Josh Strickland didn’t have time to be nervous.
The Gilbert freshman quarterback was pressed into action when starter Tyler Thomas injured his collarbone during the second game of the year against River Bluff. Strickland had never taken a snap in a varsity game until then but was called upon to play against the 5A Gators.
After a shaky start, Strickland wound up throwing a game-winning TD pass to Catriez Cook with 1:26 left in the 21-17 victory.
“I didn’t have much time to think. I had to get plugged in right away,” Strickland said. “We were still on offense. As the game went on, I tried to settle down and start making plays and get the ball where it needed to be.”
Strickland has looked more comfortable each week for the unbeaten Indians, who go for their ninth victory for the first time since 1999 Friday night against Pelion. He is completing 63 percent of his passes for 915 yards, throwing 10 touchdowns and one interception in 119 attempts.
“He is so mature to be a freshman. There were a couple of plays against Strom Thurmond a few weeks ago, he had so much pressure, he was dodging them in pocket and that is hard for seniors to do,” Gilbert coach Chad Leaphart said. “He isn’t old enough to drive our car yet but he can drive our offense. We are glad to have him.”
Strickland isn’t the only freshman playing a key role for one of the Midlands’ three unbeaten teams. Freshman Ron Hoff has provided a spark to top-ranked Dutch Fork’s ground game. Hoff has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of his last seven games, including a 205-yard effort against White Knoll on Oct. 14.
The 5-foot-9, 170-pound tailback is seventh in the Midlands with 925 yards and 12 touchdowns, despite not starting the first game.
“I don’t think I have ever had a person that is a freshman make this impact. I think one reason is we don’t treat him as a freshman,” Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts said. “For the most part, he doesn’t act like a freshman. He struggles with some things but he can run that ball. He can find the holes, keep his feet on the ground and has a burst about him.”
Strickland and Hoff aren’t the norm in high school football, where most freshmen are relegated to JV or freshman team duties, which Strickland thought he would be doing this year.
But Leaphart and Knotts say they won’t scale things back for their frreshmen, because they have showed the ability to handle everything.
“The experience he is gaining as a freshman for us is priceless for down the road for us,” Leaphart said.
Knotts thought Hoff would play as a freshman but at linebacker, not running back. But Hoff kept bugging his coach and that persistence paid off after an injury to running back Chris Colburn. Since then, Hoff’s been the Silver Foxes’ go-to guy on the ground.
“When I first came here, my older brother told me coach Knotts doesn’t favor anybody so I have to work for everything,” Hoff said.
The emergence of Hoff at running back makes it harder for teams to game plan and stop Dutch Fork’s air attack, which features all-star receivers Bobby Irby, Bryson Cannon and Austin Connor.
“He does everything he needs to do, blocking and running the ball. He has developed since the summer,” Dutch Fork quarterback Reese Nichols said. “Once they try and take away the pass, we can run it up the middle with him.”