By Dave Dyer
---- — As the starting quarterback at the University of New Hampshire, which is well known for its wide-open offense, junior Andy Vailas is living a dream.
Except for one thing. This was not his dream.
“I just wanted to play college football, at as high a level as I could,” said Vailas, a Bishop Guertin graduate who played a post-graduate season at Phillips Academy in 2009. “I never thought about playing quarterback.
“At times, when I first came here, I wasn’t happy about it. When I was younger, I always wanted to play receiver in college.”
And, understandably, that’s probably where most people thought Vailas would end up. As a junior at Bishop Guertin, he was honored as an All-Division 2 split end and was also known as an outstanding defensive back.
When Guertin’s quarterback graduated, Vailas was switched to quarterback to take advantage of his athletic skills in BG’s run-oriented option attack. He responded with 1,200 yards rushing while throwing for just one touchdown for the Division 2 champion Cardinals.
“It was almost like I wasn’t a quarterback,” said Vailas, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder. “I really didn’t know what I was doing when I passed.”
Anxious to improve his football and academic skills, Vailas came to Phillips. Head coach Leon Modeste recognized his potential as a signal-caller and promptly inserted him as the Big Blue’s starting quarterback.
The results, at least on paper, were hardly impressive. Vailas completed less than 50 percent of his passes (38 of 82) for just 517 yards and six TDs. By comparison, the area leaders that year, Whittier’s Dillon Ryan and Lawrence’s Nick Elwell, both threw for 23 touchdowns.
But statistics can be deceiving, said Modeste.
“We ran the ball a lot that year and we didn’t have a wealth of receivers,” said Modeste. “Andy was a good passer and a great leader for us and he got better as a passer.
“He was probably our best receiver, and he couldn’t throw to himself. I saw the potential and, if we had better receivers, others would have seen it.”
For his part, Vailas wasn’t sold, and he was hardly planning on being a quarterback for the Wildcats.
“They recruited me as an athlete, and I was thinking I’d be a wide receiver or safety. But then they said they were going to try me at quarterback. I didn’t really like it, but I would do whatever they told me.”
Tutored by a quarterback coach for the first time, Vailas gradually transitioned into more of a passing quarterback.
“I had never really had much coaching on throwing and it wasn’t until college that I started improving,” he said. “They told me that my technique was pretty good, but there were little things, like keeping my elbow up and working on my footwork, that I needed to work on.”
Vailas definitely put in the work, elevating himself from the scout team as a freshman to the starter last year. In six games before hurting his shoulder he completed 126 of 217 passes for 18 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions.
Not having lost his running ability, Vailas also rushed for 451 yards and six touchdowns as UNH went 8-4. The Wildcats didn’t lose much when he was injured because freshman Sean Goldrich stepped in at QB and did a fine job.
That led to an intense competition to be starter this year. Vailas eventually got the nod after an excellent performance in the intrasquad game.
“The competition is good for both of us,” said Vailas, who is from Bedford, N.H. “I was named the starter but we’re still competing. Not that I’m on a short leash, but the coaches know we have two good quarterbacks and we could both play.”
Indeed, in UNH’s opener a week ago, Vailas had a fine game in a frustrating 24-21 loss to Division 1-A Central Michigan, completing 15 of 22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 50 yards on 17 attempts. But he had to leave the game with leg cramps, meaning that Goldrich got an opportunity.
Goldrich responded by completing a pair of passes, including one for a TD, but he also threw an interception.
For now, head coach Sean McDonnell confirmed that Vailas is the starter but that Goldrich isn’t far behind.
That was good news for Vailas, who has finally gotten used to being a quarterback.
“Now, I love playing quarterback and I feel it’s the position I need to play,” he said. “But I love being a receiver and I’d still play it if they wanted me to.”