Cotey column: Off the bench and into the fire

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Mon. November 15, 2010 | John C. Cotey | Email

Cotey column: Off the bench and into the fire

Ryan Bird ate lunch, stepped into his sixth-period class and was told by Land O'Lakes interim coach Patrick Corcoran he would be starting in six hours.

Oh, and that playoff game next week?

Probably starting that, too.

The good news: Bird kept his lunch down.

“His eyes got a little bit wide but after the initial shock or awe or whatever you want to call it, he focused and it was his show after that,’’ Corcoran said.

Bird, a junior starting in place of prolific starter Stevie Weatherford, with new coach Corcoran, in the place of suspended Matt Kitchie, calling the plays, threw three touchdowns in his starting debut as the Gators won 42-10 over winless Hudson last week.

“He was spectacular,’’ Corcoran said.

Now, with higher stakes against a better team, he just has to do it again.

Monday, Bird took almost every snap at practice as the Gators began preparation for Friday’s playoff opener against mighty Jefferson.
The Dragons are favored to win the Class 3A championship and are led by quarterback Quentin Williams, who is closing in on 100 career touchdown throws.

They are, in a word, loaded.

But this is the kind of moment Bird has prepared for since he started playing quarterback three years ago.

He is the prototypical coach's son, taking full advantage of the benefits of father Steve’s job.

Steve Bird is currently a USF football assistant, and has also had stops at Eastern Kentucky (where he worked with Kitchie), Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Bowling Green to name a few.

Along the way, Ryan has picked the brain of every quarterback coach he has crossed paths with. He has studied every drill he was allowed to sit in on. He has absorbed every bit of advice that has been offered.

“As a parent, I’m excited for him,’’ Steve Bird said. “As a coach, this is what you wait for, for all his work to come together.’’

Ryan Bird started playing football as a fifth-grader in West Virginia. He was a sure-handed wide receiver who never dropped a pass, but Steve knew he wasn’t fast enough to play the position forever.

Ryan didn’t like that idea.

Then he did.

Now, the 6-foot, 180-pound lefty reads everything he can, watches everything he can, does everything he can to be a great quarterback.

He played behind Tarean Austin, who is now at New Mexico, last season at Hillsborough. And he says Weatherford has tutored him all season on the Gators' complex offense.

“Everything is going a little faster now, but I’m ready,’’ Bird said.

****

His first drive he was hesitant. The second, he had settled down.

“Then I knew I could do this,’’ Bird said.

His debut against Hudson -- 18-for-28 passing, 253 yards -- was essentially a warmup game, because what he will see this week is 10 times faster, 10 times better.

He knows Jefferson well. Due to the number of college prospects on the team, his dad is familiar with the Dragons, and this summer it was Bird who started in the 7-on-7 Sling-N-Shoot when the Gators beat Jefferson.

When he talked to his dad over the weekend, he told him he thought the Gators had a chance. Not many agree.

Even with Weatherford and Kitchie, the Gators weren’t expected to beat Jefferson on Friday. Now, the team has to overcome the mental damage of the past week, and Bird has to replace a player who has 38 touchdowns passing and rushing this season.

“This has definitely been overwhelming,’’ said wide receiver Will Irwin, who had a special chemistry with Weatherford. In one week, he must develop as close to the same with Bird.

“The chemistry thing is big,’’ Irwin said. “Ryan Bird is starting to figure it out, but can you do that in one week? He just has to make it happen, and that’s what we’re trusting him to do.’’

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