T.J. Anderson unexpectedly found himself the quarterback of the Holy Spirit High School football team last season.
He wasn’t exactly prepared to command the huddle. The Spartans joke that when he first started at quarterback Anderson would tell one part of the huddle one play and then turn to the other side of the huddle and give them a different play.
Spirit can laugh at those days now because the 6-foot, 218-pound Anderson is an integral part of one of the state’s best teams as the leader of Spirit’s triple-option offense.
Spirit (10-0) is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. The Spartans play at Atlantic City (4-5) at 10 a.m. Thursday in the annual Thanksgiving Day game between the schools. Spirit then plays DePaul (8-2) for the state Non-Public II title 1 p.m. Sunday Dec. 8 at Rutgers University. The Spartans are trying to win their fourth straight state title.
“The big picture is winning the fourth straight (title) and making history at Holy Spirit,” Anderson said. “We’re going to take A.C. High first and then start thinking about the state championship. AC always wants to beat us. They’re a rival and I know a lot of kids that go there.”
Anderson, a senior, lives in Absecon and grew up playing multiple positions in football.
When he arrived at Spirit, there were quarterbacks everywhere. But one by one they left. Cinjun Erskine, now the starter at Barnegat, transferred back to that school in the summer of 2012. C.J. LaFragola started at quarterback for Spirit last year but transferred to St. Joseph after two games.
Anderson thought of himself as a running back or a defensive player. But the Spartans turned to him after LaFragola left.
‘He’s a tough kid,” Spirit coach John Iannucci said of Anderson. “I just thought physically he could play quarterback and he was a good enough athlete that he should be on the field for us offensively.”
Anderson is an imposing figure on the football field. Few South Jersey quarterbacks can combine his speed and power. When he turns the corner on option runs, he simply overpowers defensive backs. He has run 57 times for 406 yards and seven touchdowns.
Anderson bench presses 405 pounds, but he also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
“That’s good enough to run away from most people,” Iannucci said.
Holy Spirit doesn’t throw much, but Anderson can launch the ball 70 yards in the air. He’s completed 9-of-26 passes for 309 yards and four touchdowns.
Holy Spirit faced life without Anderson midway through the season. He gave himself and Spirit a scare in a 16-7 win over Millville on Oct. 18. Anderson turned the corner, and Millville defensive back Ryquell Armstead shed a blocker and cleanly tackled Anderson. Armstead’s helmet hit Anderson on the knee.
“He came out of nowhere,” Anderson said of Armstead.
Anderson left the game and did not return. Some on the Spirit sideline feared torn ligaments that would keep him out for the year.
But an MRI three days later revealed Anderson had a hairline fracture of his tibia. He missed three weeks.
“I got lucky,” he said. “I was happy for the good news that I wasn’t going to be out the rest of the year.”
Anderson returned for Spirit’s quarterfinal playoff game against Pingry on Nov. 15. He threw for a touchdown and ran for two scores in the 48-0 win.
Anderson then rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Spartans 38-0 semifinal win over Bishop Eustace last Friday.
“I feel like I’m back to pretty much normal,” Anderson said. “You get a little rusty when you don’t run the option. But now I’m back, and it’s like I never left.”
For all his success at quarterback, Anderson won’t play that position in college. He also plays defensive end for the Spartans. Iannucci said Anderson could play safety or linebacker in college. Several Football Championship Subdivison schools — including Villanova and Delaware — have spoken with Anderson. The quarterback says he’s been patient and hasn’t made a decision yet.
“He can play in a lot of different schemes, it’s just a matter of getting him into the right school,” Iannucci said.
Both Erskine and LaFragola will also play for titles the first weekend of December. Erskine will quarterback Barnegat against Delsea Regional in the South Jersey Group III title game on Dec. 7. LaFragola, a standout running back and linebacker, will lead the Wildcats against St. Mary for the state Non-Public I championship the same day.
And now, Anderson, who never envisioned himself as a quarterback, relishes playing the position.
“I was always more interested in playing other positions,” he said. “But it’s a great feeling being the starting quarterback on the No. 1 team. I enjoy the triple option because I get a lot of action. It’s good to the quarterback.”
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