Lee County star quarterback Stephen Collier had a breakout junior season —- throwing for 1,887 yards and rushing for 485 more, accounting for 34 TDs (23 passing and 11 rushing) — that led to him being chosen to attend the ESPN ELITE 11 showcase this summer in Oregon. Collier’s national exposure led Ohio State to offer the Leesburg native a scholarship, and he’ll be playing in Columbus, Ohio, next season following his senior campaign with the Trojans. (Larry G. Williams/Special to The Herald)
LEESBURG — Stephen Collier doesn’t mind any of it.
The hype, the expectations, the pressure …
The Lee County quarterback has embraced it all, and his Trojan teammates have embraced him after an offseason during which Collier was named one of the top QBs in the nation and committed to national powerhouse Ohio State.
Before he heads off to Columbus, Ohio, however, Collier has one more season left in Leesburg, and the Trojans plan on riding their leader to heights never before reached in program history.
And nobody is ready for the challenge more than Collier.
“People want to see what the hype is all about and if I can live up to the expectations,” he said. “They want to see what I’m all about.”
Turns out, Collier is just the tip of the iceberg in Leesburg, where fifth-year coach Dean Fabrizio is trying to lead the Trojans to a second consecutive winning season for the first time in school history. Expectations, however, are much higher than last year’s 7-4 record and a one-and-done trip to the Class AAAAA playoffs as a No. 4 seed.
“I want to win a state championship,” Collier said. “We are hungry. I have never seen a team work as hard as we do.
“I believe we have a great team, and we are going to do some great things this year.”
And it will all start on offense, where Collier will be protected by an offensive line featuring Division I Louisiana-Lafayette commit Jesse Freeman (6-foot-4, 310 pounds), three-year starter Shabari Jones (6-0, 300) and Chris Barnes (6-4, 275), who is rated as one of the top sophomores in the state.
“People are going to be in for a treat this year. I think they are going to be amazed by our offense,” Freeman said. “We were one of the fastest teams in the state last year, and this year we are going to be the fastest.”
The Trojans, however, are without their fastest playmaker from last year in running back Kenneth Hurley, who is now at Benedict College in South Carolina. Hurley won The Herald’s 3rd annual People’s Choice Football Player of the Year award last season after rushing for 1,233 yards and catching 38 passes for a Region 1-AAAAA-leading 675 yards. He also scored 23 touchdowns.
It was the Hurley and Collier Show for much of 2012 when the Lee County offense averaged 45 points a game in the regular season and wasn’t held to under 30 points until a 49-7 loss to Whitewater in the opening round of the playoffs.
“It was a problem for opposing coaches. Who were you going to stop? Hurley or me?” Collier said. “It doesn’t feel good knowing that the guy who was your right-hand man isn’t there anymore.”
Standing in at running back this year is junior Jamal Gardner (5-11, 205), who will start Friday’s season opener against Dougherty but will also share time with junior Marquiz Williams.
Neither bring Hurley’s speed or raw talent to the field — at least not right now.
“It’s unfair to compare anybody to Kenneth right now because of what Kenneth was able to do for us,” Fabrizio said. “That’s a lot of production to replace, but we have a lot of confidence in Jamal and what he is going to do.”
The Trojans also lost a pair of starting receivers — Andrew Stroud and Casey Hightower — but bring back returning starters JQ Quimbly (5-11, 175) and Devontae Seay (5-10, 170), who each had seven touchdowns last season and might be the two fastest kids every time they step on the field this season. Completing the receiving corps will be PJ Taylor (5-8, 155) and Bernard McCray (5-10, 170).
“Our talent this year at wide receiver is phenomenal,” said Collier, who started naming his receivers one-by-one, beaming with excitement. “They are all awesome and will do some great things this year.”
But as it does every year, Lee County’s fast-paced, catch-us-if-you-can offense runs through its quarterback, and this year the Trojans have one of the best in the entire country.
Collier was one of two QBs in Georgia invited to the ESPN RISE Elite 11 camp, which pulls the best 18 high school signal callers in the nation and puts them through a rigorous week of training and competition.
Collier wasn’t named the top QB after the camp — in fact, he didn’t even make the final cut for the Top 11 — but he came back to Georgia with an appetite for greatness after spending a week with elite QBs from every level of the game, including former NFL great Trent Dilfer, who sent him a text message soon after the competition.
“He told me to prove him wrong,” Collier told The Herald early in July, referring to Dilfer’s decision to not select him as one of the Top 11. “He told me to make him look back and say that he made the wrong decision.
“I told him that I was going to work harder than ever before. I appreciate him giving me that chip on my shoulder. Now, more than ever before, I am hungry to be great.”
Collier still has that text message saved on his phone.
He also still has that hunger.
“People are always going to expect great things, and the way coach Fabrizio has changed this program around has been huge,” Collier said. “The community is starting to expect great things out of us. And we think we can do something special this year.”
Last season as a junior, Collier threw for 1,887 yards and rushed for 485 more, accounting for 34 TDs (23 passing and 11 rushing), plus six two-point conversions. But without Hurley, defenses will be able to focus their attention almost exclusively on him.
“Stephen is definitely the guy the offense is going to run through,” Fabrizio said. “The thing about Stephen is he is such a hard-working kid. The work ethic that he has really sets an example for the rest of our team. The attention (he got this summer) hasn’t been an issue with him because of the type of kid he is and the type of work ethic he has.”
No one respects Collier more than his teammates.
“Collier can easily be one of the top quarterbacks in the state,” Freeman said. “He can run. He can pass. He is the full package. And we have 100 percent trust in him.”
Lee County’s defense is also full of returning starters, including leading tackler Dextric Green, a three-year starter at middle linebacker who was named First Team All-Region last season. Green (5-8, 165) is joined by returning starters Quan Jamison (5-11, 180) at safety, Jeremiah Irby (6-3, 220) at linebacker, Jalen Bush (5-9, 160) at free safety and Kevin Hopkins (5-8, 155) at cornerback.
“We feel like we have some really, really good pieces to work with on defense,” Fabrizio said.
The defense will be tested later in the season when the Trojans enter region play and go up against powerhouses Harris County, Thomas County Central and Bainbridge. Harris County is coming off an undefeated region record, TCC is ranked fifth in the state in Class AAAAA and will likely rise in the rankings this week after shutting out Thomasville on Friday, and Bainbridge is 1-0 after gutting out a 3-0 victory against Florida powerhouse East Gadsden on Friday.
But before the Trojans meet their biggest challenges of the season, they will complete the Tour of Albany with games against Dougherty, Albany High and Westover — three teams they beat by a combined 143-73 margin last season.
“We shocked people last year because they weren’t really ready for us,” Collier said. “I know they will be coming for us this year. We have a target on our backs and will have to perform at an even higher level than last year.”
Lee County started 2012 with a 6-0 record before dropping three of their final four games. The losses to TCC, Harris and Bainbridge, however, were by a combined 17 points, and Fabrizio believes 2013 could be the year the Trojans finally get over the hump against their region foes.
“We are excited about the challenge this year,” he said. “We have a lot of good teams in our region, but we feel like we can play with anybody.
“We had a good year last year, but we felt like it was close to being a very, very good year. That’s what we want this season: A very, very good year.”
NOTES: Fabrizio issued his team T-shirts early in the preseason with the words “It’s all about the Lee” embroidering the front, referencing the University of Miami’s motto “It’s all about the U.” Freeman said the players immediately latched on to the team’s new slogan. “This is our school pride,” Freeman said. “This is who we represent.” … The Trojans are trying to make the playoffs for the third time in four years. They lost in the opening round in both 2010 and 2012 and missed the playoffs in 2011 with a 4-6 record. … Fabrizio is 20-22 in his four years as head coach at Lee County.