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Sports

November 7, 2012

Turning up the heat

Norton’s growth at QB is making the Demons a much scarier foe

DUNCAN — Following a three-year starter, in a new offense, with limited experience at quarterback, the deck wasn’t exactly stacked in Tanner Norton’s favor coming into the season.

But as every poker player will tell you, it’s not the cards you’re dealt that matters, it’s how you play them.

“He’s had an absolutely outstanding year,” Duncan coach Jim Holloway said of the 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior. “Especially considering he hadn’t taken but probably 10 varsity snaps at quarterback in his career. That’s just the way things worked out.”

Norton was the backup quarterback behind Brandon Carletti-Silva last year. He was also a starting defensive back, so when Duncan got a big lead, instead of subbing in Norton, they went ahead and put in the third-string QB.

So, he didn’t get much playing time at quarterback. He still spent a whole season practicing at quarterback, learning the ins and outs of the offense ... then Duncan installed a new offense.

“It was very difficult, coming from a spread offense. We ran a little bit of option, but nothing like this,” Norton said. “But I think our coaches did a great job of getting me where I needed to be.”

As a smart player and shifty runner, Norton had little trouble grasping the offense when it came to the running game, making good reads out of the option and finding yardage when he decided to tuck and run the ball.

Not including sacks, Norton has rushed for 331 yards and four touchdowns this season.

Success in the passing game, however, didn’t come as quickly.

Through the first three games of the season, Duncan, as a team, had completed just 6-of-22 passes for 59 yards.

As the season pressed on, Norton grew as a passer, bringing the Demons along for the ride. In the last three games, Norton has completed 7-of-13 passes for 122 yards.

“He’s improved a lot,” said senior receiver Andrew Peercy. “He’s really worked on the fundamentals, getting it up there.”

In recent weeks Duncan has opened up the playbook a bit more in the passing game, allowing Norton to showcase his strong arm in a variety of ways, flicking quick strikes to the outside and perfectly lobbing passes into the arms of his receivers.

“We’ve put in some new routes that have benefited me as a passer. I can get the ball out quick and our guys are catching it and the line is protecting well,” Norton said. “The way our run game sets up those (short routes) is a lot better for us. I think a few plays were taking too long to develop and our coaches realized that and knew we needed some quicker pass plays.”

Even with the passing game expanding, there is no doubt Duncan is a run-first team. Quarterbacks on run-oriented teams are often referred to as game managers, whose job is it to keep defenses honest and avoid mistakes. If Norton is a game manager, he is certainly adhering to the mistake-free portion of the job, throwing just one interception all season.

“We may not be throwing it for as many yards as we want but he’s not color blind. He doesn’t throw to the wrong jerseys,” Holloway said. “With all the players I’ve been around and all the time I’ve been here, I can’t ever remember any one just throwing one interception.”

While Tanner has had to grow into his role as a quarterback, he came into the season as an undoubted leader.

“He’s a great leader,” Peercy said. “He always gets you pumped up and when you make a mistake, he tells you to shake it off. He never lets you get too high or too low.”

Norton isn’t afraid to lead vocally, but Holloway said it’s the example he sets that really makes Norton a leader. He never hangs his head, never gives up on a play and never shows and sign of wear.

“I like to play with a lot of intensity and I think it carries over,” Norton said. “I like to get guys fired up, because that makes the game fun and I like to have fun when I play.”

That leadership is as apparent on defense as it is on offense, with Norton getting the other defensive backs lined up in the right spots.

“I thought he was an excellent player for us as a junior (at defensive back) and he’s only gotten better,” Holloway said.

Norton has racked up 38 tackles, including two tackles for a loss this season to go along with two interceptions.

Whether on offense, defense or special teams — Norton is Duncan’s leading punt returner with six returns for 65 yards — the senior seems to make a big impact everywhere for the Demons.

This week, they will certainly need that impact to be felt as they take on Bishop McGuinness on the road in the first round of the playoffs.

The fourth-ranked Fighting Irish certainly represent a big challenge for Duncan, but Norton and the rest of the Demons have shown throughout the season, they aren’t afraid of taking on big challenges.

“We just have to play great,” Norton said matter-of-factly. “We have to play great defense and keep the ball away from their offense.”

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