TAMPA — They are persistent, prodigious and prolific.
When the three remaining high school football teams in Tampa Bay take to the field tonight, with spots in the following week's state championship games on the line, they will be led there by the finest — and certainly most successful — trio of senior quarterbacks this area has ever seen in one season.
Jefferson's Quentin Williams.
Plant's Phillip Ely.
Armwood's Josh Grady.
"I recall some great ones here and there but never three like this in the same year," said Armwood coach Sean Callahan. "I don't think we've ever seen a group like this."
Collectively, their team's records are 37-2 this season. Over the past two years, it's 75-7, including six state semifinal appearances and one state title, won by Plant last season.
It is an unprecedented era of success.
The three have been compared and contrasted endlessly, the way people compare Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, or Dan Marino and Joe Montana.
The respective coaches will tell you they wouldn't trade theirs for anyone else's, and why would they?
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All Quentin Williams has done this season, and over the course of his career, is set records.
Like, all of them.
He has thrown for more touchdowns and more yards in a season and a career than anyone, including Plant's Aaron Murray and Robert Marve, Jefferson's Stephen Garcia and some guy named Tim Tebow.
This season, Williams has thrown for 3,622 yards and 47 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. But ask him about the numbers. Go ahead. You won't get a good answer. He'll shrug them off. He'll dismiss them, even.
He'd rather direct you to tonight's game, and hopefully, next week's state championship game.
Ultimately, the way he wants to be remembered hasn't even happened yet.
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Josh Grady was always the third quarterback in this group. Until this year.
Now, he's right in the middle of the conversation.
The highly recruited athlete didn't get there by putting up gaudy stats. He got there by improving, by leading and by winning.
"I've had some really good quarterbacks here. Jameel Williams never lost a game. But as far as the whole package, it's not even close: Josh Grady is the best quarterback we've ever had," Callahan said.
Grady has never thrown the ball even 20 times in a single game this season, but he has efficiently amassed 1,890 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. He has run for 880 yards as well.
His best stat: In eight of Armwood's 13 games, Grady has thrown for at least one touchdown and ran for one as well.
On a team of superstars, he stands out.
"He is the Pied Piper," Callahan said. "The kids want to be like him."
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Any kid would want to be like Ely; he fits the All-American image of a quarterback, right down to his verbal commitment to Alabama. He comes from a long line of Panthers, his father and uncles having starred at Plant before him.
Fate threw him into the fire as a sophomore in 2008, taking over when Murray suffered a broken leg early in the season. He steadied the ship, steered it into the playoffs and then gladly handed it back to a healthy Murray who won a state championship.
Last year, Ely got his own.
But while Plant legends like Marve and Murray won a single state title, Ely has a chance to be the first to win two.
The Panthers, No. 1 in the country in the preseason rankings before slipping, are one win away from defending their title.
Ely's status for the game, however, is uncertain. While he has thrown for 2,565 yards and 26 touchdowns, his back has been a problem since last season, and it recently flared up. He played one series last week, led the Panthers to a touchdown drive, and couldn't play anymore.
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How do you judge greatness?
Victories, yards, touchdowns?
That may help you determine who you think is the best quarterback in Hillsborough County. Truth is, the three meet all the criteria for greatness.
Or, if you can find a three-sided coin, then just flip it. No matter how it comes up, you won't be disappointed, and that's why this group of quarterbacks is so special.
Personally, my pick is Williams. Quite simply, I just think he's better.
But you can argue with me. There are excellent points to be made.
And someone, tonight, is going to strengthen their argument.
John Cotey can be reached at [email protected]