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Lee’s Summit still settling on next quarterback

Lee’s Summit quarterback Darrias Pearsall (left) hands the ball off to Kaia Tupinio during a preseason jamboree Aug. 17 at Bud Hertzog Stadium. Pearsall and Tupinio, a Fort Osage transfer, are in the running to be the Tigers’ starting quarterback.
Lee’s Summit quarterback Darrias Pearsall (left) hands the ball off to Kaia Tupinio during a preseason jamboree Aug. 17 at Bud Hertzog Stadium. Pearsall and Tupinio, a Fort Osage transfer, are in the running to be the Tigers’ starting quarterback. Special to the Journal

Corbin Berkstresser. Drew Lock. Dalton Hill.

For most of his nine seasons as Lee’s Summit football coach, Eric Thomas has had a top-caliber quarterback firmly in place. That hasn’t been the case lately.

Grant Baird was the anointed starter last year before a severe ankle injury during summer workouts ended his season before it began. That left Thomas with an inexperienced sophomore who in turn was injured and replaced by a converted running back.

And as the Tigers prepare to kick off the 2018 season, Thomas is once again without a certain heir to the line of Berkstresser (former Missouri quarterback), Lock (MU’s current and likely future NFL quarterback) and Hill (Missouri State redshirt freshman). For now, that’s just fine.

There’s some competition for the position.

“I still don’t know who are quarterback is,” Thomas said after the Tigers played host to a jamboree Aug. 17 at Bud Hertzog Stadium. “Both of them are doing good things at different times. At one point tonight I thought one was taking over, and then it went the other way a little bit.”

Darrias Pearsall was that inexperienced sophomore last year, but so far in the preseason the 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior has looked much more confident. Pearsall threw for almost 1,100 yards and five touchdowns last season before being slowed by injuries.

“I think you saw Darrius tonight as a different guy than he was last year,” Thomas said. “You go back and watch jamboree film from last year and he was a scared little kid at times. I don’t think you saw as much of that tonight.”

Pearsall confidently led Lee’s Summit on long drives during scrimmages against Harrisonville, Liberty North and Raymore-Peculiar. And so did newcomer Kaia Tupinio, a junior who transferred from Fort Osage. Tupinio, who is also a goalkeeper on the Tigers’ soccer team, scored four rushing touchdowns and caught a TD pass last season.

Thomas said Tupinio could wind up playing running back and wide receiver, too.

“He’s playing three different positions right now,” Thomas said. “He’s bouncing around all over the place. I’m excited about what he can bring to the table and not just playing quarterback.”

Junior Ryan Belt is also being considered at quarterback even though he didn’t get any snaps there during the jamboree. Belt figures to spend most of his time a wide receiver, where he’ll be part of a young pass-catching corps along with fellow juniors Jacob Mrachek, Jaden Moore and Trent Fell.

Lee’s Summit’s backfield will also be young as Thomas looks for a replacement for senior Preston Whitworth, who finished last season as the Tigers’ quarterback. Junior Micah Manning should get most of the carries, but Thomas said Landen Willis and Gage Piggie are going to get some yards, too.

All of them will benefit from a big offensive line that returns three senior starters: center Clayton Couch (6-0, 270), guard Darius Robinson (5-11, 250) and tackle Drew Epperson (6-3, 300).

“I really like those three at tailback,” Thomas said. “And we’ve got other guys that can play there, too.”

Things are more settled for Lee’s Summit on defense, where nine Tigers return who played varsity last season.

Defensive ends Felix Anudike and Dylan Ham return up front, while seniors Austin Spencer and Deandre Cox team up with junior Michael Garozzo to lead the linebacking corps.

Willis, who made a dazzling end-zone pass interception at the jamboree, highlights a secondary that also includes senior cornerback Omaun Muhammad and senior safety Jarquez Brinkley.

“I really like our defense right now,” Thomas said. “We just need them hungry and flying around to get to the football. And we’ve got to be smart offensively and not put them in bad situations.”

Last season Lee’s Summit struggled on both sides of the ball last season as it got off to an 0-3 start. But the Tigers rallied to win three of their last four games, including a 20-17 victory over Lee’s Summit West in their regular-season finale.

The 5-6 season ended with a 21-10 loss to Park Hill in the Class 6 playoffs, but the Tigers led 3-0 at the half against a team that blitzed them 66-35 the second week of the season.

Thomas sees that as a sign of progress. But he knows that progress will need to continue as Lee’s Summit embarks on its new Suburban Red Conference schedule after dropping down from the Suburban Gold. The season kicks off Aug. 24 at Liberty.

“I really like our kids,” Thomas said. “I really like the way they prepared in the offseason; I like how hard they were willing to work. I’m excited to go into next week and see what can happen.”

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