When Bobby Collins began putting together the roster for Hough High’s fledgling varsity football team in 2010, he handed the reins of the Huskies’ offense to freshman Josh Stilley.
It wasn’t because Collins didn’t have questions about Stilley’s abilities – there were plenty of those – it was because he saw something in the young quarterback that made Collins believe the team was in good hands.
As it turned out, Collins was right.
Stilley, now a senior and four-year starter for Hough, has become one of Mecklenburg County’s top high school quarterbacks. He’s also a key player – possibly the key player – in the Huskies’ best start in the program’s brief history.
“Coach Collins had an idea that it would be hard for us to be very successful those first couple years,” Stilley said. “He knew making me the starting quarterback as a freshman would make me that much better when I got to my senior year.”
Hough (6-0, 2-0 MECKA 4A) has climbed to No. 3 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 rankings. The Huskies could climb even higher, what with a conference showdown coming Friday against nationally-ranked Mallard Creek, the Sweet 16’s No. 1 team.
“His first two years, I doubted his competitiveness, but he’s a very competitive young man,” Collins said. “He’s not a ‘rah-rah’ kind of guy; he’s not the Drew Brees kind of guy in the middle of the huddle giving speeches and stuff like that. He’s just a playmaker.
“These guys on the football team believe in him. If No. 13 is not around, there’s going to be some questions asked. They just expect for him to be there, they expect for him to lead them. And when it counts, they expect him to lead them to the end zone. That’s what he’s done in some of the biggest wins in school history.”
When Stilley first tried out for Hough’s fledgling football program as a freshman, there were no guarantees he’d even make the junior varsity team, much less the varsity.
That’s because Stilley hadn’t played competitive football during his middle school years at Lake Norman Charter, and his experience mainly came from pickup games with his friends and older brothers Jake and J.T. He was more of a baseball guy then, a part-time outfielder on the Huskies’ varsity as a freshman.
“I didn’t expect I was going to be the starting quarterback at all,” Stilley said. “I just decided to go out and see what happens. It worked out pretty well. I eventually gave up baseball to focus on football full time.”
Yet when Stilley was on the field in those opening days of football practice, Collins saw something that led to his decision. “Ever since ninth grade, Josh has been a very mature guy,” Collins said. “Plus, he’s got a natural spin on that ball when it comes out (of his hand).”
However, it was Stilley’s throwing motion – “He has a really high release,” Collins said – that raised questions among the Huskies’ coaches.
So Collins turned to one of his coaching mentors for some answers.
“I used to work for Bruce Hardin at Providence Day … so I called him,” Collins said. “Coach watched him on film, and said he had a release similar to that of Joe Namath’s.
“He said, ‘When you start talking about a guy like Joe Namath, you don’t change his release, you just change what you’re doing on offense so it works for him.’”
The first two years were a struggle for Stilley and the Huskies, but there was gradual improvement. Stilley threw for 535 yards, three touchdowns and 10 interceptions his freshman year as Hough went 2-8; the next year, 738 yards, five TDs and seven interceptions despite missing four games with a wrist injury in the Huskies’ 4-7 season.
“Those first two years were a real learning experience,” Stilley said. “I got beat around a lot … but I learned to get comfortable with the game. I just see things so much better. Each year, I pictured things a lot better as far as reading the defense.”
The real breakthrough for Stilley and Hough came when Collins brought on former Wake Forest and NFL wide receiver Thabiti Davis as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2012.
Running a complex run-pass offense, Stilley threw for 2,103 yards, 19 TDs and had only nine interceptions his junior year as the Huskies posted their first winning season (9-3) and made the state 4A playoffs for the first time.
Thanks to two new Division I-level wide receivers – senior Caleb Hines transferred in from SouthLake Christian, junior Carl Tucker came over from Jay M. Robinson – Stilley is on track to improve those numbers this season.
Through the first five games – Stilley missed last week’s game with a virus, but is expected to be “100 percent” for Friday’s game, according to Collins – he’s thrown for 1,156 yards and 14 TDs, with just four interceptions. Stilley has already posted career bests in single-game yards (294) and TDs (six), both coming in Hough’s 42-13 win over rival Hopewell on Sept. 27.
“They (Hines and Tucker) were with us throughout the whole offseason, and we worked out a lot together ... just throwing the ball,” Stilley said. “But winning the Cam Newton tournament (a 7-on-7 passing event in late June) was an eye-opener as far as knowing what we had.
“All we really need to do at this point is master the offense. It’s pretty complicated stuff, and even though we’re winning games, we still have messups offensively every game. If we can get 100 percent execution throughout the whole game, on every play, that’s when we’ll really have our best game.”
This story appeared in the Lake Norman News. Kiser: 704-895-3662; Twitter: @Bkiser_CLTObs.
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less