An unusual story is unfolding on Clint Frank Field, the practice grounds for the Yale football team. It involves a senior, a junior, a sophomore and an absent freshman — respectively, the brain, the legs, the arm and the mystery. All are vying for a single job — Yale starting quarterback, a title that has not lost its cache despite the disappearance of Ivy League football from national relevance.
Josh Rodarmel ’07 is the brain. Though entering his senior season, Rodarmel is anything but experienced. Schooled by renowned quarterback coach Bob Johnson at powerhouse Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, Rodarmel spent his first three seasons at Yale removed from action, mired in a Sisyphean struggle with shoulder problems that began nearly four years ago.
Matt Polhemus ’08, last year’s backup to Jeff Mroz ’06, is the legs. The 2003 Prep New England Player of the Year at Exeter, Polhemus possesses a devastating combination of speed and arm strength, but has seldom had the chance to show it. Though there were rumblings about using him at wide receiver to take advantage of his playmaking abilities, last year the coaching staff inexplicably limited Polhemus’ quarterback work to one irrelevant series in a 37-3 blowout win at Columbia. Polhemus shined in that abbreviated audition, completing his only pass attempt and punctuating a 25-yard run with a ferocious lowered shoulder. But it did not garner him any more playing time — Polhemus saw more action as the personal protector on the punt team than he did under center.
Ryan Fodor ’09, a local product who starred on the JV team last fall, is the arm. In high school, Fodor claimed nearly all the major Connecticut awards classmate Mike McLeod ’09 left behind. He has accelerated his development to open a lot of eyes this spring, zipping in short passes more crisply than Polhemus and firing long ones that Rodarmel can no longer equal.
The mystery is Matt Kelleher, a Southington High School senior who has committed to suit up for the Elis this fall. Kelleher has been listed as big as 6 feet 5 inches tall and 240 pounds, though the Paul Bunyan-like legend surrounding the pocket passer would have you believe he is even larger. At Southington, Kelleher completed 193 of 328 passes for 3,558 yards and 33 touchdowns. He had more rushing touchdowns (eight) than interceptions (six). Perhaps most impressively, the reputable Div. I-A recruiting sources — Scouts, Inc. and Rivals.com — took the time to evaluate him.
“Matt Kelleher, could he be in the running?” recently hired quarterbacks and wide receivers coach John Fraser mused. “Anybody could be in the running right now.”
In reality, it is unlikely that Kelleher will make a start next season. No freshman quarterback, regardless of hype, has started a game for Yale since head coach Jack Siedlecki’s first season in 1997. But Fraser’s words illustrate how much has changed since spring break, when Polhemus was being quietly penciled in as the starter. Even more tellingly, when Fraser was asked to evaluate the candidates, he chose to discuss Fodor first.
“I’d say coming into the spring [Polhemus] was the heir apparent, but right now I think that Fodor, with some of the throws that he’s made and the way he’s moved the offense when we’ve scrimmaged, he’s breathing right down his neck,” Fraser said. “I’m not going to say that Matt’s the starter right now. I’m not going to say that Ryan Fodor is, either.”
The trying grounds
Last Friday, in a constant drizzle, the three main candidates — minus Kelleher, who cannot practice with the team until he enrolls in August — shared repetitions with the first-team offense.
Rodarmel, dressed in the same long white sleeves and high white socks he wore during his Mission Viejo days, looked like a transplanted Southern California quarterback — the handwarmer he wore around his waist in 50-degree weather a dead giveaway. Throwing with a three-quarter release to accommodate his rickety shoulder, Rodarmel was efficient on short passes. Though he floated most deep attempts, Rodarmel demonstrated his knowledge of the offense on at least one play: Taking a deep drop and surveying four different routes, he looked straight ahead and to the right, then — without turning his head — delivered a sharp pass to Grant MacQueen ’09 in the left flat.
“To be honest, the guy that’s been the big shocker [in spring practice] is Josh,” receiver Ashley Wright ’07 said. “I’ve never even seen him play until this spring. He struggled at first, but now getting into it, he’s throwing good balls with a nice spiral.”
Fraser said Rodarmel has the best command of the playbook.
“Josh Rodarmel, out of the three of them, he probably has the best understanding of the offense,” Fraser said. “As far as orchestrating a drive right now, doing the mental gymnastics, he’s probably the best. But he hasn’t played since he’s been here, and right now, his shoulder is an area of concern.”
To call Rodarmel’s shoulder an “area of concern” may be generous. His arm has been through a relentless cycle of injuries and rehab since the summer before his senior season at Mission. Scars, shooting pains and that three-quarters delivery are signs of a torn labrum, a torn biceps tendon and a twice-broken collarbone.
The shoulder, Rodarmel understands, is the reason he will remain only a dark horse in this race. But he was encouraged by how well it felt at the beginning of the spring, when he was throwing as well as USC freshman and fellow Mission alum Mark Sanchez, and he said a little rest could help remedy the problem in time for next season.
“The first day of spring ball it was probably 90 to 95 percent, and since then it’s been getting worse progressively,” Rodarmel said. “Right now, I’m at about 75 percent. I know where to go with the ball. I just can’t always put it where it needs to go. I’m going to do all my rehab and stuff after spring, but I’m not even going to think about touching a ball for a month and a half.”
Alternating snaps with Rodarmel on Friday was Polhemus, the most experienced quarterback on the roster. Clad in long white Under Armour, Polhemus plays with a fluidity uncommon in quarterbacks. With unfailingly light feet, he takes his drop, bops around in the pocket, and inevitably ventures outside to where his speed and the ball poised at his ear pose a dual threat to defenders. In many respects, Polhemus is the best athlete in the neighborhood — the kid who is the fastest, strongest and has the best arm. There is an effortlessness to his game that can sometimes be mistaken for laziness.
Yet the consensus among players and coaches seems to be that Polhemus has been an enigma this spring. Once dubbed “The Future” by teammates, he has been deemed inconsistent as a passer. The assessment is not entirely fair: In practice, quarterbacks are not allowed to be hit, which can make a scrambler feel like he is wearing a straitjacket.
While he was careful not to make any excuses, Polhemus knows he is at his best on Saturdays.
“I really like the physical part of the game,” he said. “In high school, I was a big defensive player, so I love contact. When I play well, it’s when I’m running around and getting hit.”
Whatever ground Polhemus has yielded this spring, Fodor has gained. The most impressive passer of the group, Fodor threw only three incompletions during Friday’s passing drills. Practicing in a sleeveless undershirt, Fodor seemed unaffected by the rain as he threw near-perfect passes with a compact release. When he throws, his entire torso seems to come forward, conjuring memories of NFL quarterback Rex Grossman in his days at Florida — a comparison only heightened by the sweatbands Fodor wears below each bicep.
Asked if he still felt like a freshman, Fodor shrugged.
“Not so much anymore,” he said. “The first couple days were still reminiscent of last year, where you walk into the huddle, and you’re not sure if anyone respects you. But once you go out and make a few plays, prove that you can play, they’re not going to consider you a freshman anymore.”
There is an argument that with all the weapons Yale returns on offense next year — McLeod, Wright and receiver Chandler Henley ’07 could all make the Ivy League’s first team — the team needs a quarterback who distributes first and improvises second.
But in an offense that is by all accounts predictable, a playmaking quarterback is Yale’s only hope of diversifying its offensive menu. Polhemus’ speed would pose the only X-factor in what could otherwise be a steady diet of hooks, counters and posts.
“Sometimes you can’t do everything on the outside,” said Wright, who added that he remains impartial regarding the quarterback race. “[A running quarterback] is not so much a necessity, but it never hurts. With Jeff, he was more of a drop-back passer, so if he scrambled, he was probably going down. If Matt gets the job, we’ll definitely get some first downs that we probably wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Although he’s been called a frustrated running back, a gazelle and an athlete, Polhemus is every bit a quarterback. In some ways, as Wright began to suggest, Polhemus is the anti-Mroz. Where the 2005 captain was known for being uber-accurate in practice — a trait that translated into a 4-6 record on Gameday — Polhemus, as he has shown in limited action, seems to thrive on Saturday adrenaline.
A renegade with a healthy aversion to authority, Polhemus has the foot speed and moxie to make a boring offense soar.
“The thing with Matt right now is his learning curve is very steep as far as the drop-back passing game is concerned,” Fraser said. “He’s coming along. Athletically, I don’t think there’s any question: He is the most dangerous of the three. If he can become more decisive in the pass game, and we balance that with his ability to run the play-action and bootleg stuff, get him on the corner, and break contain, now he’s pressuring the defense with the run-pass option.”