The Modesto High football team has enjoyed a wealth of talent at quarterback, beginning with Tiki Tonga in 2013.
Tonga passed the torch to Nate Phillips, who developed into a Modesto Metro Conference co-MVP, and Phillips handed the baton to Max McCabe last fall.
Unlike his predecessors who could head-spin a defense with their speed and wiggle, McCabe relied on arm strength, guile and deceptive take-off ability.
In the end, the shaggy-haired, soft-spoken signal caller did enough to lead the Panthers to a share of the MMC title and earn Most Outstanding Back honors.
“McCabe was the glue,” second-year coach Donnie Wallace said.
The shoes under center at Modesto High are big … so big they may take more than one quarterback to fill. Wallace won’t say he has a competition brewing, but the signature offensive position remains open with less than two months to fall’s first kickoff.
R.J. Berumen is the presumptive starter, but Wallace said the strong-armed junior broke a thumb on his non-throwing hand during a camp in the Bay Area and hasn’t thrown much in the past two weeks. He is the favorite but is losing ground to junior Norvale Howard and senior Markus Brady, fast-action athletes initially penciled in at slot back and defensive back.
Howard and Brady shared reps at the Modesto Junior College Passing Tournament on Saturday and have drawn comparisons to Tonga and Phillips.
“We’re looking for a backup,” Wallace said. “It could be Norvale or Markus. With those two, it’s like Tiki and Nate. If something wasn’t open, these guys take off and it’s like grabbing air for our defense right now.
“R.J. can do that, too, but he’s not as elusive. He throws a much better ball.”
Whether he’s throwing spirals or running underneath them, Brady has inherited McCabe’s role as offensive leader. The 5-foot-8, 160-pounder had 974 all-purpose yards last season and was named to the all-MMC second team.
Offensive lineman Justin Farkas and two-way player Paxson Sweeney have also been vocal leaders on the practice field for the Panthers, who were knocked out in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs by Merced.
Farkas, a 6-2, 265-pound left tackle, will be looked upon to lead a revamped offensive line that may feature two sophomores in starting roles.
“Farkas has been a good leader over the summer. Sweeney helps fill in some of that (leadership) gap,” Wallace said. “We’re giving them a chance to do what they can do. We want to see who can compete.”
The Panthers’ championship run last fall has boosted spring and summer workouts. Wallace has been impressed with the turnout at the varsity level. He said 45 to 50 players regularly attend morning workouts three days a week.
“We only had 25 to 30 players on the JV team last year, so our numbers are really good,” Wallace said. “We’re deep. Skill-wise, we’re pretty good. Line-wise, we lost a good group last year, led by Luke Orth. That’s where we’re putting our concentration. We might have a lot of juniors starting on the line.”
With that type of commitment, though, Wallace believes his team will be ready for a demanding nonconference schedule. Modesto opens at former CIF state champion and perennial Trans-Valley League contender Modesto Christian on Aug. 26. The Panthers also have dates with Stagg, Patterson and Turlock.
“We’ve looked good,” Wallace said, “but there’s still work to do.”