In Red Lion’s 56-28 win against Central York this past Friday night, senior quarterback Zach Mentzer wasn’t physically the best player on the field.
He wasn’t the fastest either. In fact, he wasn’t even the best passer.
As the leader of the Lions’ run-pass option offense, however, Mentzer was exactly what Red Lion head coach Jesse Shay needed him to be — the smartest player on the field.
“With this system you need a smart quarterback,” Shay said. “Does it help to be a freak athlete? Yes. But if you’re a freak athlete and you keep making the wrong reads, it’s not going to work. I would rather have someone who can make the reads versus a crazy athletic kid who is just getting there on sheer talent and doesn’t know how to distribute the football. We put a premium on smarts.”
When Mentzer takes the snap in the shotgun, he makes a read on whether to hand it off to running back Tyler Ness, run it himself or throw a pass. While it’s important to make the correct reads, it’s just as important to anticipate the read based on what the defense is showing.
“He knows what he’s probably going to do when he sees the defense and how they’re aligned,” Shay said. “He has to make the reads, but he is able to see it before it happens. He knows it when we line up.”
Performance against Central: In his first year as a starter, Mentzer exploded onto the York-Adams League scene in the road win over Central. Mentzer ran for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and completed 10 of 13 pass attempts for 124 yards and two scores. The Lions (3-1 overall, 1-0 in D-I) scored on all seven of their offensive drives.
“To do that against a defense as athletic as (Central), with how well they’re coached, is amazing,” Shay said.
Long time coming: Mentzer is the latest in a stretch of Red Lion quarterbacks to be a first-year starter as a senior. As a sophomore, Mentzer sat behind junior Zach Throne and senior starter Sam Emig. Last season, Mentzer sat behind Throne, who was a second-team D-I all-star.
“I’ve been waiting ever since sophomore year to have my chance, do my own thing and put my mark on this team, which is very special to me,” Mentzer said.
While Mentzer isn’t as physically gifted as his predecessors, Shay said Mentzer spent his time as a backup wisely. As a junior, Mentzer played on the junior varsity team — something Mentzer said most juniors are reticent to do.
“Far too often, kids think JV is for sophomores,” Shay said. “Mentzer saw that he was a backup and that he knew he needed more reps to do what we needed him to do as a senior. He didn’t think that was beneath him.”
Mentzer said learning behind Emig and Throne, as well as watching their film in the last year, has helped him develop.
“Watching those guys, both who are better athletes than me, and the way they used their cuts has helped me,” Mentzer said.
Experience last season: Mentzer got a taste of varsity action last year in a high-pressure situation. In Red Lion’s District 3 playoff game against Wilson, Throne was injured in the first half and Mentzer took over for the rest of the game. The Lions lost the game 42-7 against a superior Wilson team, but Shay was impressed with how Mentzer handled the pressure.
“What we said as we were leaving was that he didn’t seem like he was shell-shocked,” Shay said. “He was a first-time player out here against a team with great history, and he didn’t back away. … If you don’t back down from Wilson, you’re not going to back down from anyone.”
Jared Miller, one of the linemen opening holes for Mentzer and the rest of the Lions' ball carriers, said he knew after the Wilson game last year that Mentzer would be successful this season.
“Mentzer has never gotten the respect he’s needed,” Miller said. “I’ve said since Wilson last year when he stepped in when Zach Throne got hurt that he’s the guy and I’m going to trust him all day. I trust him more than I trust any guy on this football team.”
Red Lion plays South Western and Northeastern the next two weeks before hosting York High on Oct. 5 for a potential Division I title-deciding game. As the Lions prepare for the rest of the D-I season, Shay knows his senior quarterback is going to lead the team in the right direction.
“He’s just a gamer,” Shay said. “He just shows up on Friday nights and he gets better. His throws on Tuesday are good but on Friday they’re great.”
Reach Jacob Calvin Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.