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Conner Hempel gets his shot as Harvard’s starting quarterback

Junior Conner Hempel (above) faces a tough task in replacing Ivy League Player of the Year Colton Chapple under center.

Harvard Athletic Communications

Junior Conner Hempel (above) faces a tough task in replacing Ivy League Player of the Year Colton Chapple under center.

The criteria, and expectations of the quarterback position, specifically the starter at Harvard, has not been altered, or tweaked in 20 years. Or since the day that Tim Murphy arrived at Dillon Fieldhouse from the University of Cincinnati.

His first starting signal-caller, Vin Ferrara, passed the litmus test. Steady Rich Linden too. And Neil Rose . . . Ryan Fitzpatrick . . . Liam O’Hagan . . . Chris Pizzotti . . . Collier Winters.

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And yes, of course, Colton Chapple.

No greater winner, or definition of perseverance and development than the 6-foot, ½-inch quarterback from Alpharetta, Ga, who piloted the Crimson offense to an Ivy League-record 39.4 points per game in last year’s 8-2 run.

“You look for the intangibles first,” said Murphy, noting that Chapple first showed up on campus with “few” measurable quarterback skills.

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“He had a long release, didn’t have a strong arm . . . no one could have projected when he was a college sophomore that he could become the Ivy League Player of the Year [as a senior].”

The measurables: leadership and toughness, decision-making, and accuracy.

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And it has to be all three.

“You can be accurate, a good decision-maker, and a lousy leader, and it’s not going to work,” summed up Murphy.

“At the end of the day, can you produce?”

Murphy has a pair of “veteran” quarterbacks this season, junior Conner Hempel and senior Michael Pruneau, along with the highly-touted Joseph Viviano, a 6-5 freshman.

Hempel and Pruneau lack game-day experience, aside from a handful of snaps in a reserve role the past two seasons. But they have the intangibles.

Pruneau tore an anterior cruciate ligament in preseason camp a year ago. Hempel backed up Chapple all season, impressing in cameo appearances against Holy Cross, Bucknell, and Columbia. He received all the first-team reps last spring, and the majority of the reps in camp.

And when the Crimson kick off their 140th season Saturday afternoon against the University of San Diego — the program’s first trip west since the 1949 opener at Stanford (a 44-0 defeat) — the 6-3, 210-pound Hempel, confident and poised, will set up behind center, orchestrating Harvard’s multi-layered, read-option attack.

“We have a chance to be successful with either kid, but Conner has earned it,” said Murphy, while acknowledging his offense, minus the graduates: Chapple, slashing tailback Treavor Scales, All-America tight Kyle Juszczyk (Baltimore Ravens), and two all-league linemen, has a number of question marks. There are no such concerns on defense, where there is talent, and depth, at every level.

Bryson Warner has watched this script — a Hempel debut — play out before, to a thunderous ovation.

The 11-year varsity coach at Ryle High, a Division 6A program situated in the northern-most town in Kentucky (Union, pop. 5,512 as of 2011), Warner inserted his promising freshman under center for a specific play, after shifting his starter, Kyle Benke, out wide as a receiver.

Hempel hooked up with Benke on a 50-yard pass play down the sideline.

“That was his first play, he was a nervous wreck, but he had the total package,” said Warner.

Hempel was the starter the next three seasons, directing the Raiders to the state semifinals as a senior, when he rushed, and passed, for 1,000-plus yards. He was also an all-state punter (he’s listed second on the depth chart at Harvard).

Toughness? Warner points to a game-changing play, on defense, in Hempel’s final regular-season game against Highlands, the top-ranked team in northern Kentucky.

Ryle led, 28-26, when Highlands went for 2.

“We put Conner in at corner, felt like we needed him on the field, and he made the goal-line stop, knocking their quarterback, Patrick Towles (now at the University of Kentucky), out at the 1-inch mark, just before the pylon.

“A huge play for us. The official told me it was the closest call he ever had to make.”

It was just the third loss for Highlands in seven years.

“Conner is very tough, very physical, faster than he looks, very elusive, and his leadership was amazing,” added the Ryle coach. “He took command of the offense. As a runner, he was powerful, breaking tackles, which really generated a lot of power throughout the whole team.”

But fairly quickly, Hempel learned that it would not be such a seamless transition at Harvard.

“The biggest eye-opener for me was how much preparation it takes to be in this offense, and how much you have to know as a quarterback,” he said after wrapping up a late afternoon practice session in the setting sun earlier this week.

“It is very demanding, mentally and physically.”

For instance, the focus on ball security.

“Taking chances downfield have to be open,” he said. “In high school, it was a little bit different.” (Warner notes, however, that Hempel “refused to throw it to the opposition.”).

“It’s a lot different when you get here, very humbling.”

The reps in spring ball were integral in his development, along with the nightly 7-on-7 drills this summer back in Allston, with 50-plus Crimson players on hand. Along with the reps last week in a scrimmage up at Dartmouth.

“Every time you break in a new quarterback, it kind of takes a while,” said senior Cameron Brate, a 6-5, 245-pound All-Ivy tight end who hauled in 41 catches a year ago.

“But getting all those reps this summer with ‘Hemp’ and Mike [Pruneau] was very helpful. They both can throw the ball and run it.

“We just have to make sure that we finish our opportunities, on third down and the red zone.”

Hempel said it all comes down to “preparation, and how much time you spend in the film room, breaking down opponents and the defense. It’s a big learning curve.”

Murphy notes that the preparation time required to be a starting quarterback, in college, is akin to adding another class to an already demanding courseload.

And often, that work is tedious, and lonely.

Game day is the true measurable.

“Until you play, under a microscope, under pressure, you don’t know what you have,” said the coach. “That’s what is so exciting about the first game, and what’s also so . . . concerning. Conner has a lot of tools.

“He never gets too high, and he never gets too low. His leadership style is very well received by the coaching staff and his teammates. . . . But there is nothing like experience.”

Hempel, honored to be getting his shot at No. 1, said he will “never forget going through the process.”

Now, like those that have come before, it is his time.

“We do it every single year, we have great players that graduate, and year after year, coach Murphy and his staff are recruiting, bringing in guys to replace them,” he said. “And new guys step up. It gives new players the opportunity to step up.”

Hempel gets his opportunity on Saturday.

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeLars.
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