Watching a tall, slender freshman quarterback carve up Russell’s junior varsity defense, it was apparent to Scott Grizzle that Eli Sammons could hang at the varsity level.
“Basic RPO (run-pass option) stuff, a run play and a backside slant,” Greenup County’s coach recalled. “We probably ran that play eight times that game, and he was just ripping it through there, on the money. And the way he was getting the ball out of his hand so fast, along with his height already at that time — he was probably 6-2, 6-3 — I knew there was something special there.”
Grizzle was right. And three years after Sammons claimed the starting quarterback’s job late in his freshman season, Grizzle hasn’t been surprised to see the Musketeers’ slinger on pace to become northeastern Kentucky’s all-time leading passer — a distinction Sammons must surpass Grizzle to reach.
The story of Sammons’ pursuit of the mantle of top area passer began before he was born at one of Greenup County’s fiercest rivals.
In 2000, Raceland went 1-9, and spring football in 2001 didn’t inspire confidence that the Rams’ fortunes would improve without radical change.
Needing inspiration, then-Raceland coach Randy Vanderhoof found it in the mail.
“We were sitting at our desk there one day at school,” Vanderhoof said, avoiding first-person pronouns as is his habit, “and we got this letter from our mailbox that said, ‘Bad Coaches, Inc.,’ and we thought, ‘Well, this is me. Need to look at this.’”
It was Tony Franklin advertising his assistance in installing the Air Raid offense. The wide-open pass-happy approach was positively revolutionary in 2001 in northeastern Kentucky, which was exactly what Vanderhoof was looking for.
So Vanderhoof summoned Franklin for a visit to Raceland, and the Rams installed the Air Raid, run from what today would be called a spread formation.
Within three years, Raceland had assembled two winning seasons, and it was time to turn the offense over to a sophomore quarterback named Scott Grizzle.
“He just tried to absorb everything he could,” Vanderhoof said. “Tony had what he called a ‘Quarterback Sunday School’ in Lexington, so some of us would take turns taking him down there to that, because he was just always wanting to learn and try to get better. Scott was just a phenomenal player in the old-school Air Raid system.”
Grizzle amassed 6,399 passing yards from 2003-06 at Raceland. Among northeastern Kentucky passers, only Corky Prater, who threw for 6,842 yards at Lewis County from 1971-74, and Bill Allen, who compiled 6,440 yards at Morgan County from 1980-83, have thrown for more.
Ten years later, Grizzle got his first head-coaching job at Greenup County. He brought along the Air Raid, although the Musketeers don’t do it quite the same way Vanderhoof’s Rams did.
Like many modern spread teams, Greenup County mixes a healthy dose of run-pass options with the main course of the aerial attack and can also employ tight ends and H-backs, as opposed to simply four or five receivers. Vanderhoof calls that a “hybrid” Air Raid, as opposed to the “old-school” Air Raid he brought to Raceland in 2001.
“A lot of these coaches are into these RPOs, that’s a big thing, and I always kid Griz, you need to do away with the ‘R’ and the ‘O’ and just do the ‘pass’ with this kid,” Vanderhoof said of Sammons. “I’d like to see him throw it 50 times a game.
“Well, maybe not on Aug. 24,” Vanderhoof added with a laugh. That’s the Saturday night the Musketeers travel to Raceland, where Vanderhoof has returned as an assistant coach, for the Iron Bowl.
Taking the torch
As a freshman in 2016, Sammons first platooned at quarterback with junior Chase Hunt for six games and then won the starting nod for the regular-season finale.
Sammons wasn’t at his statistically sharpest in that game — 10 of 29 for 207 yards and a TD in nasty conditions in Greenup County’s 26-7 win at Boyd County — but he knew then that he would be able to handle the job.
“I was just really, really nervous, still trying to figure out the offense,” Sammons said, “but I was like, well, I’m doing something right because (Grizzle) is still keeping me out here ... hopefully I can continue this and just keep getting better from here.”
Sammons, with Grizzle’s help, got up to speed on the spread, which took some work because the student didn’t grow up in it like the teacher did.
“At Greenup, when (Sammons) was in middle school, they were in the power I, the wishbone,” Grizzle said, “so transitioning to the spread was a whole new ball game for him. It’s been a learning process. But he’s a really hard worker, he studies his film, he does great in position meetings and he puts a lot of time into learning our offense. He’s gotten better every year.”
As Grizzle explains it, Greenup County’s version of the Air Raid is comprised of a fairly small number of plays that the Musketeers strive to execute expertly. It also allows the quarterback latitude to read a defense and potentially decide to pass on any play, including called runs.
“Coach Grizzle’s a tremendous coach,” Sammons said. “He really worked on just breaking it down as simple as possible. ... You want to take what’s easy. Do what makes your job easiest.”
Two weeks after his starting debut, Sammons found fine form. He completed 9 of 11 passes for 265 yards and four touchdowns, with only one pick, in Greenup County’s 57-28 romp at Harrison County in the first round of the playoffs.
‘Just let him play’
Ever since, the Sammons-piloted Musketeers offense has been nothing short of high-flying. Sammons has thrown for 5,650 career yards, which is fifth in area history entering his senior season. And Greenup County has averaged 35.3 points per game in Sammons’ two complete seasons as the full-time starter.
“There’s no doubt about it, he makes calling plays pretty easy,” Grizzle said. “Really, it’s just a matter of putting the ball in his hands. We just try to keep it simple to where he can go out and execute.
“When you have a guy that talented, you don’t have to be gimmicky or come up with the perfect play. Just make sure he’s sound on what’s going on and knows the system, and just let him play.”
Sammons has enjoyed the fast-flying nature of the Air Raid and a certain confidence and bravado his coach brings to it.
“Most people think, like, say you’re on your own 10-yard line, you gotta come out (carefully),” Sammons said. “Coach Grizzle’s motto is, hey, they got 90-some yards they gotta cover. That’s in our favor, so we’re gonna take it.
“Honestly, it’s been a lot of fun in this offense. It’s definitely benefitted me for the next level and helped me out tremendously as a quarterback.”
Flummoxing roadblocks have been few and far between, but the Musketeers offense did encounter a couple of them last season, in the form of resounding setbacks to Raceland and Lawrence County in consecutive weeks.
Greenup County totaled 12 points and Sammons hit on 19 of 49 passes in those losses.
The Musketeers opened district play the next week at East Carter. The Raiders, as it turned out, were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On Greenup County’s first drive, the Musketeers converted two third downs and a fourth down, as East Carter coach Tim Champlin remembers it.
“All of a sudden, (Sammons) completes a big ball and then comes back and completes another pass, and you could just see it,” Champlin said. “When that happened, we knew we were in for a long night.”
Sammons was 20 of 23 for 263 yards and four touchdowns as Greenup County prevailed, 61-24.
Slump over. Emphatically.
“He’s just an athletic quarterback and a dang good quarterback,” Champlin said. “Usually when you play somebody in high school, they can’t throw (a) backside (route), or can’t throw this, or they struggle with this. He throws a 15-yard out better than most kids around here throw a slant.”
Part of that is due to physical gifts — Sammons is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds — and part to hard work, Grizzle said.
“He’s the hardest-working kid on the team,” Grizzle said. “He’s not your typical quarterback in terms of the weight room. He’s one of the strongest players on the team. He has a 300-pound bench press and a 450-pound squat. He gets after it in the weight room.”
Sammons’ size and stats led to salivation from Marshall University, where he has committed to continue his career next fall.
“It was kinda mind-blowing, knowing they’re looking at me,” Sammons said. “I’ve really been trying to focus on not trying to do too much, just work on doing my role, play my part on this team and take it one day at a time.”
Continuing the climb
Sammons has to pass four quarterbacks to become the all-time leading aerial yardage gatherer in northeastern Kentucky. He needs 750 yards to catch Grizzle for No. 3 and 1,193 to surpass Prater and climb atop the list. If Sammons maintains the pace he’s set thus far, that will happen midseason.
Grizzle doesn’t think Sammons knows that, at least not until he read the previous paragraph.
“We don’t talk about stats,” Grizzle said. “When it’s all said and done, I’ll shake his hand and tell him, good job.”
Don’t expect Sammons to become content and complacent after the grip-and-grin. The Musketeers’ pursuit of a district championship and playoff success awaits, followed by whatever his time in Huntington may bring.
“One thing our coaches really work on is, you can be a player of the game, but it’s the students of the game that become the great ones,” Sammons said. “That’s what I really want to do, is just master my craft and work on being a better student of the game and learn more and more every day.”