FOOTBALL '09: Quarterback Position Battle Takes Center Stage

Pizzotti’s graduation leaves opening under center

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Ann H. Forman

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The television show “American Idol” is an apt comparison for the situation facing the quarterback position on the Harvard football team. Not only does it allude to this season’s competition for the starting spot, but it also captures the spirit of the position. More so than pop singers, Crimson quarterbacks evoke an American ethos. The job requires a rare blend of intelligence, skill, and moxie to be a leader among many future leaders. To demand such proficiency in one individual is almost unfair, but each fall the Crimson does just that in naming a starting quarterback.

This season, Harvard’s prospective field generals face the pressure of replacing two All-Ivy performers in Chris Pizzotti ’08-’09 and Liam O’Hagan ’08-’09, who were a combined 31-9 in games started over the course of their careers. The tandem led the Crimson to Ivy League championships in each of the last two seasons.

“They both played so well for so long,” sophomore quarterback Alex Sarkisian says, “but I think the quarterbacks we have now can step in and do a good job.”

Those quarterbacks include junior Collier Winters, junior Matt Simpson, freshman Colton Chapple, and Sarkisian. Heading into this weekend’s game against Holy Cross, Winters sits atop the depth chart, followed closely by Simpson, with Chapple and Sarkisian fighting for the third spot.

“Simpson and [Winters] have been battling it out,” junior wide receiver Marco Iannuzzi says. “[Simpson] had a minor ankle twist, and so that put him back a few practices. But when they’re healthy, it’s still a battle between the two.”

Though the competition for the starting job has been fierce, it has not been divisive. Working out together in the offseason and sharing reps in practice has not only motivated each quarterback, it has allowed them to work together towards their collective improvement.

“If I ever have any questions about making reads on the field or protection checks or anything like that, [the other quarterbacks have] always been very helpful,” Sarkisian says. “I don’t think there’s any animosity between us at all.”

“Competing for the spot makes everyone work harder and get better, but we’re all just friends having fun,” Winters adds. “We just like playing football and being around each other.”

Harvard’s quarterback play promises to be a little different this season than in years past.

While Pizzotti was primarily a pocket passer, this year’s crop of quarterbacks can all make things happen with their legs.

“They’re all pretty similar in what they can do,” says senior wide receiver Matt Luft. “They all have pretty good arms, they all make good reads, and they can all move and get away from trouble if need be.”

As a result, the Crimson offense will feature more quarterback runs in its play calling, opening the possibility for Harvard to employ an exciting brand of football.

But the Crimson signal callers stress that the offense will depend on the players surrounding them, primarily the talented wide receiver corps. Including Luft and Iannuzzi, Harvard returns six of its top seven receivers from a year ago. Together, the group accounted for 2,150 yards and 15 touchdowns last season.

“We have so many weapons,” Sarkisian says. “It’s just incredible. We have a handful of guys who are All-Ivy caliber receivers. You combine all those receivers with a great offensive line and a great running game—that’s all you can ask for.”

“Our role, [for] the first couple games at least, is to manage the offense, take care of the ball, and just let the guys around us make all the plays,” Winters says.

But in spite of all their modesty, the challenge remains for the quarterbacks to lead the team in both action and attitude.

“[Harvard coach Tim Murphy’s] main [expectation of the quarterbacks] is to be the leaders on the team,” Simpson says. “With Chris and Liam, they both had excellent leadership. People really looked to them to run the offense. So I think they have the same expectations for us.”

While the bar may be set high—especially in the wake of consecutive Ivy League championships—it only seems appropriate for someone as distinguished as a Harvard quarterback.

—Staff writer Timothy J. Walsh can be reached at twalsh@fas.harvard.edu.

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