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Buford thriving under rare dual-quarterback offense

Wolves' Mitchell, VanGorder finding success splitting QB job

POSTED: December 5, 2013 7:14 p.m.

BUFORD - Buford coach Jess Simpson might have the best backup quarterback in Georgia.

He just doesn’t know who it is.

Rather than take the traditional route and start one quarterback full-time, the Wolves have made things interesting. They utilize a rare dual-quarterback offense, splitting snaps almost evenly between seniors Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder.

Neither player has an advantage over the other on the depth chart, nor do they have their own unique plays. For the past two seasons, they’ve both followed the exact same playbook with virtually no differences in their offensive roles.

With No. 1 Buford (13-0) just 35 points away from setting a new single-season scoring record, no one is complaining about the unique system.

Sometimes, the players don’t even notice.

“Some of the guys say they can’t even tell,” VanGorder said. “Taylor will score a touchdown and I’ll run out there, and they’ll be telling me ‘Good pass.’ And I say, ‘that wasn’t me.’ And the same happens to Taylor, too.”

As Buford continues to chase down its sixth state title in seven years when it hosts Callaway (12-1) in the Class AAA state semifinals Friday night, Mitchell and VanGorder enter the contest sharing a combined 25-3 record as starters (with two of those three losses actually being wins that were forfeited after a self-reported violation to the Georgia High School Association in 2012).

Over that span, their statistics are nearly identical. Last season, Mitchell passed for 863 yards and seven touchdowns, while VanGorder totaled 784 yards but found the end zone 11 times.

This year it’s even closer. Mitchell has 753 yards and VanGorder isn’t far behind with 705. Both players have nine touchdown passes.

The similarities don’t stop at the numbers. Mitchell stands 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds. VanGorder, the son of New York Jets defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, is the same height and eight pounds lighter.

“There are subtle differences, but not huge differences,” Simpson said. “Leadership styles may be different, but they’re just two members of our team and our senior class.

“If one of them has a bad night, the other one has a great night, and vice versa. For the last two years its worked out that way. When I look back on my career, I will not regret having done that.”

They’re so much alike, Simpson encountered a difficult decision to make early in the 2012 season, when the two rising juniors were competing for the starting quarterback job left vacant by Sam Clay, who now plays baseball for Georgia Tech.

His staff’s goal was to have a starter named by the end of Buford’s non-region portion of the schedule, which included games against Elbert County, Gainesville and Hancock Central. Both players excelled in each game, and Simpson was still at a crossroad by the time region play began.

Following input from offensive linemen, who said they saw virtually no difference in play between Mitchell and VanGorder, Simpson finally made his decision: Both.

“Conventional wisdom told me you can’t do that and be successful,” Simpson said. “You don’t see many models that are successful. But I just felt like for last year’s team and those guys, I was going to give it a try.”

The decision took a little while for both players to fully accept, but they’ve since learned to embrace the tag-team strategy. Buford commonly swaps quarterbacks between series, and regularly makes the change mid-drive.

It gives the Wolves a rested signal caller at any point of a drive, keeping their offense rolling and the points piling up on the scoreboard. They’ve outscored opponents 648-78 this season.

“It kind of helps you grasp what’s going on in the game and know what’s going on,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, it’s tough rotating, but once you get in the game and know what’s happening, having that guy who’s also seeing what you’re seeing really helps your performance out there.”

Learning to share roles has become a virtue at Buford.

In the running game, the Wolves don’t have a feature back. Joshua Thomas leads the team in carries (101) and yardage (725), but Thomas Wilson still handles a big chunk of the ground attack with 717 yards on 76 carries. Throw the numbers of Evyn Cooper (46 carries, 525 yards) and Xavier Gantt (45 carries, 463 yards) and it’s evident that Buford doesn’t need a single player to determine their offensive success.

The receiving game is no different. Tre Neal and tight end Isaac Nauta each have more than 300 receiving yards, but four more players have 127 yards or more this season.

It’s obviously working for Buford, which is averaging 387.3 yards per game. So why not split up the passing game, too?

“If we have a guy go down, we have another guy stepping in making the same plays,” Mitchell said. “That’s a huge advantage of this team.”

Simpson sees their success sharing the quarterback job as a valuable lesson in selflessness for his team. For a position that’s almost entirely designed as a solo role, Mitchell and VanGorder have suffered no qualms about their close confines on the field.

“There’s two guys, and they could’ve handled this a lot of different ways,” Simpson said. “The way they’ve done it is a great example of how to do a lot of different things in life, and how you can work together and be unselfish.”

It won’t always be this way. Both players have offers from smaller Division-I teams, as well as preferred walk-on opportunities. VanGorder’s older brother, Mack, who graduated from North Hall, now plays defensive back at Auburn.

Should both players get a shot at the college ranks, it’s all on them when another starting job is presented.

“Taylor’s my right-hand man,” VanGorder said. “I come off the field and we talk about things. It’ll probably be a little weird at first, but we’ll get used to it.”


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