Top-ranked Butler keeps rolling with reserves Gross, Ratliff at quarterback
The storyline reads as if it were taken straight from the plot of a feel-good sports movie. A big-time college recruit, who just so happens to be the quarterback of a nationally ranked football powerhouse, is injured at midseason. Two players, both kids who’ve dreamt of one day playing quarterback for the storied program, get their chance to shine, and the team hardly skips a beat.
For Butler High School’s Zach Gross and Anthony Ratliff, who are both from Matthews and always have played quarterback growing up, that storyline has become the next chapter in their football careers. Each is making the most of his sudden burst into the spotlight, as the Bulldogs are 6-0 and hold the No. 1 spot in Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly’s Super 7 rankings. They also are No. 8 in the country by ESPN.
Back on Sept. 12, starting quarterback Riley Ferguson, a University of Tennessee recruit, broke a bone in his hand during gym class. Ferguson hasn’t played since, and Butler coach Brian Hales said he’ll probably be sidelined for at least the next two games – Friday, Oct. 5, against Ardrey Kell and Oct. 12 vs. Providence.
Coaches told Gross on Sept. 12 that he’d be making his first start two days later against Myers Park and Ratliff would be playing the second half.
“I was glad that I was getting the opportunity,” Gross said. “I’d been putting in the work in practice and learning as much as I could, so I felt like I was ready.”
Ratliff said overcoming injuries come with the territory as a football player.
“Being an athlete, you have to be ready when your number gets called, so I knew I was going to have to step up and make the most of it,” Ratliff said. “This is what I’d been waiting on for as long as I can remember. To get this opportunity with these guys we have on this team is the best thing in the world right now.”
The first game without Ferguson got off to a shaky start.
On his second attempt, Gross, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior, threw a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. It was the first and only time the Bulldogs have trailed this season.
“I felt like I let my teammates down, but I knew I had to go out and look past it,” Gross said. “I had to get back out there and do my best to score and help us win.”
The Bulldogs did win, 49-6.
Ratliff, a 6-foot-1, 187-pound sophomore, came on in the second half, as he’s done in every game since, and keep things going strong.
Gross and Ratliff have led Butler to three consecutive wins, by a combined score of 149-12, and helped propel the Bulldogs higher in the national rankings.
When they’re not playing quarterback, Gross and Ratliff line up in the backfield or as wide receivers, often catching passes.
“We share time, but we want to make each other better,” Ratliff said. “If Zach gets in there and throws a touchdown, I want to get in and do the same thing. If he catches a pass, I want to get one next time, too.”
Hales said the two truly want what’s best for each other and the team.
“I haven’t seen anything but teamsmanship,” Hales said. “They have been so selfless, and it’s awesome to see. It doesn’t matter where they’re lining up, they’re team-first guys.”
Gross has completed 22 of 37 passes for 362 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Ratliff’s gone 12-for-20 for 261 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
“I think I’ve done OK, but I know that I can do better,” Gross said. “We’re always looking for ways to improve.”
Before the season, Hales said he had three quarterbacks on the roster who could start for most other teams in the state. But the second-year coach probably didn’t anticipate all of them seeing significant action this season.
“They both have been in the offense and have a good understanding of it,” Hales said. “Zach is maybe a little bit farther along just because he has been in the system longer. Anthony has a little bit of a bigger arm, but I’m not surprised at all with what they’ve been able to do.”
The Butler defense, which has allowed just 31 points all season, has taken some of the pressure off the new quarterbacks.
“Our defense has helped, but a lot of the credit goes to Zach and Anthony,” Hales said. “It’s nice to know they can go out there and do their thing and won’t have to put up lots of points to win games.
“It’s great to see everyone rally around those guys, but they have done their part.”
Running back Josh Glisson, who’s scored 14 touchdowns in the past four games, said both quarterbacks are drastically improving.
“Every week they’re getting better,” Glisson said. “It’s not just a little bit or gradually improving, but it is a lot.
“I have confidence in everyone on both sides of the ball. It doesn’t matter the situation at quarterback or who we are playing that week. I know we all feel the same.”
Hales said Ratliff and Gross are probably better runners than Ferguson. The coach has installed a few more designed quarterback runs, but other than that, the playbook has remained the same.
“As far as the passing game, we’re calling the same plays we were calling with Riley. The game-plan sheet is really the exact same as it always has been,” Hales said.
“I hate the term ‘managing the game,’ but it hasn’t been like, ‘OK, now we’re going to have to run the ball more or scale back this.’ No, we’re still throwing when we want to throw, and there’s been no drop-off there.”
From the beginning of the year the Bulldogs had one common goal: to win a state championship, no matter what obstacles they encountered.
With two new quarterbacks leading the way, the Bulldogs have rolled on but know they have to improve each week in order to win their third state championship in four years.
“I’m glad that I’m contributing to the team, whether it’s as a receiver or a quarterback,” Gross said. “I put my team before myself and know we all are in this together.”
“If we go out and play to the best of our abilities, no matter who’s (playing quarterback), then there’s no team that can beat us,” Ratliff said. “If we play at a high level, only we can beat ourselves.”