FOOTBALL: Haddix shines in Red-White

Michael Casagrande

What began as a nine-man race has been whittled down to two, with one taking the lead.

Breathitt County freshman Justin Haddix, appears to have the upper hand over Alex Dukes, a sophomore from Lakeland, Fla.

“Haddix has the edge, but it is still competitive,” said assistant head coach Willie Taggart, who is working with the quarterbacks. “They are all doing good things, but Haddix is playing with more consistency.”

After spring practice broke, the race appeared to be between seniors Casey Rooney and Perez Smith, but coach David Elson moved the pair to wide receivers before summer drills.

That left seven players to scrap for the position. But after summer two-a-days and with the season opener only a week away, the clock is ticking for the Western coaching staff to tab the starter.

In last night’s Red-White scrimmage, Haddix put his arm on display and seemingly settled the controversy. Haddix went 8-for-8 for 161 yards in a nearly flawless performance.

On two occasions, Haddix launched bombs deep down Smith Stadium’s turf, wowing the crowd.

Last night’s duel was the second time the quarterback battle was on display. In the first scrimmage last Saturday, Haddix was chosen to lead the first team offense but struggled at times. His inexperience showed when his first pass was intercepted after four straight running plays.

Haddix finished 8-of-14 passing for 89 yards and two interceptions. Dukes went 2-of-4 for 16 yards with the second team.

Last season, the Toppers benefited from having senior Jason Michael calling the plays in the huddle.

Michael’s leadership qualities lead Western on a 10-game win streak that culminated in a national championship.

But last December, while Michael was knocking off the top seeded teams in the 1-AA playoffs, Haddix was playing in a much different AA playoffs. The 6-foot-1 high school senior was leading Breathitt County to an undefeated 15-0 record and the Kentucky Class AA state championship.

Haddix’s lack of collegiate experience is apparent to Elson and Taggart, but the coaches are confident his skills will continue to progress.

“I think if he can get away from trying to make too many plays, then it will come to him a lot quicker,” Taggart said. “But that all goes back to him being young.”

Haddix and Dukes have differing styles at quarterback.

Haddix has a stronger arm and is categorized as more of a traditional quarterback. The 2002 Mr. Football runner-up has dazzled his teammates with deep passes thrown with accuracy.

“He’s one of those pure quarterbacks,” Taggart said. “His teammates are behind him and they respect what he is doing.”

Dukes, conversely, fits the mold of the modern, more mobile quarterback, drawing comparisons to Taggart during his Western playing days. The Florida native shined in sprint out situations and option plays.

“Dukes is real athletic,” Taggart, a 1998 Western graduate said. “He can throw the ball well, but he is one of those guys that can get you out of trouble when you have a bad play. The downside is he is short. Sometimes he has trouble seeing around the line of scrimmage.”

Elson, despite his background as a defensive coordinator, has kept close tabs on the unfolding battle.

“We are going to play to their strengths,” Elson said. “Justin is probably the best pure drop back guy, Alex is both good when we run our nakeds and bootlegs.”

Although Haddix appears to be in the lead in the race to become the Toppers’ starting quarterback, Taggart still isn’t prepared to name a definite No. 1.

“He’s the front-runner, but its close,” Taggart said. “Both of them are real competitive and I think we can go with either one of those guys.”

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]