A call from his coach snapped Hunter Belzo’s attention towards Stagg Field’s sideline, his mind racing under tense circumstances.
“YOU’RE AT QUARTERBACK!”
Springfield College football was in trouble. There was 1:08 left in the second quarter of the Pride’s week 3 matchup against Union. The Dutchmen had held Springfield scoreless for four straight drives on 23 total yards. The game was tied 10-10, and both quarterbacks, Chad Shade and David Wells, were done for the day due to injury.
Belzo, the junior running back from Middletown, Conn., and the Pride’s “next man up,” stepped under center behind Nick Bainter and readied himself for the snap.
Prior to week 3, Belzo remembered the last time his number had been called to play quarterback. He was in fifth grade. His dad was coaching him. The designed play required Hunter to drop back and pass to the running back.
Belzo let out a 10-year-old, “hike!” and shuffled a few steps behind his offensive line. As he spotted his target cutting through the route, he uncorked a pass to his right. Belzo completed it. Just not to his running back.
“I threw it right to my dad [out of bounds] instead of the running back so … that was my last play at quarterback. He just gave me that look, and I knew I was screwed,” said Belzo, grinning over the memory. “Never played quarterback again after that. Now I’m here.”
Ten years later, in his first time playing under center since, Belzo went 0-2 in passing attempts while registering 28 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries in a 45-10 loss to Union.
“[It was hard] just getting my feet wet,” Belzo explained. “I hadn’t taken a single rep [at quarterback] all summer during camp or anything, so I’m out there thinking, ‘All right, let’s figure this out.’ That game was rough. Then after I got that week of practice under my belt. The practice the week after helped a lot.”
The Dutchmen had sunk the Pride’s chances at another undefeated season. Two weeks later it was confirmed that the injuries sustained would likely sideline both Shade and Wells for the remainder of the season. But Pride head coach Mike Cerasuolo has confidence in the man who will be running the show in their absence.
“Hunter is a football player [in a sense that] you can put him anywhere on the field and he’s going to give great effort,” he said. “He has no fear. He’ll work to learn any position. Each week he’s gotten better. We put him [at quarterback] in the spring since both Chad and David play baseball, just so if any unfortunate situation did [happen], if anything did happen to one of them that we’ll have another guy capable of running the offense.”
Belzo elaborated on his training during the spring. An appearance against Union had surprised him. But between practicing before the summer and searching for extra reps before practice, the junior has built confidence. If he ever needs to throw the ball, he knows his receivers, Jedi Haynes and Jakai Whittingham, will bring it in for the reception. But the beauty of being under center for Springfield is not having to stray too far away from his true position.
“Spring ball was big, that’s where I learned the whole play book and stuff,” said Belzo. “I’ve been meeting with Coach [Greg] Webster also, meeting to do some extra film time, been meeting him on the field a half hour before practice every day just to get the work in. The transition isn’t that bad because when you play quarterback here, you’re basically a running back.”
Belzo played in his first full game the following week against WPI. With Springfield skating by with a close 17-14 road victory, the junior left Worcester satisfied with his performance in a tight game. The Engineers were applying pressure to the offense early.
“The first quarter was rough because they were playing the triple [option] good, they were reading it,” said Belzo. “I broke the 75-yarder [to tie the game], so that gave me confidence.”
Belzo had several moments of redemption in his second-ever collegiate game as quarterback. After going 0-2 in the air against Union, the junior converted a 36-yard pass with Haynes in the third quarter. The reception put Springfield into position for a field goal that gave them a 10-7 lead heading into the fourth.
But Belzo still looks back at the play in the fourth quarter as the moment in the contest that was most redeeming.
4th and goal.
6:52 left to play in the game.
The call came from the WPI sideline. The Engineers had a read on what the Pride was about to throw.
“Quarterback’s rolling out!”
“They knew what was going on,” said Belzo. “I’m thinking ‘I need to get out of here fast’ … If I had pitched it [in the second quarter] and we scored we wouldn’t be in that situation.”
Belzo saw the play as an opportunity to make up for a Pride drive in the second. They had battled for 22 plays over the span of eight minutes. He re-ran the moment that had stuck with him throughout the game. The same second quarter drive had ended on 4th and four after Belzo decided to keep the ball for a run. He was stopped just short of the end zone.
But with the game on the line in the fourth, Belzo wasn’t about allowing the past to affect his decision making. He knew which play to choose, the play that put the Pride up for good and earned them their third win.
“I faked a toss so everyone did a good job selling it, just so I could get that split second to get around [the defense]. I just beat ‘em with speed there.”
Belzo sees himself as already having formed a healthy connection with his offensive line on the field.
“They do a good job opening the holes,” he said. [Against Norwich last week] they were wide open, I could have given it to the fullback I could have took it myself, either way they were opened up. The offensive line’s doing a great job.”
Cerasuolo is comfortable with Belzo as the everyday quarterback. In addition to his camaraderie with the offensive line, Cerasuolo believes he has a full understanding of the Pride’s plan of attack.
“He’s worked well with Nick Bainter, Andrew Iverson, all the centers – just to get the mechanics down and getting in snaps,” Cerasuolo explained. “He knows the receiver stuff, he knows the halfback stuff, he pretty much knows the offense in-and-out now because of playing halfback and now playing quarterback.”
Since the loss to Union, the Pride is 2-0 with Belzo as quarterback, rounding their record out to 4-1 overall.
“If somebody told me before the season that I’d be playing quarterback going into week three? I’d say ‘no shot,’” Belzo said. “I would have never thought. But it’s been a good transition – no pressure … It’s ‘next man up.’ I’m going to try and put the team in the best position to win.”
Belzo looks back on the first time he ever threw a football. The perfect pass to his dad.
On the sidelines.
“Now we can laugh about it.”
Photo courtesy of Sam Leventhal