Oct. 14—BRUNSWICK — Here was the moment that Ethan Houck officially sank his teeth into the quarterback job at Brunswick High in the mind of his coaches, his teammates and probably his own.
It was fourth down at Boonsboro on Sept. 17. The Railroaders needed another first down or two in the fourth quarter to seal a win in what had been a close, hard-fought game.
Houck, a freshman starting for the varsity team, took the snap, and the play quickly broke down. So, he took off running.
As he approached the sideline with the defense closing in, he could have easily — and some would say smartly — ducked out of bounds. That's what his coach, Jerry Smith, thought Houck was going to do.
But Brunswick would have been a few yards short of the first down. Boonsboro would have gotten the ball back with a chance to rally for a tie or a win that would've sent a Railroaders team with high expectations to their second loss in three games.
Faced with a choice, Houck kept his team's fate in his own hands. He lowered his shoulder, drove into a defender and gained the few yards needed to pick up the first down. More importantly, he kept the clock running in what became a 21-13 win.
"At that point, it was a big turning moment for everyone," Smith said.
Houck was — and still is — a tall and skinny young quarterback with a low-key personality who throws a nice deep ball. But he also was struggling to find his voice and lead a team full of older players.
But, after the 6-foot-2, 165-pounder was willing to lower his shoulder and bowl over a defender for a key first down, "It was like, 'Oh, OK,'" Smith said.
Houck uses the word relax a lot when he is describing what he is trying to accomplish on the field.
Gradually, the game is slowing down for him, he says, and the Railroaders have been playing very well. They are 5-1 and riding a five-game winning streak heading into Friday night's home game against Middletown (4-2).
Since falling to the Knights 37-0 last March to open the shortened spring season, Brunswick has won nine of 10 with all but two of the victories coming by at least 21 points.
The Railroaders are off to their best start in a full season since they were 7-0 in 2010 on their way to an 11-2 record and an appearance in the state semifinals, and Houck is a big reason why they are playing well.
He has passed for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception, while also showing a willingness to run. He is tied for the third-most rushing attempts on the team (22) and has scored four touchdowns on runs.
But getting to that point where he is completely comfortable with everything the job entails is still a work in progress. It's understandable for a freshman in a leadership position on a varsity team. He's more relaxed than he was, but still not relaxed.
"It's just been me learning to adapt to the high-school environment and try and step up and be a leader for the whole team and listen to my coaches and the players with experience," Houck said. "It's pretty tough, but I just have to step up."
One of the players Houck has leaned on immensely is senior Michael Souders, who is the team's leading receiver, one of its top rushers and leads the team in touchdowns (14), including two on kickoff returns.
When they were younger, Souders and Houck talked about playing together despite their age difference.
"He told me he always wanted me to be his quarterback," Houck said.
They knew that when Souders was a senior, Houck was going to be a freshman.
"He always wanted me to work for [the varsity quarterback job] and step up and try and get that freshman year," Houck said.
And now Souders is the player Houck often turns to in the most pressure-packed moments or when the Railroaders need a big play.
"It's huge," Houck said of Souders' presence. "He makes a bunch of great plays. He's a great leader and steps up when we need him."
For the past six months, Houck has been making regular trips to Crofton to train at the Quarterback Factory with other top prospects at the position.
Over the next three years, he'll have the chance to develop into the best quarterback to play at Brunswick and seems to have the desire and work ethic to make that happen.
"Offensively, he is doing a nice job of being able to manage the offense and manage the guys up front," Smith said. "Early on, we had to get on him about being more vocal. He was really kind of shy and nervous about that. But now he's on point. He knows the entire offense. He works on his craft non-stop."
Follow Greg Swatek on Twitter: @greg_swatek