NEW PALESTINE — Kyle Ralph heard the murmurs, the doubt.
Throughout training camp and up until New Palestine’s season opener last month at Lucas Oil Stadium, there were undercurrents of concern, Ralph recalled. Not everyone shared the head football coach’s optimism about Gunnar Large, his newly appointed quarterback.
“To be honest, I think a lot of people were down on him and wondered how he would handle it,” Ralph remarked on the preseason skepticism. “Not us as coaches or a team, but outsiders were very much worried about how a new guy would handle our offense.”
After a 5-0 start to the season — the program’s fourth straight with a third different quarterback — Large has not only subdued his critics, he’s answered their questions with 1,249 yards in total offense.
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“If you look at the stats, he’s probably exceeded expectations,” Ralph said. “We haven’t really called on him to do more than he needs to, but when his number has been called, he’s been tremendous.”
Through five games, Large has been a catalyst for the Class 5A second-ranked Dragons. The 6-foot-3 senior dual threat has completed 40 of 61 passes for 803 yards and nine touchdowns. He is averaging 160.6 yards per game.
After admittedly shaking some nerves in the opener against Whiteland on Aug. 19, Large passed for a season-high 251 yards in his Week 2 encore at Richmond. He has eclipsed 150 yards passing twice the past three games.
Unafraid to tuck the ball and shoot the open gap, Large has rushed for 446 yards on 34 carries at 13.1 yards per run with five touchdowns, including back-to-back weeks with a pair of scores and more than 100 yards.
Large owns five of the Dragons’ eight longest touchdown runs this season at 80, 60, 52, and 45 yards. Senior running back DuRon Ford holds the others along with a team-best at 90 yards.
“When Gunnar runs like he does, even though it’s only a couple of times a game, they’ve been huge, game-breaking plays,” Ralph said. “He’s playing within the system really well. Most importantly, he’s winning football games.”
He honed his efficiency while attending football camp at Taylor University this past summer. He learned how to win the right way as an understudy to Alex Neligh, who was runner-up for the 2015 Indiana Mr. Football award.
Starting in the defensive secondary for the 5A state runner-up Dragons last year, Large bided his time as Neligh’s probable successor, but nothing was handed to him. Instead, he seized it, Ralph said.
Much like Neligh, who backed up former standout quarterback Blake Luker prior to becoming the starter, Large took notes while his predecessor shattered countless single-season and career school records en route to a scholarship to the University of Indianapolis.
“I’m just focused on doing everything I can to help the team win,” Large said. “I have confidence in what I’m able to do because of my linemen, running backs and receivers. Everything I’ve been able to do is because of them.”
With Ford in the Dragons’ backfield, Large hasn’t been the focal point of opposing defense schemes, which has helped the first-year varsity quarterback play within the flow of the game.
Ford currently leads the state with 17 rushing touchdowns and is third with 957 yards. The balance on offense has provided Large opportunities to excel in the pocket.
In three consecutive weeks this season, Large has thrown for three touchdowns, connecting with three different receivers. His deepest touchdown completion was recorded at 85 yards to Brady Walden against Yorktown on Sept. 2.
“We are a very dynamic offense with DuRon at running back, and we have a great receiving corp. and the protection up front has been outstanding,” Large remarked. “It’s been a great experience and a lot of fun so far. It’s my senior year, and I get to go out having a good time with my brothers on the football field. There’s nothing better.”
Playing on Shepler Field would be a close second, Large said.
With only three home games on their regular-season schedule, the Dragons welcome Hoosier Heritage Conference rival Greenfield-Central (3-2, 1-2 HHC) to Kelso Stadium for homecoming tonight. Their final home game is Oct. 14 against the Delta Eagles.
The Cougars and Dragons have met 23 times since 1994, with New Palestine leading the series 18-5. In close proximity of each other, the two schools share several connections and obvious familiarity, which has intensified preparation.
The Dragons haven’t lost on homecoming night since 2008, and they have beaten Greenfield-Central twice in the process, 47-7, in 2012 and, 63-0, in 2014. A win tonight would extend the program’s regular-season streak to 33 games and 24 in the HHC. New Palestine is seeking its 20th straight home victory.
“There is a special meaning because this is only the second game we’ve played at Shepler Field, plus it is homecoming,” Large said. “It is weird not having more (home games), but it makes it more meaningful because we have so few.”
A long postseason run could guarantee more for the Dragons in late October and November, which Ralph believes Large and his teammates could earn, if they remain focused on the program’s mantra: 11Strong.
“That’s what it comes down to, playing championship caliber football. Gunnar is a prime example of that. Can your quarterback lead your team to victory? Thus far, he’s done just that,” Ralph said.
“Right before he took the field for the first time (against Whiteland), I said to him, ‘You won this job because you earned this job. Where you go, we go.’ That’s what we talked about. He doesn’t have to be someone else. He just needs to him. I think he’s done a great job, being Gunnar Large.”
80: Gunnar Large owns the team’s second-longest touchdown run this season at 80 yards, set on Sept. 16 against Pendleton Heights.
85: Large has tossed nine touchdown passes with his longest of the season covering 85 yards to Brady Walden on Sept. 2.
2: The Dragons’ senior quarterback has posted back-to-back 100-plus rushing yard games entering tonight’s home game against Greenfield-Central.
803: Large has completed 40 of 61 passes this season, netting 107 or more yards in each of the past five games.
10: Large is tied for the fastest scoring drive this year, rushing 60 yards in 10 seconds against Pendleton Heights.
12: The quarterback’s quickest drive passing was recorded on one play in 12 seconds via a 71-yard completion to Colby Jenkins.
32: The Dragons’ current 32-game regular-season winning streak began on Aug. 23, 2013.
23: New Palestine has won a Hoosier Heritage Conference record 23 consecutive games.
19: The Dragons have won 19th straight home games since Aug. 30, 2013. The program’s longest run was 38 games from 1986 through 1992.