Shepard senior Rishard Blake completed 13-of-19 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 253 yards and three scores during a brief stint at quarterback in 2017. Blake will begin the 2018 season as the Astros' starting quarterback. Photo by Jason Maholy
By Jon DePaolis
For the Shepard football team, the 2018 season is all about taking care of business.
That may as well be a personal motto for Astros senior Rishard Blake, as well.
In 2017, after being named the team's starting quarterback prior to the start of the season, Blake went 13-of-19 passing for 247 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 253 yards and three touchdowns on 20 attempts. But after a few games, Blake was moved to wide receiver and replaced by Marquel Porter.
Porter threw for 1,434 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions and completed 80 of 174 passes, and rushed for a total of 476 yards and six touchdowns on 64 attempts. Porter, however, will not be suiting up in orange and white this season after transferring to South Suburban Red rival Richards.
Now, Blake is back as the starting quarterback of a team that went 8-2 last season but unceremoniously exited the Class 6A playoffs after a first-round loss to Marmion. Blake said the experience he had under center in 2017 will help him this season.
“The difference between this year and last year [is] I kind of really didn’t understand everything [with the offense], but now it’s become muscle memory and easy,” Blake said.
Blake described himself as a dual-threat quarterback, who can both throw and run the ball.
“I understand everything and fit the offense well with what we run,” Blake said. “I think I’m perfect for the job.”
In terms of the offense, Blake believes it can be explosive with all of the talent playing alongside him.
“As a team, we have a great wide receivers group,” he said. “We have All-Conference players from last year, like Chris Harrison, returning.”
He also mentioned Yousef Isa, Jalen Smith, Kevin Graham and Elijah Vinson as talented players who can catch the ball and make big plays for the Astros.
“We’ve got a lot of good running backs, too, so we’re looking pretty good,” Blake said.
The Astros also have a change at the top of the program, with new coach John Rone coming in after spending the last seven seasons at Eisenhower.
Blake said the new coaching staff has brought a “business-type” of atmosphere to the team.
“We definitely have stricter conduct, moving us to be young men on and off the football field,” Blake said. “It’s good for us. And, [Rone] is pushing us to work harder than we have. You know, we can’t do the big things if we can’t take care of the little things. So, it’s very different.”
Rone had positive things to say about his quarterback.
“The No. 1 thing that stands out is his overall athleticism,” Rone said of Blake. “And he definitely has a big arm. What I’ve seen is his desire to be a good quarterback. He plays baseball, as well, and he has not missed a day [of football] while also doing baseball. When a kid has that kind of desire — and is hungry to prove that he is a quarterback — it has caused him to work hard.
“In the 7-on-7s that we have participated in, [Blake] has hit windows that you immediately say, ‘Wow.’ He’s got the goods.”
Rone met with Blake for the first time shortly after the coach was hired in January. It was a memorable meeting, to say the least.
“This was even before [Porter] had transferred, and [Blake] told me right away that he wanted to be quarterback and wanted the opportunity to compete for that job,” Rone said. “So, even before knowing that the returning starter wasn’t going to be there, he was focused in on doing what he had to do to be quarterback.”
So, what drives Blake?
“What pushes me is where I want to be in life, and where I want to wind up next,” Blake said. “I think about college and being successful. That’s what pushes me to do what I do and to work hard.”
Rone has seen first-hand Blake’s commitment during the offseason, and the senior signal caller's ability to “fight through a tough practice or tough drill and keep moving.”
All in all, what he’s seen from Blake and from the rest of the Astros has Rone excited for 2018.
“What I’ve liked so far is how they have completely bought in,” Rone said. “When you’re new, you can be skeptical about if the guys are going to buy in. But I believe they picked up on the genuine persona that I have portrayed to them, and they have focused a lot on being more mentally tough and being hungry for [the game]. You see that coming through during times when the guys are fighting through different things when we’re practicing.”
As for his own expectations, Rone said the program has evolved the past few years. Between the 2017 class and the group that is on varsity in 2018, Rone believes a great foundation has been put in place.
“All I expect is for us to build upon that foundation — not regress, but continue to evolve,” he said.
Blake also has some high expectations for 2018.
“From a team aspect, what you can expect from us is a team that’s about taking care of business,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone who sees us play will view us as a hungry team. That’s what we’re working toward.”