NEW PALESTINE — Kyle Ralph isn’t showing his hand. Not yet.
A final decision will be made, the New Palestine head football coach attests, but not today or tomorrow for that matter.
Instead, he’s content with his team’s quarterback depth chart reading “to be determined” — for now.
“We’re going to keep letting it play itself out as we hit the scrimmages and our final dress rehearsal with Scecina (on Aug. 12),” Ralph commented on the ongoing quarterback battle between senior Gunnar Large and sophomore Zach Neligh. “It comes down to running our offense efficiently and making good decisions with the football.”
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For the time being, the friendly rivals are going full speed. Each brings a different skill set to the field and intangibles off, making Ralph’s final call a difficult one.
Though still undecided, Large appears to have the inside track for the starting job, at least on paper.
Last season, he was the understudy to 2015 Indiana Mr. Football runner-up Alex Neligh, who is now a freshman at the University of Indianapolis.
He took the second-team reps during practices and soaked up a Swiss army knife scope of knowledge at the varsity level.
Large started in the defensive secondary as a junior and thrived with 44 total tackles, two for a loss, a sack and an interception.
On offense, the 6-foot-2 righty completed 4 of 6 pass attempts in four late-game relief appearances and rushed for 61 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. He even played some wide receiver with one catch.
His biggest attribute, however, said Ralph stems from his character and commitment to the program and the process, something Large takes tremendous pride in.
Large, a four-year contributor, watched former quarterback Blake Luker mentor and later pass the torch over to Alex Neligh in 2013, who went on to become the most prolific passer in program history the past two seasons.
While shadowing the latter, he hiked up his football IQ and prepared for his opportunity to continue the trend.
“(That tradition) means a lot. There’s some pressure there, but I know the coaches have our backs and they will have mine. I’m just going to try to win games for us,” Large said.
He’s snared the attention of the coaching staff during training camp with a 45-pound increase in his max bench press (260 pounds) and a 55 uptick in squat (350). This summer he attended football camp at Taylor University, focusing on footwork and explosiveness.
It showed when he recorded a 10-2 board jump this week.
“Gunnar has a lot of leadership experience, and that lead-by-example captain’s type of personality you want you’re quarterback to have,” Ralph said. “(Zach has) got a lot of talent, too, and he is a fierce competitor. I think a lot of people respect that.”
Both Neligh, 15, the younger brother of Alex, and Large, 18, admit the competition on the field is intense as they split reps, but it remains friendly.
The two routinely collaborate, constructively critique each other and put the name on the front of their jerseys first.
“No matter what happens, we’re going to do what’s best for the team. If that means Gunnar being quarterback, by all means, I’ll be happy,” Neligh said. “It’s just who performs better in the clutch moments.”
At 6-0, Neligh is nearly a mirror image of his counterpart with some subtle differences.
Much like Large, Neligh cut his teeth through the New Palestine Cadet Football League. Neither is afraid to tuck the ball and run, which bodes well for a team that racked up 4,827 yards rushing in 2015.
The lefty’s passing skills, while a work in progress, is his self-evaluated strength. And his name carries some unavoidable expectation, but Neligh is more interested in leaving his own legacy.
“The numbers Alex put up in two years was pretty awesome. To go to back-to-back states is remarkable. Obviously, I want to be better than him, but I can’t think about being as good as him,” Zach said. “I have to be as good as I can be and the player I can be.”
As a freshman, Neligh was productive. He logged varsity minutes in eight games and had seven total tackles as a defensive back.
Under center, often in the fourth quarter of blowout wins, he rushed 22 times for 100 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and breakaways of 14 and 17 yards, sometimes against No. 1 defenses.
“It’s always good to have competition because it makes you a better player,” Large remarked. “You have to go in and work that much harder to get that spot, so it’s good.”
Ralph agrees as he weighs everything, but no more than present-day effort.
“The way we run things here, week to week and day to day, you’re job is always at risk,” Ralph said. “The person behind you wants to start just as bad as you do. Everything is competitive. It’s the environment we’ve created, and I think the kids understand that.
“I guess technically, the battle will never be over despite the fact that we name a starter. In the end, the people that want it the most and execute the best will get that job.”
Name: Gunnar Large
Weight: 160 pounds
2015 recap: Large was the understudy to 2015 Indiana Mr. Football runner-up Alex Neligh, who shattered nearly every career school record for passing and scoring. He was a JV starting quarterback as a sophomore and gained valuable varsity reps in games both in 2014 and 2015.
Key statistics: (2015) – 4 of 6 passing, 61 yards rushing and two touchdowns, 44 total tackles with two for a loss and an interception. (2014) – 5 of 11 passing, 188 yards rushing and two touchdowns, nine total tackles and an interception.
Name: Zach Neligh
Weight: 160 pounds
2015 recap: The younger brother of Alex Neligh, the lefty made eight appearances under center as a freshman late in games. He rushed for 100 yards, with his longest runs measured at 14 and 17 yards. His season-high in rushing was 31 yards on three carries against Yorktown on Sept. 4. He had a season-high four total tackles against Greenfield-Central on Sept. 25 and had seven total on the year.
Key statistics: (2015) – 100 yards rushing on 22 carries, averaged 4.5 yards per carry, seven total tackles with four assists.