Graham-Kapowsin senior quarterback Nate Thomas had big shoes to fill coming into his first season as the Eagles’ starting quarterback, replacing four-year starter and current Washington Husky Dylan Morris.
Eagles’ coach Eric Kurle knew that type of pressure could be counterproductive for Thomas, so he emphasized to Thomas to focus on what makes him a good player — not what Morris accomplished over his career and trying to live up to that reputation.
“The biggest thing, from day one, was just telling him, ‘You’re not Dylan. You can’t be Dylan. You have to be yourself and play to your strengths,’” Kurle said. “We’re not going to do things the same way Dylan did it. We’ll work our system to best fit you.”
One of those strengths? Using his legs. In nine games for the 9-0 fourth-ranked Eagles, Thomas has run the ball 43 times for 328 yards and two touchdowns.
“Last year, Dylan didn’t move around the pocket like Nate does,” said senior receiver Malaki Roberson, who led the 4A SPSL in receiving this season with 822 yards and eight touchdowns on 55 receptions. “With how long his strides are and how quick he can get out, it’s hard to gameplan against.”
Kurle and his staff knew that Thomas would be quick to break out of the pocket when a play broke down this season. To them, that’s part of playing to his strengths, again.
“We have some called runs and the ones where he just breaks out,” Kurle said. “He makes good decisions on called reads, good decisions when to take off. Some of it might be a bad snap, bad read. He doesn’t force the football into bad spots; he’ll just take off and use his athletic ability.”
And through the air, Thomas has been efficient on the year, completing 111-of-165 passes for 1,542 yards, 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. It took a few games for Thomas to get comfortable in the pocket, where he’s improved steadily throughout the season.
“A couple of those first games, the pressure came up the middle, I would try to escape the pocket,” he said. “I’m a little more patient in the pocket now, just taking a little longer to wait and find someone.”
Roberson, who has put up big numbers the past couple seasons whether it’s been Morris or Thomas at the helm, said his quarterback has progressed a ton this year.
“Coming from (Morris) last year, it’s really not a big difference,” Roberson said. “The main thing he’s progressed on is making the right reads. He’s made a whole bunch of plays for us with his legs, being able to move around the pocket. He finds the open man.”
Thomas didn’t start playing quarterback until a couple of years ago. So while there’s plenty of natural arm talent and athleticism, learning the ins and outs of the position has been a gradual process over the offseason and coming into this year.
“His accuracy has really improved,” Kurle said. “Learning the technique, his arm slot and just letting it go. The arm strength is good. One thing he’s gotten better at is throwing on time, throwing guys open. Dylan was really good at throwing guys open, knowing where the ball should be thrown off the route. With (Thomas) getting more reps, he’s really understanding now what the other team is doing.”
And when the play breaks down, Thomas always has the threat of taking off for the first down on the ground.
“The coaches wanted to make sure, if I don’t have a read I can key, I can just take off and run,” Thomas said. “They keep it simple. If it’s not there, I just take off and get the yards I can. … It keeps defenses on their toes. They never know what to expect.”
When Thomas tucks the football and runs, that’s OK with the coaching staff — even if it’s not always the right call.
“You have to let him be him,” Kurle said. “You don’t want to make him a different type of quarterback. You have to be OK with that.”
Thomas is one leader on a legitimate state title contender with no glaring weaknesses. Graham-Kapowsin has weapons on the outside with Roberson and Eython Daugherty (18 receptions for 263 yards and three touchdowns), a strong offensive line, a dual-threat quarterback and what might be the best defense in the state, with good players at all three levels.
While Kurle has had plenty of good teams at Graham-Kapowsin in his 14 years as the program’s head coach, this might be his most complete team yet.
“We felt coming into the year, we had depth, a great defense with a D-line, back line, linebackers who are playing really well,” Kurle said. “The offense, good receivers and that running ability with Nate, and we’re keeping healthier with mixing guys in there this year. So we just felt like we had the depth this year. In the past, there might have been some key injuries that would just kind of snowball.”
Could it all add up to a title for the Eagles? Thomas likes the team’s chances.
“We’re really confident,” Thomas said. “We’re playing like one of the best teams in the state. We have a great defense. We have everything we need. Our offense and defense are both really good. My line is amazing, my receivers can make any play.”
Graham-Kapowsin opens the postseason at home against Mount Vernon at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, at Art Crate Field.