A year ago, almost to the day, Danny Velasquez walked an empty path across the Stanislaus State campus, clutching his helmet and football hopes.
The former Turlock High quarterback was preparing for the Lions All-Star Football Classic, but more importantly, he was bracing for an uncertain future.
Velasquez was bound for Modesto Junior College, where coach Rusty Stivers hoped to turn the two-time Central California Conference player of the year into a slot receiver.
"Our goal at the beginning of last season was to get the ball to Danny in open space," Stivers said, "but it became apparent that having the ball in his hand at all times was the best for our team, even though there was a learning curve."
Injuries quickly forced Velasquez back under center. Though he was raw and unfamiliar with all the nuances of Stiver’s NASCAR offense, Velasquez’s athleticism and natural playmaking ability made him an instant hit.
Twelve months later, Velasquez is on the move again, clutching only his hopes as he runs head-on into another uncertain future. Velasquez committed to Portland State University on Thursday evening, accepting a full-ride scholarship and a chance to compete with two returners and a red-shirt freshman for the Vikings' starting QB job.
He is the fifth Pirate quarterback to land a Division-I athletic scholarship in the last nine years.
"It’s beautiful up here,” Velasquez said on Thursday evening, “and there’s a chance to start. For me, that was the biggest thing. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. I’m the biggest competitor out there. When they said I had the chance to come in and compete, they had me.
“It will be an uphill battle, because there are three guys that played last year, but I’m confident in my abilities and I believe I can win that starting job.”
Velasquez has never lacked for confidence, nor should he. He won league MVP awards playing two different positions at Turlock High — running back as a junior and quarterback as a senior — and then became the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Pirates since Beyer’s Ryan Thorson in 2003.
Buoyed by a simple mantra ("Roll with it," he says), freakish athletic ability and take-charge attitude, Velasquez morphed quickly into a promising Division I prospect. He threw for 1,950 yards and 19 touchdowns, rushed for 810 yards and 10 more scores, and was named to the all-Big 8 first team.
The Pirates developed alongside Velasquez, winning the Gridiron Bowl with a 73-41 victory over Diablo Valley College. Surprise, surprise: Velasquez was named the game’s MVP after amassing 380 yards of offense and three TDs.
"When you consider that he had zero reps at quarterback in the spring and summer, the success that he had during the season was remarkable," Stivers said.
Initially, though, four-year universities weren’t quite sold on Velasquez, the quarterback. Maybe it was his unorthodox path to the spotlight. Maybe it was his size (6-1). He watched with envy as defensive lineman Mustafa Noel-Johnson, a former teammate at Turlock and MJC, accepted a scholarship to Colorado before Christmas.
“I wanted to be like Mustafa and leave by December,” Velasquez said. “It didn’t happen that way. Still thankful for what happened. It’s been pretty awesome.”
Velasquez was courted by University of Troy and Northern Arizona University. There was mild interest from Kansas and Middle Tennessee State. He even turned down a partial scholarship offer from Montana State, confident his ability and ceiling would land him a full-ride offer and a chance to see the field. Portland State checked all of the boxes.
As much as Velasquez enjoyed his visit to the campus and the city, he appreciated the manner in which QB coach Evan Mozzochi recruited him. Mozzochi made no promises; just presented him with an opportunity to compete, to study, to grow. Portland State returns sophomores Jalani Eason and Davis Alexander, both of whom appeared in at least five games last fall, and redshirt freshman Davis Koetter.
"Division I schools were recruiting Danny because of his overall athletic ability and they understood that he still had limited snaps at the quarterback position," Stivers said. "His ceiling for improvement is high, and he is just scratching the surface of what he could become."
James Burns has covered high school and collegiate sports in the Central Valley for the last 20 years. Follow him on Twitter @jburns1980.
Five MJC quarterbacks have gone on to sign Division I scholarships in the last nine years.
Danny Velasquez (Turlock)
Wyatt Clapper (Pitman)
Quinton McCown (Hilmar)
Devin Combs (Oakdale)
Greg Panelli (Orestimba)
SUNRISE ROTARY GAME SATURDAY — The top high school players in Stanislaus County will converge Saturday at Stanislaus State for the 29th annual Modesto Sunrise Rotary High School All-Star Baseball Classic. Pregame ceremony starts at 6:30 p.m. First pitch is 7:05 p.m.
Here are the rosters:
Gold: Beyer — Derek Gonzales, Brady Cardozo, Wheeler, Polack. Gregori — Colton MacCaughtry, Nick Urrutia, Branden Pasion. Johansen — Elijah Knight. Turlock — Dallin Tilby, Justin Hines, Mason King. Oakdale — Dylan Wright, Alex Daoud, Max Moore, Jacob Solorio. Ceres — Brock DeWitt, Adrian Magdaleno. Patterson — Eric Cashen, Ronin Taylor. Hughson — Wyat Kee, Andruw Mendes. Turlock Christian — Jakob Skinner; Waterford — Michael Vivo Jr., Alvaro Perez. Coaches: Mike Vivo, Waterford; Charley Garza, Hughson.
Blue: Modesto — Tyler Shafer, Carlos Castillo, RJ Soria, Evan Klump. Enochs — Jacob Bower, Same Hale. Downey — Connor Trester, Zac Cooper. Pitman — Nick Tullio, Brett Hagen, Tyler Stout, Joey Romeo. Central Catholic — Orlando Leon, Alex Escobar. Modesto Christian — Cody Brockman, Garcia Marquez. Big Valley Christian — J.T. Thompson, Tyler Meyer. Riverbank — Carlos Villapudua, Nikolas Mayfield. Central Valley — Alex Solis. Orestimba — Jacob Dominguez, Javen Rocha. Coaches — Darryl Galloway, Modesto; Justin Schwitters, Downey.