling, it doesn’t look good, but we’re happy we have that.”
Fortunately, he’ll have a reprieve in the first two weeks against weak FCS opponents Maine and Howard. But the week afterward, two-time defending ACC champion Florida State invades Chestnut Hill. There’s no way we can know how he’ll handle that kind of pressure.
History says he might be all right, though. Look at Wade’s sophomore year of high school, when the second-year starter led his team back to the Delaware state championship. He was looking to redeem himself after his Cavaliers lost 37-25 the previous year. His challenger was Newark High School, a team that had gone undefeated leading up to the championship while scoring 27 points or more in each game.
Looking to get out to a hot start, Wade dropped back and forced a pass that allowed a defensive back to undercut his receiver’s route and return the pass for a touchdown. In the subsequent offensive series, DelPercio called for a fake punt on a fourth down. A lineman tipped Wade’s pass, bouncing it into the hands of another corner for a second consecutive pick six.
As Wade walked off the field, all of his teammates surrounded him, telling him to shake off the misread. That only fired him up more, as he tried to put the miscues out of his mind. Shortly after, down 16-0 in the first, DelPercio called a timeout to try to settle down a 15-year-old kid he believed needed some coaching up. It took only a couple of steps out onto the field before he realized his mistake.
“What’d you waste a timeout for, Coach?” Wade said.
“He wasn’t shaken, he wasn’t rattled,” DelPercio remembers now. “It didn’t even phase him.”
With his arm causing trouble, Wade suggested a fake handoff design run to the edge for the next play. That resulted in a 60-yard touchdown, sparking a rally that led to a 27-23 Middletown victory, the first of Wade’s two high school state titles.
Ability to handle adversity? Wade’s past shows us the answer to that, too. Check.
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But there is still the biggest issue of all: his leadership skills. He may have led his high school teammates as a freshman, but that doesn’t mean that success will translate perfectly to an older group of players in the college atmosphere. Naturally, the quarterback position calls for a leader. Like Fitch says, how can we know if this guy is a leader before he starts a game for this team?
DelPercio thinks that might be the easiest transition of all for Wade.
He does that, his coach believes, through a combination of staying serious while knowing how to have a fun side.
When game time comes, you’ll see the serious side of Wade, which he has shown so far during BC’s three scrimmages. Following an interception last Wednesday, Wade immediately went by the fan on the far end of the sidelines, carefully studying every move that backup quarterback Troy Flutie made on the subsequent series. He didn’t talk to anyone else, preferring to stare out at the field, deep in thought, continuing to study the offense in action while miming the occasional pass to regain the muscle memory he’ll need this Saturday.
This stems from an unstoppable desire to win, something he had done a lot of in high school and wants to bring to BC. As a four-year starting quarterback, the resilient Wade never missed a first-team snap in 49 career games. During that time, Middletown went 42-7, with trips to the state championship in all four years, including two victories.
But the real Darius swears he has a happy-go-lucky personality. He showed that growing up in Middletown. DelPercio recalls walking into a local pizzeria and hearing parents talk about what a great role model Wade is, how he drops everything to play catch with any 10-year-old that knocks on his door. Wade feels they relate to him because he’s a “big little kid.”
He still acts like that “big little kid” around the team. In practice, with Troy Flutie behind center, Harrison Jackson made a circus catch over his back shoulder while falling out of bounds. Wade led the cheering for his junior wide receiver, rambunctiously screaming his name. His infectious personality and smile—arguably the widest in college football—have lifted this young and embattered receiving core.
Combine a true lockdown mentality in games with an ability to connect on a personable level with his teammates away from the heat of battle—that equals a true leader. Whew. The most important one checked off.
Now the last question on the list that Wade must answer is, what happens when Addazio finally unleashes him for the first time? Without daring to use the P-word—potential—the answer should be a positive one … if his offensive coordinator has prepared properly. Wade’s rare skill set necessitates a thorough upheaval of the game plan that Fitch used last season. The perfect system should include pieces of the run-heavy read option used under Murphy along with the traditional style of Chase Rettig the year before to create a unique offense with a greater emphasis on the aerial attack. So far, Wade says the two have molded this complex offensive playbook to perfectly fit his strengths.
We’ve rarely seen this new plan in action, though. With many of BC’s wide receivers currently nursing injuries, the full offense has yet to be unleashed in practices—at least, from what the media gets to see. And so the mystery goes on.
For many, that mystery continues even after Wade has left them behind in a fiery inferno of on-field defeat. Bill DiNardo, head coach at Middletown’s biggest rival, Salesianum High School in Wilmington, Del., is still trying to figure it out. When asked how he solved Wade as a quarterback, DiNardo let out a long sigh before retorting: “When he graduated.”
The only person who might give us a hint is DelPercio, the man who has seen Wade play since he was in fifth grade, has coached him one-on-one, and carefully watches him to this day.
When asked that elusive question—just who is Darius Wade?—his coach had a simple response:
“He’s not going to be anybody but Darius.”