By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Anthony Abenoja — then a freshman — opened eyes during last year’s Pittsburg State spring game, enough so that some Gorilla fans wondered aloud if they’d be seeing the young gunslinger in the fall if then-senior Zac Dickey struggled.
Those struggles, of course, never came and Dickey led the Gorillas to the program’s first national title in 20 years while Abenoja watched and learned from the sideline.
A year later, Abenoja is the unquestioned starter, earning the job before spring camp and earning the designation of a team captain from his teammates.
The learning process has shifted into second gear.
“This spring was great,” Abenoja said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten a lot smarter, football-wise. Being with the team and getting the starting snaps has gone real well. We’ve been able to get the chemistry down.”
Abenoja is in his third year with the program, redshirting his first season out of Blue Valley High School where he played for Steve Rampy, now known as Pittsburg State’s offensive coordinator.
He is charged with the daunting task of filling the shoes of Dickey, who became a hometown hero during the Gorillas’ title run.
The only problem is that Abenoja’s are completely different shoes — different sizes, different styles.
He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds — two inches taller and 14 pounds heavier than Dickey, although Rampy says it’s closer to 20 pounds.
And while Dickey’s biggest threat was a quick first step that led to big gains on the ground, Abenoja will look to throw first.
“Zac’s physical attributes were different than Tony’s,” Rampy said after Saturday’s spring game. “Tony is not slow, it’s just that Zac Dickey was explosive fast and that’s different.
“Tony can run a little bit and he’s 20 pounds heavier than Zac was too so he’s hard to take down. But at the same time, that’s not his forte. His forte is taking care of the ball through the air and making good decisions with the run game and we feel good about that.”
Abenoja showed glimpses of his strong arm on Saturday, hitting nine passes for 167 yards. But he also threw nine incompletions — a couple drops and some balls that were well off the mark when defensive pressure was in his face.
“Our timing is just a little bit off,” Abenoja said. “Some guys had to miss some practices and I just don’t quite have the timing down just yet with all of the receivers.”
But Pitt State coaches expect that timing to come quickly when fall camp arrives. They say Abenoja has a bit of Brett Favre in him — he has a short memory when it comes to missed passes or turnovers and he’s not scared to try and thread the needle.
Plus, they’re already seeing his leadership abilities as a sophomore.
“The guy who led us last year (Dickey) was pretty dang good,” Rampy said. “He was a winner and a warrior. I told Tony all winter that even though he does things different than Zac, he still has to be that same warrior and winner. And he’s done that.”
And Abenoja expects to one day do what his predecessor did — bring a trophy back to Pittsburg.
“We won’t miss a beat,” he said. “We’re still going to strive for a national championship and we expect nothing short of that now.”