Stepping up

Devin Gillis has been a quarterback since he was 9 years old.

When a new coaching staff took over the Merrimack High School football team last offseason, the senior, who had been the Tomahawks’ starter since his sophomore year, decided he was going to do whatever it took to keep the job.

A three-sport athlete at Merrimack, Gillis spent the baseball season coming in early to participate in the football team’s offseason weight lifting program. While playing for the Post 98 American Legion baseball team, Gillis was also participating with the ’Hawks in passing camps.

And when training camp began, and he was in a position battle with three other players, Gillis stepped up and won the job.

“The biggest thing was that I saw was that he had a strong arm and I saw that he was a competitor,” Merrimack coach Dante Laurendi said of what Gillis looked like on film. “That was obviously something positive going in, that you saw a kid that could sling it around and somebody who, you could see his desire on film. He wanted to win. Any time you’ve got a guy who has the potential to be a starting quarterback, and has the desire and work ethic to want to win, that’s a huge plus.”

Gillis has rewarded Laurendi with a season that neither of them could have expected.

After struggling to score points in a 0-11 season in 2012, the ’Hawks are fourth in Division I in scoring, averaging 32.7 points per game. And Gillis has turned into one of the top passers in the state, as he’s thrown for 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games.

Those numbers have helped Merrimack (3-4) turn some heads. Although the ’Hawks have lost their last three games, they’re still alive for the postseason with two games left.

“It’s tough we dropped the last two, but the fact we still have a chance to make the playoffs is pretty exciting,” Gillis said. “It’s definitely been a lot of fun.”

It’s been a bit of redemption for Gillis as well. His father, Urban, got him playing football as early as he could, and coached Gillis until he reached the Pee Wee level. For most of that time, he was a quarterback, but for his first two seasons on varsity, his role was to hand the ball off to someone else.

Now, despite having more responsibility, Laurendi feels Gillis is more comfortable.

“I think he was more comfortable with it, knowing that he’s in control and he gets to make the decisions,” the coach said. “He’s the type of kid that he wants more. He wants more responsibility within the pass game and understanding protection and routes. He takes a lot of that on himself.

“I’m very pleasantly surprised at how fast he’s developed with the offense and picking it up. I don’t know if I’ve seen a quarterback pick up an entirely new offense, and progress, as quickly as he has. We still have our growing pains, but usually, there’s a lot more.”

While Gillis knew Laurendi, who was the offensive coordinator at Nashua North, would bring the spread offense with him to Merrimack, he wasn’t sure what exactly the ’Hawks would be doing out of it.

“They had run the ball a lot out of the spread and thrown the ball a lot, so it was tough to tell,” Gillis said. “From a quarterback perspective, I love it. I mean, I get to do a lot in this offense. Nothing against the previous ones I’ve run, but I really enjoy working this system and it definitely fits the athletes that we have.”

It’s going to be an uphill battle for Merrimack to get into the postseason. The ’Hawks play at Salem on Friday, and then host Pinkerton and Bedford, and even if they win all three, they still need Londonderry to lose once.

But so far, to still have something play for has been a pretty good reward.

“It’s a huge improvement from years past, the fact that we can even talk about playoffs, including the fact we’re now in Division I,” Gillis said.

“It’s definitely a redemption year. The first game of the season, really our drive was to show people we’re different, show that we’re a totally new team, which I think we’ve proved.”