MANKATO – Todd Hoffner returned for a second run as Minnesota State Mankato’s football coach in the spring of 2014. He had watched extensive amounts of the college game the previous two years and reached a conclusion:
There was nothing more vital to success than accumulating and using two-deep talent at every position, and that included quarterback.
“I also understood that if you were going to have two talented quarterbacks, it’s going to be advisable to play them both,” Hoffner said. “There were around 60 quarterbacks that transferred in Division I this year. I have to think there would be fewer quarterbacks transferring if teams didn’t play just one.”
The Mavericks play in Division II and, obviously, it’s a different situation in Power Five football, where quarterbacks such as Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts transfer with the hope of creating résumés for the NFL.
Yet, a much-higher number of those transfers are based on football’s traditional one-quarterback system and egos that say, “If I’m not starting, I’m leaving.”
Hoffner admitted such an attitude is potentially an added challenge for a two-quarterback system. First, a coach must find a pair of quarterbacks adept at playmaking and leading an offense, and then comes having both of those players buy into the idea that shared quarterbacking is an asset for a successful program.
“When I watch our game video, I do more than watch what our quarterback is doing on the field,” Hoffner said. “I also look at how the other quarterback is reacting on the sideline. I can say in all honesty, when JD or Ryan isn’t in the game, they are rooting harder for the other guy than anyone on the team.”
Those quarterbacks would be JD Ekowa, a redshirt junior from Plainfield (Ill.) North, and Ryan Schlichte, a redshirt senior from just down the hill from campus at Mankato West.
You’ve heard it, of course: If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. Hoffner has evidence to back his disbelief in that football cliché.
“We’re 70-8 since we started using two quarterbacks in 2014,” he said. “And we’re 38-2 in the three seasons with JD and Ryan dividing time at quarterback.”
Hoffner had Nick Pieruccini and Ricky Lloyd as a quarterback combo in 2014 and 2015. They were also 1-2 in 2016, and Schlichte also got some duty as a redshirt freshman.
Ekowa was sitting out a redshirt season. In 2017, Schlichte started all 14 games, but Ekowa played early and often. By last season, it was mostly Schlichte starting and Ekowa entering for the second possession.
“We don’t change the playbook based on the quarterback,” Hoffner said. “Ryan and JD can both run and can both throw. Ryan improved as a runner and JD improved as a thrower.”
Minnesota State has made deep playoff runs, but does not have a D-II title. The Mavericks are 12-0 going into Saturday’s game here with Texas A&M Commerce (11-2), the team that knocked them out them out 31-21 in the quarterfinals in 2017.
Entering Saturday, Schlichte has passed for 1,343 yards and rushed for 387. Ekowa has passed for 1,136 and rushed for 435.
Schlichte’s father, Dave, played for then-Mankato State from 1979 to 1983, and then was a 24-year-old offensive coordinator in the less-rewarding days for MSU football.
“I’ve been going to Mavericks games since I was a young kid,” Ryan said. “One year , we were 0-11. To be back here years later, with three straight 11-0 regular seasons, is a great feeling.”
There was no such Mankato connection for Ekowa. His parents, Joseph and Jackline, are from Nigeria. Joseph came to the United States to attend college. Jackline followed. He is a pharmacist and she is an attorney.
Not a strong family connection to American football?
JD smiled and said: “No, but I fell in love with it when I was young. I really liked Donovan McNabb and … for sure, Michael Vick. I always wanted to be a quarterback.”
Ekowa led a winning team at Plainfield North. There were preferred walk-on chances with D-I schools, but Ekowa made a visit to Mankato and signed on, even with its two-quarterback system.
“I wanted a winning program, I liked the atmosphere around the team, and they had an academic program that fit,” he said.
That would be biomedical sciences, where Ekowa has a 3.82 grade-point average and the hope it leads to medical school. For Schlichte, he will graduate majoring in education this month with a 3.93 GPA and has sent out 30-some résumés — from D-I to NAIA — looking for a graduate assistant coaching job.
Let’s see: 3.82 and 3.93 GPAs in the classroom, a 38-2 record on the field. Those numbers suggest these two young men are sharp enough to know a two-quarterback system can be good for everybody.
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