This is it for Nick Firment. This is his comfort zone. The pressure of being the Avon Lake starting quarterback, the intense practice and preparation for the Division II, Region 6 semifinal against Ashland tonight in Brunswick, the quest for a state championship - none of it makes Firment quiver.
Not the heat of the playoff atmosphere, not the presence of a defensive end closing in for the hit - no problem.
For Firment, all of this appears amazingly easy. An aura surrounds him, an air of casual self-assuredness. It`s a presence that fits in seamlessly with his Avon Lake teammates - relaxed, without being nonchalant; confident without the aftertaste of smugness.
Firment in many ways has walked a football maze. He`s not what anyone could call the prototypical quarterback. He`s short by classical standards, being generously listed at 5-foot-10. He`s far from strapping - Avon Lake offensive coordinator Larry Laird describes him as "170 pounds soaking wet." And his arm is, at best, average.
But it`s the sum of his tools and intangibles that make Firment not just an adequate quarterback, but the perfect orchestrator for the Avon Lake offense.
Firment`s impact on the game comes in short bursts - he has to pick his spots. Firment averaged only 12.7 pass attempts in 10 regular-season games. Much of that is a reflection of Avon Lake`s ability to dominate opponents with the running game. As a team, the Shoremen compiled 3,073 yards of rushing offense, leaving Firment`s primary job to hand the ball off to running back tandem Mike Haddad (1,323 yards and 24 touchdowns) and Jeff Tell (1,055 and seven scores).
"The main thing I`m asked to be is efficient," said Firment. "The coaches need to know that I`m not going to throw the ball away. That I can run the offense and get us down the field and keep us focused and grounded."
Firment showed just how effective a passer he could be during last Friday`s 50-13 rout of Midview in the regional quarterfinals. He threw the ball 21 times, completing 13 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
"We use Nick in a similar manner to the way Jim Tressel uses his quarterbacks at Ohio State," said Avon Lake coach Dave Dlugosz. "You don`t have to carry the whole load. Let the other people on the team help you. Fortunately, we have some nice wide receivers, we have some nice backs, we have a nice offensive line and he doesn`t have to do it himself. But what he does, he does real well."
Firment threw for 1,528 yards in 11 games this season - impressive numbers, certainly, but not necessarily staggering. What`s impressive though has been his efficiency ratio: 20 touchdowns to only one interception.
"He`s one of the most efficient quarterbacks we`ve ever had in this program," said Dlugosz.
Firment`s ascendance as the starting quarterback of an 11-0 powerhouse was hardly a sure thing. When Laird, who serves as quarterbacks coach in addition to coordinating the offense, first laid eyes on him as a freshman, he had his doubts.
"Even as a sophomore, we weren`t sure he was ever going to be tall enough or strong enough to be a starting quarterback at the varsity level," said Laird. "But, boy, did he prove us wrong."
Firment wasn`t part of the varsity team for the first half of his junior season. Over the first five games, he was taking snaps on JV. But an injury to starting quarterback Tim Harris opened the door in Week 6, which also happened to coincide with Avon Lake`s biggest rivalry game of the year, against Southwestern Conference rival Olmsted Falls, which was led by the prolific Tyler Sparks.
"It wasn`t the easiest transition," said Firment with a laugh. "Looking on the other side of the field and seeing Tyler Sparks, I was sitting there thinking, â€˜Am I really ready for this?` I think that game humbled me a lot."
Firment completed only one of his 10 passes that game and the Shoremen lost 21-14. The next week though, Avon Lake blew out North Olmsted 36-0 and followed with a 49-6 thrashing of Midpark. By his fourth week under center, Firment began to find his rhythm.
"That last game of the year against Amherst, that`s where I felt it came together," he said. "It was raining and the field was muddy. I think I only threw the ball three or four times. But it was the first time I felt like I was in control. I knew what to do. I could feel it all of a sudden and it all clicked."
Firment has been on a roll ever since. He`s been sacked only twice - both cases occurring in the 34-9 beating of Midpark, which also happened to be when he threw his first and only interception of the year in the seconds leading up to halftime.
The Shoremen utilize a punishing rushing attack to set up the rest of their offense. When opponents send a ninth or 10th defender to guard against Haddad and Tell, Firment goes to the play-action fake. Play action is a football staple used at nearly every level of the game. But few at the high school level use it as deftly as Firment.
"In order for the play-action to work, the quarterback`s got to be able to sell the fake," said Laird. "And Nick`s got it down to an art form. He`s real good at hiding the football. First he shows it, then he puts it on his hip after the back goes by and can get rid of it quickly to the open wide receiver."
More than racking up yardage, Firment`s primary role is keeping his Avon Lake teammates grounded and hungry. This is a team that has trailed in a football game only three times all year - briefly falling behind by a touchdown to Avon in Week 1, trailing 20-7 against North Olmsted and allowing Midview to score first last week. In each case, Avon Lake responded with an offensive flurry.
"I think mainly what the coaches want from me is to make sure the guys are keeping their heads in the game," said Firment. "But that`s something I really haven`t had to do. This is a very focused football team. We`ve never gotten caught looking ahead. We see only one game into the future. This week, all we can see is Ashland. It`s the only thing in our sights."
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or email@example.com.