Being the starting quarterback of a high school football program at any level is no easy task.
But some would argue it becomes more difficult the younger a player is. Luckily, several programs across the state have found success with younger players leading the offense. Highland High School’s football program is no exception with sophomore quarterback Gage Dayley.
“There’s flashes of greatness mixed with inexperience,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said of Dayley. “He’s doing things a sophomore does when they play varsity. But he caps it all off by making really big plays and big throws.
“Overall, he’s playing great.”
Dayley may only be a sophomore, but he’s quickly become one of the leaders of a Hawk offense that has averaged more than 45 points per game.
Dayley’s role as the starting quarterback, like at any other school, comes with the pressure of finding Highland’s playmakers on every down. But it’s a role he has excelled in through the first five games of his varsity career.
The 5-foot-9, 150-pound gunslinger has passed for 806 yards and 12 touchdowns in six games this season for Highland. He’s also rushed for 116 yards.
He benefits from the likes of senior wideouts Zach Schroeder, Tanner Crandall and Tru Tanner, who made the switch to wideout from quarterback before the start of the season. Running backs Max Davis and Danny Wood have also helped Dayley in the backfield, along with senior athlete Ja’sean Lee, who recently found a role on offense along with being one of the team’s top cornerbacks.
“My teammates all know what they’re doing,” Dayley said. “They all tell me to watch film after practice and tell me ways we can beat a corner or another defensive guy. They help me see things that I don’t.”
Dayley was thrust into the starting quarterback role before the start of the 2019 season. Making the jump from the freshman team to varsity isn’t as uncommon as some may think, but it takes a special talent to excel the way Dayley has so far this season.
Even in Highland’s loss to Hamilton, Dayley showed poise and remained calm in the pocket despite facing a deficit late in the game.
Down a touchdown with just one second on the clock, Dayley scrambled from Hamilton’s 11-yard line, making it down near the goal line before he was stopped inches short of what could have been the game-tying score. It’s a play Dayley still laughs about when brought up.
But that matchup with Hamilton is the type of game that fuels his love for the sport.
“I love the competition,” Dayley said. “It’s just fun. I just love playing it. Especially when people doubt you, being under pressure is fun to me. I just love the adrenaline.”
Despite being rarely affected by the pressure that comes with being a quarterback, Dayley admits he still gets nervous before each game. However, he says the nerves usually fade away after he takes his first snap.
Even then, however, there are certain “rituals” he must do each week before Friday nights.
“I’m really superstitious,” Dayley said. “I have to sit in the same spot every time we go into film. On Fridays I have to sit in the same spot in the locker room. I also have to wear the same type of tape every game then I’ll put something over it if we are wearing a different color.
“Things like that I’m superstitious about.”
Dayley’s spot of choice in the Highland locker room is three seats over on the bench to the right of the main entrance. If he happens to enter and see one of his teammates sitting there, he politely asks them to move.
He admits he doesn’t know what would happen if he were to change his weekly routine, but it’s also something he doesn’t plan to find out.
“I’ve watched a lot of videos on it,” Dayley said. “I just don’t want something bad to happen like losing.”
The talent Highland has across the board this season is much like the 2018 team, which pushed Chandler to overtime in the 6A semifinals. Now with the introduction of the Open Division by the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Highland aimed to be one of the eight teams competing against the best of the best for a true state title.
Dayley and Farrel know the Hawks need to fire on all cylinders every game to not be at risk of being on the outside looking in when the regular season concludes.
But it’s a challenge they know every Highland player has embraced.
“When we are focused and we play with a lot of passion, we are amazing,” Farrel said. “When we play lackluster and unfocused, we are pretty average.
“As long as we keep our intensity and our focus, I think we can play with anybody.”