Injuries are a part of football, but knowing that injuries will occur lends precious little comfort when they actually do. Just one short week into the season, an injury will force the Lions to adjust as they seek to find not only a replacement but a new leader at quarterback.
Last year’s historic season, which saw head coach Al Bagnoli lead the long-dormant program to its best record in 21 years, was propelled by quarterback Anders Hill, CC ’18. Hill led multiple late-game comebacks last season, none more memorable than when he threw a picture-perfect touchdown to now-junior wide receiver Josh Wainwright and won Columbia’s homecoming game over Penn, pushing the team’s record to 5-0 at that junction.
“What Hill did last year, ultimately playing at a championship level, that’s what we want this position to be,” quarterbacks coach Ricky Santos said.
Replacing Hill, who threw for over 2400 yards and 16 touchdowns en route to an 8-2 overall record, was the most important item on the Lions’ agenda this offseason. But 2.5 quarters into the new season, just when it seemed like there was nothing to worry about at quarterback, an injury knocked the team back into signal-caller purgatory.
Three quarterbacks saw the field Saturday at Central Connecticut State. The first to do so was sophomore Josh Bean, a 6-foot-2, 215 pound bundle of explosive yet controlled athleticism. He excelled in the offseason quarterback competition, appearing to the coaching staff the closest facsimile of Hill’s skill set—a precision passer with remarkable arm strength, more than capable of pushing the ball downfield but possessing a dynamic ability to escape the pocket and make plays with his legs when protection breaks down.
Bagnoli and offensive coordinator Mark Fabish used Bean nearly exclusively in short-yardage situations last season. Bean, the goal-line battering ram of the “Wildcat” offense, made the most of his limited opportunities, turning just 22 rushing attempts into an impressive 8 touchdowns. The presence of Hill, however, necessarily limited Bean’s passing reps—he threw only one pass all season for a 1-yard score against Harvard.
Any concerns about Bean’s arm talent and accuracy were assuaged early Saturday. After stifling defense and impressive special teams play highlighted the first quarter for both sides, Bean broke a 7-7 tie by uncorking a laser over the middle to junior wide receiver Ronald Smith for a 19-yard touchdown to punctuate a nine-play, 61-yard drive.
Bean continued his strong—if occasionally jittery, as expected for a first-time starter—play throughout the first half and into the third quarter. It was, ironically, on perhaps his most explosive play of the game that he was initially hurt. A designed run saw Bean dart off the edge behind his left tackle’s outside shoulder, evade one tackle, and spin past another for the first down.
A Blue Devil linebacker wrapped him up at the end of the spin, exposing the front of his body to the oncoming safety, who walloped Bean hard enough to force a fumble and leave the newly minted Lions starter motionless on the ground for several seconds. Despite leaving the contest, Bean returned after a series and led a drive for a field goal before getting knocked out of the game for good on a big hit from a CCSU defensive lineman. He was placed in concussion protocol after undergoing testing mid-game and has not been medically cleared to return.
The first choice to replace Bean was 6-foot-3 first-year Ty Lenhart, possibly an even better athlete and runner at 215 pounds. Lenhart began the game third on the official depth chart and registered early as Bean’s short-yardage runaway train successor, scoring the first Lions’ touchdown of the year on a 1-yard plunge from the goal line in the first quarter.
That early success led Bagnoli to hand Lenhart the ball when Bean went down, but, despite punching in another goal-line touchdown, the coaches quickly pulled him after he failed to move the ball on two drives outside the red zone. His replacement, sophomore Dillon Davis, may already be the new most important player on this young, talented Lions roster.
For as much Bean looks the part, Davis is the one those around the team say acts it. This is not to say Bean does not lead—far from it, as coaches call him an innate leader-by-example —but simply to differentiate Davis, who is anything but quiet. He is the classic leader at quarterback, a Texas native effusive in his self-confidence and loud in his praise for fellow teammates.
Santos, a successful FCS quarterback himself, noted that Davis’ personality is most evident in his never-say-die playing style.
“[Davis] might not always be on the right side of his reads, but he always finds a way to make a play,” Santos said. “He probably has the best touch out of anybody in terms of arm talent—not the strongest arm, but he layers the ball really well and he anticipates throws as good as [anyone] we have.”
Confidence, as any athlete coming off the bench will corroborate, is as much a skill as any physical ability. While the 6-foot-2, 205 pound Davis lacks the outstanding physicality of Bean and Lenhart, his confidence makes itself known immediately. His first pass on Saturday, a screen to sophomore receiver Darion Acohido, gained just one yard, but the next play showcased Davis’ skillset seamlessly. The pocket broke down nearly immediately and Davis calmly sidestepped pressure, stepping forward to deliver a perfectly lofted strike to Acohido 47 yards downfield at the CCSU 8-yard line.
“When [Bean] had to leave the game, I looked at the call sheet and there were very few things I didn’t feel confident going to,” Fabish said. “We went with [Davis], and we ran the same offense. It’s a testament to him and his preparation that he was so ready to go.”
Davis sustained his hot start in the red zone, delivering a key 8-yard pass on 3rd-and-goal from the CCSU 10 to set up a 2-yard touchdown on a shovel pass to junior running back Lynnard Rose on 4th-and-goal. He would only throw one more pass all game, but that series showed enough for coaches to name him the week two starter in Bean’s place. Herein, however, lies the dilemma.
Both the aforementioned drive and the one that followed—an 83-yard touchdown sprint by first-year running back Dante Miller—had to be tantalizing for the Lions coaching staff. On the first drive, Davis’ arm talent and knack for improvisation produced the biggest chunk of air yardage all game for the Light Blue. Then, after he and the rest of the offense gutted out that red zone touchdown, the CCSU defense afforded Davis so much respect that Miller was able to scamper through a light box of defenders and break free for a long touchdown on the ground. In just two series, the offense under Davis broke the game wide open and was directly and indirectly responsible for the Lions’ two biggest plays from scrimmage.
For the time being, Bagnoli and his staff seem content to let Bean work his way back under the starting quarterback moniker and hand Davis—and Lenhart in run-heavy packages—the reins to the offense. But what if Davis and his gunslinger mentality prove too valuable to bench?
Bean’s dual-threat ability is valuable, but it has already exposed him to injury and potential turnovers. Concussions often linger. If the two were truly as close in summer competition as coaches say, then strong play from Davis for a week or more could easily give Bagnoli pause when deciding who to promote for the rest of the season. Bean won the offseason, yes, and his strong week one play reminded almost eerily of Hill. Maybe, though, this year’s Lions don’t need another Anders Hill.
Maybe, they need Dillon Davis.