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Big Shoes To Fill

After the Graduation of Top-Caliber Players 3 County Teams Try To Find Ways to Fill the Void.

September 08, 1998|MARTIN HENDERSON | Los Angeles Times

Greg Orlando knows all eyes are on him this season, not because he was one of the county's best receivers last year, but because he will play quarterback this season at Santa Margarita.

Orlando is succeeding Carson Palmer, who led the Eagles to a second consecutive Southern Section football title last season.

While Palmer starts fast at USC, Orlando suits up at Santa Margarita, the county's winningest high school football program (.768) during its first nine seasons.

When it comes to following a player of distinction this season, Orlando isn't alone.

Three Tustin players in a new offense will try to compensate for the loss of tailback DeShaun Foster, who set a state record for scoring. The legacy of Michael Jones--the county's all-time leading rusher--looms over Ryan Johnson at Laguna Hills.

It's their job to ease the transition between Superman and Clark Kent, between a superhero and a mild-mannered alterego.

"I'm not Carson and I'm not trying to be," Orlando said. "I'm going to do my thing--which I've done my entire life--go where my legs take me."

That might be the biggest difference between Orlando and Palmer, the classic strong-armed-drop-back quarterback. Orlando might not throw bullets, but he can still slice defense like a dagger. He accounted for 19 touchdowns last season, passing for six, running for five and catching passes for eight.

Rather than risk an interception, Orlando has been given the green light to create something with this footwork.

There is no doubt his best position is slotback. There is no doubt he helps the Eagles most at quarterback.

"Me and [Coach Jim] Hartigan talked after the season about the possibility of playing receiver [this year], which is what I really wanted to do," Orlando said. "Then, one day it hit me: 'Greg, you have to play quarterback.'

"I want to play quarterback this year. It might be my last time playing quarterback. The team needs me to play quarterback."

At stake are the Eagles' back-to-back section titles and 25 consecutive victories. The county record is 32 in a row, set by Edison from 1979 to 1981.

"We know he can run our offense," Hartigan said. "He's the key to us defending our championship."

Orlando broke his wrist the third day of spring practice and didn't throw any passes during the summer. He says the only pressure he really feels is from being a perfectionist, though he has noticed Hartigan's lofty expectations.

"If I make a bad throw in practice, he'll get a little upset," Orlando said. "[Offensive coordinator Jim] Barnett has to remind him that most quarterbacks don't have golden arms."

Palmer threw for 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions, and completed 63% of his passes for 2,607 yards. That's a lot of gold.

"Greg knows at quarterback, he could be one of the best in the county, but with his height [he's listed at 5 feet 10 but admits being 5-9], he's not a Division I college quarterback," Hartigan said. "That's not his forte. His forte is getting open, catching balls and making great runs after the catch. But his athleticism at quarterback should really concern any defensive coordinator."

It does.

"The game-and-a-half I watched Orlando play, they didn't miss a beat having Orlando run the offense," said defensive coordinator Wally Grant of Tustin, the team that figures to challenge the Eagles for the section's Division VI title.

"They weren't as high-powered, but [Orlando] did things Palmer couldn't do, like run the option. That's a very interesting scenario."

Orlando's definitely a triple threat. He caught 37 passes last year, his 19.6 yards per reception the fourth-best total among the county's top 35 receivers. He rushed for 303 yards, averaging 6.7 per carry.

He is not an inexperienced varsity quarterback, either. He started four games because Palmer had a stress fracture in his foot, and played often in other games because of the lopsided score. His quarterback rating, 191.9, would have been second only to Palmer's 207.9 had Orlando had a minimum of 100 passing attempts. He completed 29 of 51 passes.

By comparison, Mater Dei's John Leonard's rating was 181.0, and Los Alamitos' Zach Blazek's 164.6.

Orlando even returned punts last season and blocked two kicks.

"His versatility is his best asset," Hartigan said. "If he does play quarterback, you won't see every aspect of Greg Orlando."

Tustin's Trio

Foster was such a special athlete that Tustin won't even try to replace him with a single player. Coach Myron Miller turned his playbook back to 1996, when he ran the double wing offense and had three runners (including Foster) rush for more than 1,000 yards apiece. The Tillers went 11-2 and lost to Santa Margarita in the semifinals. Last year, they lost to the Eagles in the final, 55-42.

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