FLORENCE — Griffin Hanson rolled left, saw no teammates open and decided to run.
With Mars Hill seeking a go-ahead score in last Friday’s Class 1A semifinal game against Pickens County, Hanson stretched to complete a four-yard run and earn a first down just short of the goal line.
Justus McDaniel scored that go-ahead touchdown moments later, and Mars Hill was on its way to the state championship game.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to run with those guys,” Hanson said of that key first down.
Hanson has been showing all year he shouldn’t be underestimated.
The younger brother of standout quarterback/defensive back Joseph Hanson – who led Mars Hill to the 2018 state title and is now at Harding University – Griffin Hanson started the current season as a JV quarterback and varsity receiver.
But in an attempt to best position the team for short- and long-term success, Mars Hill coach Darrell Higgins made Hanson the full-time varsity quarterback after two games and shifted senior Walker White from quarterback to receiver.
The plan has worked. Hanson has completed 66-of-110 passes for 1,540 yards, 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. White is easily the team’s leading receiver with 26 catches for 670 yards.
And Mars Hill (14-0) will play Lanett (13-0) at 3 p.m. Thursday at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium for the Class 1A state title.
Hanson has played quarterback through youth football, and he was dominating junior varsity games at that position. His first time at quarterback was in the second half of a blowout win over Sheffield.
“That first Sheffield game kind of woke me up a little bit,” the 14-year-old Hanson said. “ … They were just so much bigger, faster and stronger.”
The team beat Hackleburg the next week, and the 5-foot-8 Hanson took over in time for the third game of the year against Phillips.
Originally, Higgins simplified the offensive game plan so Hanson wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
“We tried to kind of hold back a little bit to protect him in a big game,” Higgins said.
But Hanson completed all six of his passes in the Panthers’ 46-27 win over 4A playoff qualifier Brooks in late September, and Higgins realized his quarterback could handle more.
Mars Hill is a Wing-T team that has run for nearly 5,000 yards this year, but last week Higgins asked Hanson to throw 15 passes.
“Now we just turn him loose and run our whole playbook,” Higgins said.
White, the senior who entered the year as the starting quarterback and also shifted defensive positions after a teammate’s injury, made this all work by prioritizing what would help the team. Not only was White willing to move to receiver, he has helped Hanson with his throws and footwork and become the eighth-grader’s top target.
“It takes a special person, and I told Walker you’re the kind of person we’ll talk about in this program forever,” Higgins said.
Joseph Hanson was at Pickens County for last week’s semifinal game and watched Griffin lead the Panthers to past the Tornadoes a year after doing so himself.
When Griffin threw an interception with the Panthers down three points last week, he helped the defense force a three-and-out and then led the Panthers on a touchdown drive. He also intercepted a pass on defense in the game.
“What’s impressed me is his composure. He doesn’t really seem like he gets fazed on the big stage,” Joseph Hanson said of his brother. “He’s always had a really calm demeanor.”
Joseph said he assumed Griffin would need another year before being ready to play quarterback but acknowledged Griffin plays with confidence without getting cocky.
“I think he’s already got a stronger arm than I do, honestly,” Joseph Hanson said.
Griffin Hanson also plays a lot as a defensive back, so the eighth-grader will be tested in multiple ways by a Lanett team that not only plays good defense but has an Alabama commit – Kristian Story – at quarterback.
Mars Hill has faced a lot of good athletes, many of them upperclassmen, throughout the playoffs.
“It’s pretty scary sometimes, but as soon as the game starts, as soon as you get that first hit, it goes away,” Griffin Hanson said. “When you play tougher opponents, it builds your confidence more and more.”
Hanson credits the team’s older players for encouraging him when he became the starting quarterback. Higgins said his son Peyton, a junior running back, has commented on the way home that he can’t believe how well Hanson passes.
“Our players believe in him,” Darrell Higgins said.
Joseph Hanson won’t be able to attend Thursday’s game, but he plans to watch the game. Perhaps another quarterback/defensive back named Hanson can help Mars Hill claim a trophy.
“He doesn’t back down from anything,” Joseph Hanson said of Griffin. “He’s a competitor, and I’m proud of him.”