T.J. Ahlefeld doesn’t throw much, doesn’t run much and in general doesn’t accumulate much in the way of stats.
Yet the junior quarterback is the most efficient, if not the most vital, component of the Franklin Community High School football team’s offense.
He brings savvy. He brings toughness. He brings poise. Perhaps most important, as a second-year starter, he brings direction and steadiness to a young team trying grow up quickly in the wake of heavy graduation losses.
And he happens to be a very good football player, all of which makes him the ideal person to run the Grizzly Cubs’ offense.
“He’s got a great demeanor. He is very, very calm, even when things aren’t going well,” Franklin coach Adam Reese said. “There are always going to be some times when things don’t go well, but he handles that very well. He doesn’t get too excited. He doesn’t get bent out of shape. I think that’s his No. 1 attribute.”
That’s because the Cubs, depleted heavily by graduation, are literally a work in progress. Leadership is a quality they desperately need, especially as they navigate a rough early season schedule, and as they look ahead to becoming a force in the Mid-State Conference.
Ahlefeld, one of only a handful of returning starters, is among the players leading the way.
Well-versed in the trials and tribulations of being thrust into the varsity limelight, Ahlefeld earned the starting quarterback job as a sophomore. Nervous and apprehensive in the beginning, he developed a veteran’s confidence by midseason and has been a team leader ever since.
He’s also been a consistent playmaker, even though his numbers belie the fact.
Operating in a ground-oriented offense, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Ahlefeld attempted only 62 passes last season. He completed 21 for 342 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for an additional 190 yards and five touchdowns.
Although the stats weren’t gaudy, they didn’t need to be. The Cubs leaned heavily on 2015 graduate Jake Stevenson, who rushed for 1,699 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
But when they needed their quarterback to make a play, Ahlefeld often delivered.
Reese expects more of the same approach this season.
“He cares about his teammates more than he does himself,” Reese said. “He doesn’t care if he gets a bunch of carries, if he gets a bunch of yards or throws a bunch of balls. He wants to win football games, and he wants to put our team in the position to win games more than he wants personal stats.
“He’s a leader when it comes to that particular area.”
A year older and wiser, Ahlefeld embraces his role as a team leader and director of the offense. He dedicated the summer to conditioning and refining his skills, and by virtue of last year’s experience he entered the 2015 season with no trepidation about being a varsity starter.
That wasn’t the exactly the case last season when he earned the position on a senior-laden team.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking, knowing that I was going to play on Friday nights instead of watching,” Ahlefeld said, acknowledging he didn’t settle into the job until midseason. “I was comfortable but not really confident with some of my decision-making.”
Now, he is.
“I feel more comfortable with the read-keys and pitch-keys, knowing what the defense is doing, watching more film, actually knowing what to look for on film, reading what the defense is going to do before the play,” Ahlefeld said. “I watched a lot more film in the summer, and our team worked early in the mornings and got quicker, faster, stronger.”
In time, the Ahlefeld is confident the extra work will pay off for himself and the team. But Class 5A Cubs’ early schedule is not kind.
They opened last Friday against traditional power Class 6A Columbus North and suffered a 54-7 defeat. They travel to Class 4A Shelbyville tonight, then travel Sept. 4 to Class 6A Brownsburg.
Fortunately for the Cubs, who had to replace their entire offensive line, they have won five straight against Shelbyville (1-0) and have a chance to pick up a confidence-boosting win before proceeding to Brownsburg and the conference portion of their schedule.
“Our offensive line is young, but they’re the ones who help us get through every game,” Ahlefeld said. “The first few games this year will help them realize what varsity football is like, how fast it is and everything else.”
Ahlefeld’s return is also expected to expedite the learning curve. Not just for the offensive line, but for the entire offense.
“I don’t even know if I can describe how important it is, because there are going to be some rough moments,” Reese said. “Last Friday night there were plenty of rough moments, but I never saw him lose his cool once. And he was very supportive and very positive of his teammates, even when he was making some good plays and maybe some other guys made some mistakes.
“We don’t necessarily need our quarterback to be the most athletic guy or the guy who can win the 40-yard dash among our team. But we need him to be a good decision-maker, and he we need him to be a confident kid. It goes back to his demeanor.”
Name: T.J. Ahlefeld
High school: Franklin
Size: 5-foot-9, 170 pounds
Experience: Second-year starter
Other varsity sports: Baseball