From the outside looking in, quarterback appeared to be an area of concern for Ouachita Christian last spring.
Nevertheless, coach Steven Fitzhugh hardly seemed alarmed. In fact, he went as far as to predict that junior Hunter Herring was going to be a great one. Keep in mind, coach Fitzhugh isn’t one to throw the term great around loosely.
Herring did not disappoint. Following up a very solid, though not necessarily spectacular regular season, Herring evolved into an elite quarterback in the playoffs. Besides spearheading the Eagles’ drive to the Division IV state title, Herring’s postseason play resulted in The Ouachita Citizen’s Offensive Player of the Year award.
In four postseason games, Herring completed 31-of-51 passes for 635 yards (20.5 yard per completion) with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Even more dangerous as a runner, he averaged 11.6 yards per carry while rushing for 649 yards and 14 touchdowns.
For the season, Hunter passed for 1,794 yards with 27 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 197 attempts. He also rushed 121 times for 1,123 yards (9.3 yards per carry) and 25 touchdowns.
Not bad for a guy, who entered the season with virtually zero experience at quarterback.
Coach Fitzhugh, who doubles as the track and field coach, caught a glimpse of Herring’s athleticism a year ago. Hanging out inside the fieldhouse on a cold January afternoon, he first approached Herring about joining the track team as a jumper. As it turned out, Herring competed in the high jump and triple jump as an eighth-grader at Prairie View where his father, Paul, was a standout football player.
“Hunter told me he triple jumped 40 feet in the eighth grade,” coach Fitzhugh said. “I’m thinking, ‘I bet he’s exaggerating.’ We go outside to the triple jump board, and he jumps 39 feet in blue jeans in 29-degree weather. He’s just a natural athlete.”
Working out just once a week around baseball activities, Herring won district in the high jump and was district runner-up in the long and triple jump.
Based on his size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds at the time), athleticism and arm strength, Herring was first identified as the successor to Turner Carr two years ago.
“Coach (Drew) Vidrine, our offensive coordinator, talked to me about playing quarterback last season,” Herring recalled. “He told me what was ahead, and what I needed to do.”
Alas, the ULM baseball commit missed nearly the entire spring while helping the Eagles win the state baseball championship, and was on the shelf for the better part of the summer.
“I missed most of the summer with a torn quad and a stress fracture in my back,” Herring said.
When Herring was able to make his long-awaited summer debut at the University of Memphis team camp, coach Fitzhugh’s suspicions that he had uncovered a diamond in the rough were confirmed.
“We went 4-1, and he threw a good football,” coach Fitzhugh said, “but it’s one thing to do it in 7-on-7 with no rush, and it’s another thing to do it when you have people coming at you.”
Herring spent his sophomore year at tight end and wide receiver, catching 21 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns while helping the Eagles to an 8-4 record. In spot duty on defense, he logged 20 tackles and two tackles for loss.
A year later, he found himself as the focal point of the offense.
“When you play tight end, you don’t have to worry about what everybody else is doing,” Herring said. “At quarterback, you have to know where everybody is supposed to be lined up, recognize the read, and be able to react. The biggest adjustment was more mental than physical. When everything goes wild, you have to stay calm.
“When you make a bad play or a bad decision, you have to understand that those things happen, and move on. That’s where my baseball background came into play. You can’t let it get to you because that’s when you start performing bad. As the quarterback, everybody kind of feeds off of your energy. You have to stay positive and keep motivating everybody else.”
Herring, and the entire team for that matter, proved their resolve on the road in the quarterfinals. Trailing 20-0 at the end of the first quarter and 33-13 at halftime, the Eagles rallied for an unforgettable 49-47 upset victory over Calvary Baptist.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start we were looking for,” Herring understated. “Before halftime, we started running the ball a little and running some new plays, and we noticed they started looking tired.”
OCS trimmed the deficit to 33-27 early in the third quarter, but Calvary extended its lead to 47-33 early in the fourth.
Herring’s 9-yard run, and 51-yard pass to Eli Extine with 2:42 remaining completed the miraculous comeback.
“Coach Fitzhugh gave one of his amazing halftime talks,” Herring recalled. “Right before we went back on the field, he said, ‘If you don’t think we can win this game, don’t come out of the locker room.’”
As far as Herring is concerned, the Calvary game personified the entire season.
“Our theme all year was ‘Finish Strong,’ and we stuck with it, and kept fighting. We really didn’t make many mistakes in the second half. The defense stepped up when we needed them the most, and the offense started putting the ball in the end zone.”
Herring says the Eagles’ offseason strength and conditioning program was the difference in the Calvary game.
“We had a little setback two years ago with coach (Daniel) Bristo leaving, but coach (Randall) Bentley took up the slack,” Herring said. “Coach Bentley has really helped us add some muscle and get bigger. At the same time, he keeps us agile and in shape, which really helps us when it comes down to the last seconds of a game.”
While the Calvary game marked his arrival as an elite quarterback, Herring was just getting started.
A week after passing for a career-high 244 yards and three touchdowns against Calvary, Herring rushed for 301 yards in a 56-41 semifinal win over Metairie Park Country Day. Though he ran for an insane 270 yards and five touchdowns in the second half alone, it was the final play of the first half that stands out in coach Fitzhugh’s mind.
With the Eagles trailing by a touchdown, Herring’s 33-yard TD toss to Extine with no time left on the clock sent the game into halftime tied at 14.
“Knowing when and where to escape when the pocket collapses, and being able to scramble and keep his eyes downfield — those were the areas where Hunter came on so strong at the end of the year,” coach Fitzhugh said. “On the last play of the first half against Country Day, Hunter was flushed out of the pocket, saw Eli Extine on the scramble drill, and put it where Eli could catch it.
“Those are the tangibles. The intangibles are his humility and competitiveness. Hunter is a competitor in every sense of the word. When he runs the football, you are going to know you have been hit.”
Along with his mental and physical progress on the field, coach Fitzhugh has been able to witness Herring’s spiritual growth.
“We had some good devotions at team camp this summer, and Hunter made the decision that he wanted to live for God,” coach Fitzhugh said. “It was a unique deal to get to watch our offensive coordinator, Drew Vidrine, baptize him in the pool.”
Herring continued his spectacular run in the state championship game. In a record-setting performance, Herring rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns and threw for 164 yards and three TDs as OCS captured its seventh state title with a 67-22 victory over Catholic-Pointe Coupee. Herring was responsible for a Class 1A/Division IV state record seven touchdowns (four rushing, three passing). OCS also set a team record with 67 points in the championship game.
Catholic’s defensive gameplan was to make Herring beat them with his arm rather than his legs. Herring finished the afternoon 7-of-12 through the air, completing several passes to well-guarded receivers.
“We knew No. 11 was their straw that stirred the drink,” Catholic coach David Simoneaux Jr. said in the postgame media conference. “Our goal was to make them throw the football, but he made some nice tight-window throws.”
Herring continued to run the ball at will.
“He was a little bigger than I thought he was,” said Simoneaux of Herring, who grew an inch during the regular season. “He was extremely hard to get on the ground. On his last touchdown, he ran right through one of our defensive tackles.”
Before the Eagles were presented with the state championship trophy during postgame festivities, Herring was handed the MVP award. He was quick to deflect the credit to his teammates.
“This whole season was a miracle,” Herring said. “The offensive line — the whole team, really — stepped up, which made it easier to get comfortable. As the year went on, we got stronger and stronger. We were a close-knit group. Everybody had everybody’s back, so it was really fun.”
Herring has high expectations for next season, as well.
“We lost the majority of our defense. On offense, guys like Will Fitzhugh and Eli Extine are going to be hard to replace,” Herring said. “With Landon Graves, Tristan Wiley and Thomas Culp, and most of the offensive line coming back, I think we are going to be just as scary offensively. If the defense keeps working hard, I think it can be back to where it was this year.”
Though Herring has committed to play baseball, he hasn’t ruled out playing football beyond high school.
“I would definitely consider football as an option,” said Herring, who has been approached about playing football at Northwestern State. “I still have another year, so I’ll just ride the waves and see what happens.”
These days, Herring is riding the bombs. (That’s massive waves in surfing lingo).