It started as a backup plan.
A just-in-case-of-emergency plan.
The graduation of Reid Johnson left a void at the quarterback position for the Chatfield football team and with the talent that Gophers coach Jeff Johnson knew that Sam Backer had, he decided to let the standout running back take practice reps at quarterback over the summer.
Little did they both know of the importance of that decision.
When junior starter Jacob Erickson went down with a season-ending knee injury against Triton in Week 2, the Gophers turned to Backer in that game. He rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, while also throwing for more than 100 yards. The latter caught the Cobras by surprise. Chatfield went on to complete a comeback win, 21-20, and has not looked back since. The Gophers have won seven in a row, thanks in part to their new quarterback, a guy who's left many saying, "He can also throw?"
“It’s not a gimmick,” coach Johnson said. “It’s not like a Wildcat package type of thing. (Backer) had taken all the reps and run the whole offense. He can throw the ball. He’s able to play both quarterback and running back and it’s just super tough to defend. When he plays the quarterback position and the play breaks down, he looks like Lamar Jackson. The pocket breaks down and he’ll make one or two guys miss and all of a sudden he’ll run for 40. He can turn the bad plays into good ones in a matter of a second or two. I haven’t had the luxury to see that for a long time.”
It’s Jackson that Backer tries his best to emulate, with the 2019 NFL MVP being the junior’s favorite player. And just like Jackson, Backer’s arm also gets overlooked.
“A lot of teams that we play see me as if I’m just back there to run it,” Backer said. “Then they send seven guys after me and it’s like, ‘oh, here, let me just throw the ball down the field for 70 yards.’
“I love it. It feels like I can control the whole game.”
The numbers are staggering.
Backer has run for 1,406 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 160 carries -- good for a healthy 8.7 average yards per rush -- and has thrown for 571 yards with eight touchdowns (two interceptions), while completing 64% of his passes. He's accounted for 27 of Chatfield’s 36 touchdowns this season.
“It looks better than what I ever imagined,” coach Johnson said. “We saw defenses struggle stopping him at that position, so it just became more and more of a set thing for us.”
The game that cemented Backer as the starting quarterback came against what at the time was the top-ranked team in Class AAA, Cannon Falls. Backer set the school record with 455 all-purpose yards with 297 coming on the ground and 154 through the air against the Bombers. He had five total touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) in the Gophers’ 44-34 victory.
“The Cannon Falls game was pretty special,” Backer said. “Obviously, they were ranked number one, and we were kind of like 'we have to win this one to show everyone how we rank up or compare to these other teams.'”
Interestingly enough, the Gophers have been able to expand the playbook with Backer at quarterback. It allows Chatfield to get another playmaker on the field or packages that include Backer at his traditional running back spot while inserting sophomore quarterback Parker Delaney behind center.
Since Backer started taking the majority of snaps at quarterback, the Gophers are averaging 37 points per game after averaging less than 14 points in their first two games, including a 31-6 loss in their opener with Plainview-Elgin-Millville. Of course, it helps that not many quarterbacks can run a 4.48 40 and also squat more than 500 pounds, which Backer did when he set a school record with a max of 505 in August.
“Why waste a position with a quarterback in there if Sam can do both?” Johnson said. “So now we can put another kid in the game and spread the defense out even more. It’s difficult to stop.”
It has led to a confident Chatfield team that is the No. 1 seed in Section 1AA and ranked ninth in Class AA. It opens the playoffs hosting No. 8 seed Winona Cotter at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“I think a lot of teams this year were kind of like, 'Oh, Chatfield, that will be an easy win this week,'" Backer said. "But we've kind of shut that down and (now we're) saying, 'No, we are one of the top teams in the state, no matter what you think.' I know a lot of teams are saying we only have six seniors and our juniors aren't really well known. But we take that to heart and we use it."