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July 21, 2008
Until last season, two running backs were common in the backfield of Western's offensive sets.
It made sense. Lerron Moore tore up defenses in the sets during his four years as the starting tailback, leaving as Western's all-time leading rusher with 4,396 net yards.
But last year, the offense was ditched. In its place, the Toppers coaching staff put in a spread offense, much to the joy of one of its young offensive threats.
At Fern Creek high school, KJ Black was made for the spread offense. Starting the final three years of his high school career, Black tallied up 83 touchdowns (63 passing, 20 rushing) and nearly 10,000 yards of total offense.
Black was initiated into the offense as a freshman and sophomore under then Fern Creek Coach Troy Johnson.
"He's very fast and he's very quick," Johnson said. "He's not blazing fast, but he's very quick and can get those yards. Also, he's got an extremely strong arm. That arm and the feet, you put those two things together in that type of offense, that's what you're looking for as being a leader on the team."
Though he had already committed to Eastern Kentucky, it didn't take Black long to change his mind when Western came calling.
"They told me we were going to Division I, so I was locked in after they said that," Black said. 'I didn't even have to come here. As soon as they told me that, I told them I'd come."
As is custom with many freshmen, Black sat out his first collegiate season as a redshirt. During the fall of 2006 Black was on the scout team, while at the same time getting adjusted to college life as well as being a student athlete.
"It just helped me to get adjusted to the speed," Black said. "The speed's a lot different in college than it is in high school. One thing I really wanted to do was just learn. I felt like when I got here in camp, everything was still blurry. I didn't know the offense and what was going on, so I think that redshirt year helped me learn not only the playbook but how to read defenses."
Following that year, Black was ready to get on the playing field behind center. But senior quarterback David Wolke had also been biding his time on the scout team, while sitting out the 2006 season as a transfer from Notre Dame.
With no clear cut choice, Western didn't make a decisive move at quarterback. Instead, they split time with both Wolke and Black.
These days, it's not uncommon to see collegiate teams split time between two quarterbacks. In fact, the past two Bowl Championship Series national champions used the dual signal caller approach. In 2006, Florida split time between Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, while in 2007, LSU split time between Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux.
One knock against the split time at the quarterback position is that it disrupts the flow of the offense. That the rest of the offense can't get in sync with the constant shuffling on different series. That's not always the case.
"We got a lot of work in practice with both guys," junior wide receiver Jake Gaebler said. "They did a good job of rotating them in and getting everybody to look at them. When somebody new came into the game, we were used to them and the timing was the same. Everything still clicked no matter who was in there."
With the offensive line, critics argue that the shuffling makes protection difficult, especially if the two quarterbacks have large variances in their play. Not the case as well.
"From the protection standpoint, it's pretty much the same thing," junior offensive lineman Lloyd Pressley said. "For each quarterback, we don't change the way we block. It was pretty similar but both of their quarterbacking styles are different. You kinda get used to that and you have to get used to two different people calling plays, making checks. Some things end up changing."
Overall, Western coaches deemed the shuttling of signal callers a success, as Western finished 7-5. The stats of both quarterbacks were strikingly similar. Black completed 88 of 134 passes for 1,007 yards and eight touchdowns, while Wolke completed 77 of 127 passes for 922 yards and five touchdowns.
On the ground, Black rushed 104 times for 304 yards and two touchdowns, while Wolke had 76 rushes for 359 yards and five touchdowns.
"It seemed like they complemented each other," coach David Elson said. "When one wasn't playing well, the other one stepped up and did play well. That was really the main reason why (split quarterbacks). We say this at any position, when you say that you've got two or three, it means that somebody hasn't stepped up and really taken the job. Both he and David were just getting adjusted to being the quarterback week in and week out and you throw in the injury part of it. It just seemed like what was best for the team last year."
Black isn't as high on his rookie collegiate season, after throwing eight interceptions, one more than Wolke.
"I thought it was mediocre," he said. "It was more of a learning year than anything. I feel like I can pass the ball a lot better than I showed last year. I think that's the main thing that I'm gonna try to improve this year, is just passing. Passing was just below average and below what I want to do."
As close as the battle was last season, the Toppers were unable to let the two battle it out in the spring, after Wolke suffered an injury in the weight room as was forced to sit out the spring. Instead, Black saw competition from junior Brandon Smith, who proved to be a viable third string quarterback.
"David didn't go through the spring but Brandon came and stepped up and showed that he can play too, Black said. "I like being pressured by players. I like competition and I think Brandon stepped up and competed really good. He helped me get better and I helped him get better because we would compete the whole spring."
In the spring game, Black threw for 159 yards on 17-29 passing and a touchdown, albeit with an interception as well. He also ran for a touchdown.
Black may have a leg up after his spring showing and Wolke's injury, but Elson has told each quarterback that he's looking for one clear front runner at the position, though in the end he'll do what he believes is in the team's best interests.
Elson is still very high on his young quarterback, though the final decision on who'll be leading the offense hasn't been announced.
"I think he's got a natural sense of feeling pressure and keeping plays alive with his feet in the passing game," he said. "He's just got a very calm presence about him throughout the course of the game. Like all of our quarterbacks, we've told him the main thing that we need to do better next year is to be able to throw the ball down the field, get better at throwing our deep ball with our receivers."
This off-season, Black has tried to increase his passing, in addition to hitting the weight room.
"We throw twice a week as a team but I've been trying to get tight ends and a couple of wide receivers to go out and throw on days where nobody else is throwing, nobody else is out there, just trying to get my passing and stuff together," he said.
It's no secret what Black can do. Now, it's just a matter of becoming consistent and cutting down his turnovers. When Western heads to Bloomington, Ind. Aug. 30, Black hopes he'll be the one spreading out the field from behind center.