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OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Hampton McConnell, West Forsyth
West QB made a name for himself
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West Forsyth junior quarterback Hampton McConnell filled a huge void when former Wolverines star A.J. Erdely graduated and became one of the countys most dynamic players. - photo by Lily McGregor Photography

A part of Hampton McConnell knows both how and why observers of Forsyth County football, especially around West Forsyth High School, make the comparison.

How? Because McConnell and former Wolverines star A.J. Erdely share similar size (6-foot-3), skills (rocket arm, agile legs) and title (starting quarterback).

Why? Because Erdely was a three-year starter, won 29 games, authored memorable playoff wins and led record-breaking offenses. Entering this season, McConnell had a varsity résumé of seven catches and 14 punts.

So behind the comparisons, perhaps, was a question: Did watching Erdely prepare McConnell to achieve similar success? Could the Wolverines expect a seamless transition of ludicrous stats and double-digit win seasons?

"I just wanted to be the best player that I could be and help my team the best that I could," McConnell said. "I thought that personally I could do a good job if I just worked hard and put my mind to it."

Indeed, McConnell turned out to be the best in the county.

The junior completed 134 of 216 passes (62 percent) for 1,761 yards, 11 touchdowns and rushed for 794 yards and another 11 touchdowns while leading West back to the playoffs for the fourth straight season to become the 2013 Forsyth County Offensive Player of the Year.

"He had an excellent season and each week got better and better," West coach Frank Hepler said. "He was the reason why we were able to get to the playoffs – his leadership, his play, the maturity he showed throughout."

Erdely’s influence on McConnell’s first season as a starting quarterback was more subtle than strategic. There were no one-on-one study sessions. Erdely didn’t pick out McConnell and guide him.

McConnell didn’t expect a mentor. But from the time he entered West’s program as a freshman, McConnell watched Erdely and listened to Wolverines offensive coordinator Adam Clack.

"He studied, he worked hard at it and he put the time in," Hepler said. "Had he not done all that the last two years, I’d say I had no clue what was going to happen [this season]. But he did a great job of preparing."

McConnell’s preparation was tested right from the start. His counterpart in the season opener against Gainesville? Deshaun Watson – Clemson commit, four-star prospect, all-time leading passer in Georgia high school football history.

So, yes, Gainesville dominated in a 58-28 victory, but already McConnell showed signs of his potential. He was 7-for-14 passing for 91 yards and an interception but rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. More important was the mental progress McConnell he could already feel.

"I felt really comfortable the first game," McConnell said. "Once you get in the game the adrenaline kind of kicks in. Everything just slows down. It seems easy."

Signs of McConnell’s progress continued.

He shrugged off the Gainesville loss a week later and passed for 140 yards and rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown in a 35-21 victory over then No. 10-ranked Flowery Branch.

He overcame two early interceptions the following week at Starr’s Mill to finish 11 of 19 passing for 144 yards and two touchdowns and rush for 110 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in a 33-29 victory.

He bounced back from a disappointing loss to Alpharetta to help West win five straight games and secure a playoff spot.

Along the way, McConnell felt everything coming together.

"At the beginning of the year, the game was moving really fast," McConnell said. "It was hard to keep up with it, and as the year went on it started to slow down. Things became easier. Reads became easier, passes became easier."

"He wanted the ball when the game was on the line," Hepler said. "He wanted to step up and be that guy."

Maybe, just maybe, along the way McConnell made people forget about the comparisons with Erdely. Fact is McConnell doesn’t mind making comparison.

But when he does, McConnell looks more at his contemporaries. He sees fellow Class of 2015 quarterbacks Austin King at Alpharetta and D.J. Pearson at Northview winning more, passing for more or holding more scholarship offers.

"I like to compare myself with other quarterbacks," McConnell said. "They’re both great quarterbacks. I’ll always compare myself to them wanting to be better than them."

Over the winter, McConnell plans to visit as many colleges as possible and throw in front of as many coaches as he can. He’s already made unofficial visits to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State. He’s starting to hear from South Carolina.

"As long as he continues to work as he’s done, which we think he will, the sky’s the limit for him," Hepler said. "I think he can play on the college level, just about any level."

He’s going out to let colleges know another quarterback from West is on his way.

Same size, same skills, same goal but different person.