Ouachita Christian’s present and future merged Friday night, and the results were pretty darn good.
Pressed into his first varsity start at quarterback, freshman Landon Graves delivered an unflappable performance as the Eagles seized control of the District 2-1A race with a 40-21 shellacking of Oak Grove on Friday night.
Graves has multi-tasked as a starting cornerback, punter and backup wide receiver, but his quarterback snaps had been limited to mopup duty in blowout games. An injury to junior starter Hunter Herring changed everything.
“Hunter hurt his neck at the end of the Cedar Creek game,” OCS coach Steven Fitzhugh said. “As of Monday, we knew he wasn’t going to be playing.”
Plans to incorporate Graves into a more prominent role in the offense were accelerated out of necessity.
“A couple of weeks ago, I started saying we need to get Hunter more involved offensively, but I don’t know if he has touched the ball more than a couple of times except in the second half when we had a pretty good lead,” coach Fitzhugh said.
Graves’ meaningful snaps at quarterback were limited to the opening possession of a42-6 Week 6 victory over Cedar Creek.
“Hunter got his helmet knocked off in the first series against Cedar Creek, and he was out for several plays,” coach Fitzhugh said.
Long before Friday night, Fitzhugh knew Graves wasn’t a typical freshman.
“I coached him in junior high track. Even back then, he was a gifted athlete,” Fitzhugh said.
Through his extensive experience in travel baseball,Graves is comfortable playing on the big stage. Still, sending a young quarterback out for his first start against Oak Grove was far from appealing.
Understandably, the Eagles’ Thursday devotion centered around encouraging Graves.
“Coach Sonny Vidrine told a World War II story about Audie Murphy, and called Landon to the front,” Fitzhugh said. “He told Landon, ‘You can be our Audie Murphy.’”
Not that what Graves did Friday night should bring comparisons to one of the most decorated combat soldiers in United States military history, but by football standards, his deeds could be classified as heroic.
Graves’ highlights against Oak Grove included his first career touchdown catch, and his first and second career touchdown passes. (He scored his first varsity touchdown on a 20-yard interception return vs. Sicily Island in Week 4).
With the Eagles down 7-0, Graves proved himself on the first series.
On fourth-and-six from the 26, Graves hooked up with Eli Extine for 16 yards and a first down at the 10.
“Landon was cool, calm and collected,” Fitzhugh said. “He has such an even-keeled personality.”
Graves was on the receiving end of his first varsity touchdown pass. With the Eagles facing fourth-and-goal from the 11, Extine flipped a throwback pass to Graves for the tying touchdown.
“Offensively, we really converted on the money downs,” Fitzhugh said.
Graves delivered another “money” pass after the Eagles received the second half kickoff. Facing third-and-eight from the 29, Graves found Extine for 28 yards and a first down at the 1. Dillon Dougan did the honors from there to put the Eagles up 19-14. OCS would never relinquish the lead.
Extine caught four passes for 46 yards.
“Eli Extine had several key catches for us on critical downs.
With Oak Grove’s renownedfront four stuffing the running game — the Eagles rushed for just 54 yards on 27 carries — Graves took up the slack by completing 16-of-23 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
“The strength of Oak Grove’s team is their defensive line, so we knew we had to spread the field. Coach Drew Vidrine, coach Robby Devinney and coach Tim Mosher put a good gameplan together,” Fitzhugh said. “Landon did a great job of managing the offense, and I thought our offensive line did a great job of giving him time to throw.”
Sophomore wide receiver Tristan Wiley had a breakout game as well, snagging six passes for 164 yards, including an 81-yarder for the game-clinching touchdown.
“Tristan had a heck of a game,” Fitzhugh said. “He needed to get some confidence in himself, and I think he definitely grew in that area Friday night.”
Herring is slated to return for the St. Frederick game on Thursday, Oct. 31.
“Hunter should be good to go by our Week 9 Senior Night game against St. Frederick,” Fitzhugh said.
In the meantime, Graves will draw his second straight start Friday night in the Eagles’ homecoming game against Tensas.
Needless to say, Graves has earned the unwavering trust of his teammates and coaching staff.