Tyler Harrison will have to be better than every quarterback he faces. There is no other option for the Derby senior. He's put more work in during the summer than any other time in his life, and it is not for the purpose of racking up a ridiculous amount of passing yards or touchdowns.
"Getting stopped at that 2-yard line," Harrison said. "That's the fuel to everything. I don't want to be in that position again."
The intensity in Harrison's voice shot up a few levels as he talked about his team's 21-16 loss to Heights in the Class 6A semifinals last November. His team had the ball on the 2 with 13 seconds remaining. Derby started its drive from about its own 20, but running back Evan Oaks was hit in the backfield on the final play.
Harrison paused before continuing — reflecting on the loss, his inspiration for improving and becoming a better leader.
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"It's been a focus. We were that close," Harrison said. "We just need to push ourselves that much harder. We were that close last year. We should be able to get that close this year, and if we push ourselves even harder then we should get to that state title game."
For Harrison, personal improvement isn't an avenue for self-promotion. If he puts up big numbers as a byproduct of winning, then that's a different story. Harrison threw for 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns during the 2009 season in a run-oriented offense.
Derby coach Brandon Clark noticed last season that he had a quarterback who could be special. Clark had a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder with a strong arm to develop into an elite passer. He also had a player who understood that sometimes handing the ball off to his weapons in the backfield contributes just as much, and sometimes more, than a completed pass.
"It doesn't matter how we win to him. He's not a stats guy," Clark said. "He isn't counting how many throws he gets throughout the game. We're a spread team, but we run the ball way more than we pass it. The only stat he's worried about is the stat at the end of the fourth quarter when the game is over — the numbers on the scoreboard. He's a true team player."
Harrison's instinct to put the team first didn't go unnoticed. In an off-season team meeting, teammates voted in Harrison as a captain. He was a team leader as a junior, but admitted he wasn't as assertive as he could have been out of respect for the seniors on the team.
"Our biggest quality that we have in our quarterback is leadership. Tyler has done a tremendous job in stepping up and becoming a leader," Clark said. "He was a leader last year, but this year he is definitely one of the biggest leaders on our team. He's vocal when the team needs him to step up. He leads by example. He walks the walk."
As a result of walking the walk and training more this summer, Harrison has developed some chemistry with his top returning receiver Ethan Jewell. Jewell will replace Harrison's favorite 2009 target, Devin Hedgepeth, a speedy playmaker now at Oklahoma State who averaged about 75 receiving yards. Clark said Jewell is the best route runner he's seen since coaching at Derby.
Jewell may be a slightly different player than Hedgepeth, but Harrison has confidence in his abilities and the abilities of his other weapons.