Most likely the first thing people notice about Justin Wohlers on the football field is his height.
Standing at 6-foot-6, the Lake City senior quarterback towers above his teammates and the majority of his coaches. It’s the kind of height that many would consider prototypical when it comes to the pocket quarterback.
Yet, in actuality, Wohlers is the perfect option quarterback, offering a terrific blend of size, speed and arm talent. It’s that second trait, though, which often eluded him until this year.
“If you go back to when he was an eighth grader, freshman and so forth, he was a big kid that was pretty slow-footed,” Tigers’ coach Trevor Narum said. “He’s worked very hard to make himself faster and quicker.”
Wohlers began to make strides in that department in the summer before last season. The three-sport athlete then became a four-sport athlete when he decided to play soccer after the MSHSL had originally ruled to move football -- as well as volleyball -- to the spring. The plan of staying in shape while playing a different sport was spoiled when Wohlers suffered a foot injury that never fully healed for the football season. It affected his play, limiting his mobility and the Tigers’ plans to use him more as a runner. It wasn’t a true indicator of the quarterback he was on the cusp of becoming.
“I was a pocket only kind of guy,” Wohlers said. “It was just up and down because I kept getting re-injured.”
The foot healed for the basketball season, when he averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per game before playing a baseball season that saw him strike out 18 of the 25 batters he faced during one of his starts against Goodhue.
It also healed in time for some football showcases that showcased his mobility as well as what he could do when healthy. Wohlers demonstrated his ability to move in addition to his big arm and impressive size. It pushed him even more to focus on his speed in the offseason.
Wohlers admitted he didn’t do anything “extraordinary” to shore up his speed but there was a stretch that seemingly saw him at a different football camp every weekend. From Minnesota-Duluth to the University of South Dakota and nearly everywhere in between, Wohlers was pushing himself to be the best that he could be. He, along with others, immediately noticed a difference.
“My speed, that was the main thing for me,” Wohlers said. “I got a lot faster in the offseason. A lot faster.”
“He’s just much faster and quicker now,” Narum said. “He doesn’t run like a quarterback, he runs like a running back, he gets in the open field and he’s not afraid to put his shoulder down and finish falling forward. It’s been really fun to watch.”
It has led to a season that has produced eye-popping numbers and helped the Tigers — ranked No. 1 in the state in Class AAA — to a 6-0 record entering Thursday night’s clash against Goodhue. Wohlers is completing better than 70 percent of his passes with 1,141 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, while also leading the Tigers in rushing with 486 yards and nine touchdowns on 88 carries. More impressive, perhaps, is that Wohlers has yet to commit a turnover.
Lake City as a team has a remarkable plus-18 in turnover margin.
“Justin has had an incredible season,” Narum said. “I think the thing that sticks out the most to me is we’re completing 70% of our passes. And that’s with a number of drops in our first game. … Justin has just really matured in his decision-making, both in the run game and in the pass game. In the run game we do a bunch of option football where he has to make reads and make good decisions in order for us to be successful. He just seems so comfortable. He’s been great so far, no doubt.”
Wohlers credits that comfortability to the guys protecting him up front, as well as talented receivers like Carson Matzke (31 receptions, 444 yards, three touchdowns) and Matt DeMars (17-328-5).
“It all starts with that offensive line,” Wohlers said. “I mean the time I have to throw -- offensively, we are hard to stop. I mean we have a bunch of athletes on the outside and then we have some big boys in the middle.”
Matzke and DeMars are also a big part of what Lake City does defensively as well. They both have three interceptions for a Tigers’ defense that has been a force with 10 interceptions and nine forced fumbles.
“That’s really been our secret to success,” Narum said.
The success has put the Tigers in an unfamiliar situation. The six wins are the most since 2014 when they went 5-5 and this is the first season above .500 since 2012.
“We’ve talked about it now,” Wohlers said. “We can’t put our heads up way too high, you can’t stay too low, we just have to stay steady and consistent the whole way.”