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Hensley in eye of Hurricane storm

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Austin Hensley knows all about pressure.

He's started the last 23 games at quarterback for Hurricane and has found himself in a variety of pressure situations - whether it's running for his life against blitzing defenses or directing his team into the Class AAA playoffs.

That's good, because the pressure figures to ratchet up a few notches for his senior season.

Hensley and the Redskins looked fairly sharp Saturday in their final scrimmage, a 19-15 victory against Woodrow Wilson during the Mountain State Athletic Conference Grid-o-rama at Laidley Field. The Redskins led 19-7 at halftime before substitutes on both sides finished the scrimmage.

In his two quarters, Hensley completed 13 of 20 passes for 172 yards, including touchdown tosses of 14 yards to Brandon Ford and 16 yards to Zach Fitzsimmons, who caught six balls for 65 yards.

The numbers have always been there for Hensley, the top returning quarterback in Class AAA after throwing for 2,200 yards and 21 TDs last year. As a sophomore, he passed for 1,110 yards and 10 scores. He's also run for 13 touchdowns in his two seasons.

But if the Redskins are going to take that quantum leap this year, Hensley is going to have to keep it up both during the regular season and the postseason.

Two of Hensley's roughest games have come at playoff time, including a 33-6 loss to George Washington in the 2011 quarterfinals when he was a mere 5 of 14 passing for 41 yards with one TD and four interceptions.

Last year, the Redskins met up with GW and Kennedy Award-winning tailback Ryan Switzer again in the opening round and the totals weren't much better - Hensley was 5 of 10 for 44 yards with no TDs or picks in a 35-10 setback. His previous low-yardage figure that season was 143.

"The first one was with Willis [May],'' said second-year Hurricane coach Jeremy Taylor, "and the second one was with me. I don't blame him when he was a sophomore. He wasn't ready to throw the ball like that.

"The second one, we went into it kind of real conservative. We thought if we could hold them on defense a little bit . . . and we did for three quarters, then Switzer kind of exploded on us. I figured if we had thrown the ball as much as we did the first time, it could get ugly quick. That's why we were real conservative, good and bad. We had to play the perfect game, and we didn't. It was the playoffs.''

Hensley realizes most eyes will be on him at Hurricane games this season as he orchestrates on offense that piles up points in bunches (34 or more five times last year).

That's why more and more defensive coordinators will opt to send blitz packages at Hurricane's offensive line to see if they can protect their veteran QB, or if the pressure will disrupt the Redskins' timing and put Hensley on the run.

As far as Hensley's concerned, that tactic's OK.

"I think people don't know about me on the run,'' Hensley said. "So that's what I did in the off-season - built up my speed on the run. Going to my left a lot. Hopefully it will keep defenses on their heels with that.''

Taylor thinks the maturation of Hurricane's line, with three returning starters, will pay dividends in keeping Hensley's uniform and passing lanes clean.

"A lot of people try to do that,'' Taylor said. "They bring pressure. But the difference between last year and this year is that our offensive line is another big step for us. Our offensive line is doing a much better job picking up blitzes now.

"We got beat inside a couple of times today, but about halfway through the second quarter, Beckley was kind of gassed, and we went on a 70-yard drive. But we just can't sit back there and throw the ball. We've got to run it, too, and [Hensley] knows that.''

Another three-year starter, running back Zach Pate, gives Hensley a complementary option either running or catching the ball. Against Woodrow, Pate caught fives passes for 85 yards, including a 53-yard rainbow from Hensley on Hurricane's first play, and carried five times for 31 yards. Another 31-yard run was negated by penalty.

"I don't know how many times we threw it today,'' Taylor said, "but sometimes we throw it too much.''

The temptation will be there to have Hensley sit back in shotgun formation and fire it up 40 times every game, especially with an improved line and a more-experienced QB.

"The difference between Austin two years ago and this year is 1,000 percent,'' Taylor said, "the way he reads and the confidence he has to make passes now. Two years ago, he would have shied away from top corners, and now he's not afraid to go after people.''

Hensley, after all, has started down a lot of opposing players, both on the football field and in baseball, where he doubles as a top pitcher for one of the state's best programs.

He said he welcomes the challenge of getting back to the playoffs and making up for past postseason misfortunes.

"It just makes me want to strive to do better,'' Hensley said, "and carry this team and be a better leader. And stay humble and hopefully lead us far into the playoffs this year.''In other MSAC scrimmage scores on Saturday, Spring Valley downed Parkersburg 28-9, Huntington topped George Washington 31-21 (after trailing 21-7 at halftime with starters on the field), Winfield beat Riverside 21-9 and Princeton blanked Nitro 47-0. In the final matchup, Cabell Midland defeated South Charleston 41-28. At halftime, SC trailed 28-21.

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com">rickryan@wvgazette.com.


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