Donald McKillop mastered the no-huddle offense at Middlebury like no other signal-caller.
The 6-foot Californian torched Tufts with six touchdown passes (2010), completed 47 passes against Amherst (2010), and racked up 462 yards through the air against Williams (2008).
The 2011 graduate owns every Panther passing mark except one: most interceptions in a season.
“He had a great understanding of the offense, he knew where he needed to be,” recalled receiver Zach Driscoll.
Those are the sizable cleats that McCallum Foote stepped into last fall at Youngman Field.
The Noble & Greenough graduate, who had spent the previous year, his freshman season, on the junior varsity at Brown, was not lacking in confidence.
“My mentality was, I’m going to win the job,” recalled Foote.
Win it? He nailed it, putting the finishing touch on a stellar first season by marching the Panthers 79 yards in the finale at Tufts, with Middlebury punching in the go-ahead score with two seconds left for a 19-17 win. He converted two third-down attempts, along with a fourth-and-10, 14-yard hookup to Nick Resor, his former teammate at Nobles.
“He has such command, great leadership, a special player,” said Tufts coach Jay Civetti.
All Foote has done this season is pilot the Panthers to their first 4-0 start since 1992.
Two weeks ago, the Newton native directed Middlebury to a 24-3 win over defending NESCAC champion Amherst, which carried a bit more weight in the Foote household since his father, Robert, captained the Lord Jeffs as a senior safety in 1985. Last Saturday, Foote threw for a career-high 431 yards and four touchdowns as the Panthers presented 12-year coach Bob Ritter with his first win over Williams.
“He has a great feel for the game, he understands defenses, he does a great job getting to the second or third read, just a great decision-maker,” said Ritter, taking note of the traits Foote shares with McKillop.
“We try to play fast, it was a seamless [transition] for Mac, he picked up our offense right away.”
This season, the 6-foot-4-inch, 187-pound Foote has been even better, orchestrating an attack averaging 34.5 points.
Working behind a veteran offensive front headlined by Ryan Moores, a 6-6, 315-pound senior right tackle out of Governor’s Academy who is attracting the attention of pro scouts, Foote paces the NESCAC in passing yards (370.8 per game) while completing 62.1 percent of his attempts, with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
“I wanted to work on my decision-making, cut down on my interception rate, and raise my completion rate,” said Foote. “I think I have a better understanding of where the ball needs to go.”
Driscoll, a 6-2 senior from Concord-Carlisle who hauled in 12 catches for a career-high 250 yards and three touchdowns against Williams, calls Foote “a pretty amazing talent.”
“He has a great understanding of what the defense is trying to do, he throws a great ball, and he has a great touch,” said Driscoll, who leads the league with 39 catches. Fellow Panther senior Billy Chapman (33) is second, and sophomore Brendan Rankowitz (22) third.
Foote developed a deep appreciation for the game early on from his father, now the defensive coordinator at Cushing Academy, along with his two football-playing grandfathers, Bob Foote (UMass) and Jack Armstrong (Columbia), who are in their universities’ halls of fame.
Before he died, Armstrong was a regular at his grandson’s games, and Bob Foote never misses Middlebury in action. “My grandfather is my biggest fan,” Foote said proudly.
“I love having him there, and the rest of my family, and it means a lot to me that they trek all over New England to watch us play.”
Foote’s transfer from Brown and the Ivy League, to Middlebury and the NESCAC, was more about academics, and being more comfortable in a smaller class setting, similar to his days at Nobles. Resor was his chief recruiter.
But Foote also credits film study with James Perry, his former quarterbacks coach at Brown, now in his first season as the offensive coordinator at Princeton, for aiding in his development.
“We spent hours and hours of watching film,” said Foote. “Basic stuff, and breaking down cover-2 and cover-3 defenses.”
When he arrived at Middlebury, Foote was ready to take charge.
“With our no-huddle offense, it’s important that the quarterback can take command of things, and get people organized from the beginning, the kids responded right away,” said Ritter.
“He made a pretty clear statement right away that he was our best quarterback,” added Driscoll. “We have a lot of trust in each other.”
That applies to both sides of the ball.
The Panthers have always been able to put points on the board.
Entering Saturday’s matchup against visiting Bates (2-2), however, Middlebury is yielding a NESCAC-low 11.8 points per game. Freshman linebacker Tim Patricia (11 tackles per game) has made a smashing debut, while senior John Wiet (8.3) has returned to be an anchor after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
“The guys are playing great defense,” said Ritter, while lauding the work of second-year coordinator Doug Mandigo.
The goal entering the season, according to Foote, was the “mantra of being 1-0, and taking it one game at a time, and winning each of them.”
There are four left, including a possible showdown of unbeatens next Saturday at Trinity.
“It’s been a fun year, so far,” said Ritter.Craig Larson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.