In the space of five years Tuscola High School’s football program has produced two big-time college quarterback prospects.
While Friday night lights are a huge draw in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the relatively small pool of athletes makes the school’s achievement remarkable. Is Tuscola turning into Quarterback High or has it just benefited from a timely coincidence of talent?
Tuscola grad Jonathan Crompton was a high school All-American while playing for the Mountaineers during the 2004 season. This year, he led the Tennessee Volunteers to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Crompton is considered a shoe-in NFL draft pick after the Vols’ dramatic turnaround this season.
Meanwhile, Tuscola’s senior quarterback, Tyler Brosius, led his team to the regional final of the state playoffs en route to becoming the all-time leading passer in Western North Carolina history. Brosius has signed with North Carolina State and is expected to serve as the Wolfpack’s third-string quarterback during his red shirt freshman year.
The mountain region has produced top quarterback talent in the past –– most recently Pisgah standout Zach Jaynes, now Western Carolina University’s quarterback, and Swain star Heath Shuler, now a U.S. Congressman.
Shuler, who lives in Waynesville, has taken a particular interest in the quarterbacks.
“Tuscola should be very, very proud that they’ve had two great quarterbacks, and you couldn’t really ask for two better young men,” Shuler said. “I see them both succeeding at the next level.”
Now Mountaineers’ head coach, Donnie Kiefer, has the job of proving that the success Crompton and Brosius have enjoyed becomes the basis for a proud quarterback tradition.
Crompton and Brosius are different quarterbacks, and they’ve taken different paths to success. Crompton, a hard-nosed runner with a strong arm, followed his longtime mentor, Coach Travis Noland, to Waynesville from Asheville to play his last two years in high school, then went on to follow in Shuler’s footsteps at Tennessee.
After an auspicious first appearance during his freshman year in which he replaced an injured Eric Ainge and threw two touchdown passes in a game against LSU, Crompton endured the painful end of longtime Vols Coach Philip Fulmer’s reign, a major surgery, and even at one point, death threats through three topsy-turvy years.
“It’s been a life-changing experience. Through all of the adversity you suck it up and find out what you’re made of as a person, as a Christian. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Crompton said.
Now in his senior season, however, Crompton has redeemed himself. After the Vols’ shaky 2-3 start, Crompton found success as rollout passer, leading the team to a winning record and a spot in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Crompton is pleased with the vindication, but he doesn’t see it as an about-face.
“There’s never been a turnaround,” Crompton said. “It’s just we finally got comfortable doing what we do. We’ve had five offenses in five years.”
Shuler, who has become a close friend of Crompton’s, believes his success this year is down to his personality.
“I think it’s just sheer determination. When I would watch him in high school you could see had a never-give-up attitude,” Shuler said. “He has a tenacity that separates him from other quarterbacks, and you can see it when he runs.”
Crompton has enjoyed having Shuler to talk to throughout his career and said their friendship hasn’t ever been based on football.
“Our relationship wasn’t about football. We never really talked that much football because there’s bigger things going on in everyone’s life than football,” Crompton said.
Having benefited from Shuler’s knowledge, Crompton has advice for Brosius as he looks towards the transition from high school to life in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“You have to be ready to be thrown back. You have to physically be strong but you also have to mentally prepare yourself to go in and have a 14- or 15-hour day every day,” Crompton said. “There’s going to be more bad days than good ones at first.”
Crompton said becoming a good college quarterback is really about being willing to work hard.
“Get out there, shut your mouth, and work. Show the upper classmen you’re willing to do what it takes,” Crompton said.
The passing game fell into place for him gradually, as he got accustomed to smaller passing lanes and quicker decisions.
“That comes with experience. Obviously the windows are a lot smaller because everybody’s faster. You can’t throw the ball when he’s open, you have to throw it before he breaks open,” Crompton said.
As Brosius gets ready to go to N.C. State, Crompton is looking forward to draft day and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that only two years ago looked like it was falling away.
When Crompton came to Tuscola to play for Coach Noland, he was already a big-time quarterback prospect. In contrast, Brosius was just a local boy with a winning reputation and a gun for an arm.
Coach Donnie Kiefer arrived at Tuscola after a successful stint at E. Carteret High School. He’d heard Tuscola had a good young quarterback who had won in every age group, but he had yet to met Brosius.
“To be honest, the first time I met him I was kind of shocked because he just looked very young. He’s a big kid and at the time he wasn’t that athletic looking,” Kiefer said. “If I were to pick out the quarterback of the kids standing in front of me he would have been the last one I picked.”
Kiefer said after watching Brosius throw, he knew he had a talented arm, but he was worried about his quarterback’s feet.
“When I looked into it a little bit, they hadn’t really been doing as much speed and agility stuff, and they weren’t in the weight room enough,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer made it his business to push Brosius.
“I was really hard on him and at the beginning I’m not sure he knew how to take me,” said Kiefer.
Brosius now looks back at those early days fondly, but at the time Kiefer’s attitude was a shock.
“He was always on me. I thought he was picking on me until my numbers started coming up,” Brosius said. “Then I was like ‘Wow, now I understand why he was so hard on me.’ I have to give a lot of credit to coach for pushing me.”
Kiefer inherited his senior class during the off-season of their sophomore years. A former strength coach at East Carolina and Davidson, Kiefer brought state-of-the-art training practices and a taskmaster’s attitude to Tuscola.
“We work brutally hard,” Kiefer said. “I mean brutally hard.”
By the beginning of his junior season, Brosius’ feet were as good as anybody’s on the team. Listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 246 pounds, his size and arm strength were already making the college scouts salivate.
But Tyler Brosius’ success story really began in the backyard with his dad, Mike.
“I’ve played football since I was 5 and I’ve always been the quarterback. Me and my dad would just throw every single day,” Brosius said.
Brosius’ idol growing up was Dan Marino, a quarterback known for arm strength, vision, and a lightning quick release, not mobility. A successful baseball pitcher, he grew up playing both sports with a group of boys who had a taste for winning.
“We’ve just played together since we were 7 years old, and we’ve never really lost,” Brosius said. “For a little while, it was a struggle for Tuscola, and I guess we wanted to grow up and show we could compete with the big boys.”
Wide receiver Eric Nelson was in that group. Nelson had 1,650 yards receiving this year and explained what it’s like playing with Brosius.
“I know if I’m a slant that he can fit it in there. He’s always had an arm, and it just keeps getting better,” said Nelson. “He throws real hard. If you miss it and the ball goes past you, you can hear the wind off of it.”
The two of them will show off their partnership during a passing contest during halftime at a Carolina Panthers game on Jan. 3.
Nelson said the success of their senior season had a lot to do with Brosius taking on a new demeanor in the summer off-season. Known for his happy-go-lucky attitude towards the game, Brosius honed his competitive edge during grueling workouts.
“I really think the past off-season, he stepped it up a lot and proved he was a leader,” Nelson said.
Brosius said he just grew up.
“I guess it was just more maturity,” Brosius said. “I grew up. I had always played for fun and goofed off, but when I saw the talent around me, I knew we just needed to win.”
Win they did. Tuscola has won back-to-back conference titles for the first time in 25 years. They went 12-2-1 this year, narrowly losing to defending state champs West Rowan in the regional final. Brosius also quarterbacked North Carolina to victory over South Carolina in the annual Shrine Bowl.
Kiefer said the turning point in Tyler’s career came during the third quarter of a game against A.C. Reynolds, a team that had beaten Tuscola badly the year before. The score was 17-14 and Tyler, a right-handed passer, rolled to his left and threw a 30-yard touchdown strike across his body with a minute left in the game.
“That’s really where he showed not only that he could make throws, but that he could do it under pressure with the game on the line,” Kiefer said.
Shuler, who watched Tuscola’s home playoff victory over Burns, believes Brosius might be the best passer in Western North Carolina history.
“I saw him grow in the last three games into becoming one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the position in Western North Carolina,” said Shuler.
Brosius already has his eyes on the pros.
“I’ve always wanted to be like Dan Marino,” Brosius said. “I told my Dad growing up that I wanted to play on Sunday. It looks like I’ve got a pretty good shot at it if I just keeping working hard.”
Building a tradition
With two big-time quarterbacks coming through in a short space of time, Tuscola head coach Donnie Kiefer is eager to build a tradition. He sees similarities in the success stories of Crompton and Brosius.
“I think the similarities are that both of those boys had the genetics to become good, and Travis was like me in that he demanded excellence of Jonathan in the same way I’ve demanded excellence of Tyler,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer also believes Crompton’s career was a motivator for Brosius.
“He’s never mentioned it to me. It was never like ‘I idolized this guy,’ but I know he has a lot of respect for him and just the fact that someone from Tuscola has gotten to that level was a huge motivator,” Kiefer said.
Brosius was plainly affected by Crompton’s success.
“I’ve always looked up to Jonathan,” Brosius said. “I just wanted to be as good as he was.”
Kiefer is also quick to credit the rest of his team for creating an environment of competition and hard work and for having the talent to push their quarterback.
The coach left a winning program he had built at East Carteret to come to Tuscola, because he had set his heart on the job a long time ago.
“There’s just a lot of tradition and fan support, and it’s important to the community,” Kiefer said. “Their dads and grandfathers grew up with Tuscola football and there’s a competitiveness and a desire to succeed.”
Shuler believes the unique atmosphere of mountain football is good for quarterbacks.
“At Swain, kids learn the offense when they first step on the field at 6 or 7 years old,” Shuler said. “I think that’s what makes the mountains unique. It’s the community involvement and the close rivalries, and you’re just a part of something bigger.”
Shuler said the intense community following means quarterbacks get used to the spotlight, and that the adjustment from playing in front of a few thousand people to playing in front of a hundred thousand people isn’t as big as one might think.
“Friday nights are really exciting in the mountains, and there’s a lot of focus on what’s going on. It’s all relative. When you go on to a place like UT, you have that same type of excitement,” Shuler said.
In the end, though, individual success falls on the shoulders of individual competitors.
Transitions for quarterbacks between high school and college and on to the pros involve a huge jump in decisionmaking ability. With the offenses and schemes getting exponentially more complicated and the foot speed of the athletes shrinking the window to make reads, it’s hard to predict who will succeed and who won’t.
Kiefer thinks Brosius will thrive at N.C. State, but he’ll have to work at it.
“Tyler is genetically, as far as arm strength goes, at a different level,” Kiefer said. “His reads, I think he’ll do fine with. Understanding how quickly you have to get the ball out of your hand and make decisions, that’s where he’ll have to work at it.”
Shuler said he saw all he needed to know about Tyler Brosius in the playoff win against Burns, when he intentionally under threw a ball on a double fade route to allow his receiver to come back to the ball to make the catch.
“It’s that type of a throw that will separate him from a lot of other quarterbacks,” said Shuler.
As his quarterback gets ready to move on to bigger challenges at N.C. State, where he’ll play understudy to Wolfpack star Russell Wilson, Kiefer believes sophomore quarterback Rob Howard has what it takes to be the third Division I quarterback in the line for Tuscola.
For his part, Brosius also wants to see the trend become a tradition.
“I hope so,” said Brosius. “I hope they just keep coming through and working hard to be the best.”
Whether Tuscola ever produces a talent as big as Brosius again, the pride of wearing the Mountaineers colors is something the college-bound quarterback knows will stick.
Brosius stepped off the field after his last home game at Weatherby Stadium with a heavy heart.
“It was real emotional. I knew we were playing another game, but I left a lot of heart on that field for Tuscola and so have all the past players that have played there,” Brosius said.