Mike Fess was on campus two summers ago, preparing for what would be a breakout 80-catch junior season at Holy Cross for the wideout from Caldwell, N.J.
And he recalls the chatter.
A handful of his Crusader teammates had taken note of a promising young quarterback from Chicago in attendance at the college’s annual football camp. “I just remember there was a little buzz,” said Fess.
He would have to wait one more summer to see Peter Pujals, poised and confident in the pocket, show off his skills. It was the introduction to what has been an amazing start to his first season, one that has thrust a rejuvenated Holy Cross (3-4, 1-0) right into the Patriot League race entering Saturday’s matchup against visiting Colgate (1-5, 0-0) at Fitton Field.
Tom Gilmore, meanwhile, was hoping to keep the buzz about the kid from Loyola Academy to a whisper.
“We thought he had all the physical tools . . . but we had not seen him on game film,” recalled the Holy Cross coach.
Neither, really, had any other college program.
As a high school junior, Pujals was highly regarded, but the starter was a senior, Malcolm Weaver, a dynamic runner with the ability to throw a “nice fade, and we had tall receivers,” said coach John Holocek, the former NFL linebacker who is in his eighth season at Loyola, a prep program in Wilmette, Ill., 14 miles north of downtown Chicago.
Competing in the rugged Chicago Catholic League, the Ramblers advanced to the state championship game, with Pujals putting his athleticism and elusiveness to work at receiver, hauling in four to five catches per game.
“By the end of the season, he was our best receiver,” said Holocek. “But we knew he was going to be a top quarterback. The overwhelming thing is his poise, and his mental approach.”
That trait has a direct thread to his family, and a younger brother, JC,who has Down syndrome. That dynamic, according to the Loyola Academy coach, has made his former captain “a more complete person,” he said. “His little brother is his biggest fan. Peter is just worldly. He does not worry about little insecurities.”
And that translated to the field.
Weaver moved on to Butler University (where he is now a redshirt freshman), Pujals stepped in to pilot the spread, leading Loyola to the state semifinals, and Holy Cross made its move.
“We knew that we had to be the first one [to make an offer],” said Gilmore.
Before Eastern Illinois, or Northern Illinois, or even Northwestern. (Pujals visited Notre Dame, but the Irish never followed up, according to Holocek). The Crusaders were all in after catching his first two games.
“He didn’t overwhelm you, but he managed the game.”
And there was the undeniable poise.
And to Gilmore, there may not be any more important asset.
But not even he could have envisioned what would transpire over the past four weeks, since the 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound freshman was inserted into the lineup against Monmouth.
The Crusaders trailed, 21-0, at the half. Juniors Steve Elder and Ryan Laughlin had been ineffective. Pujals came in and directed Holy Cross to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, and nearly a victory, completing 12 of 19 attempts for 129 yards with an interception.
“He can make all the throws, sideline, opposite hash, the deep ball, he adds another element to our offense,” said Fess, who has hauled in 28 passes (44 overall) from Pujals, three going for scores. “And he’s always trying to get better.”
Noting the pace of the college game, Pujals said “it is starting to slow down a little bit, I am able to recognize things a little bit better.”
The following week, making his first start, at Dartmouth, he was dazzling: 25 of 37 for 290 yards and a pair of touchdowns; plus 125 yards rushing and two scores in a riveting 31-28 comeback win.
“One of the best second halves I have seen,” said Holocek, who watched the performance on television.
In an epic 41-35 triple-overtime loss to visiting Harvard, Pujals (33 for 50, 345 yards, 4 TDs) was the best player on the grass at Fitton, but personally took the blame for four lost fumbles. While Holocek said that sometimes Pujals was “throwing too hard for high school kids,” Fess pointed to a ball he snared in the back of the end zone in the first OT that required “a lot of finesse” from his QB.
“He puts the ball where it needs to be,” added the senior, who enters Saturday’s game 13 catches shy of breaking the school’s career mark (190).
Last week, Pujals accounted for six touchdowns (three passing, three running) in a 51-27 blasting of Bucknell.
On one series, the Bison sent blitzes on eight of nine downs. Pujals was unfazed.
“The receivers did a great job with that, beating their man one-on-one,” he said. “I just threw it up to them and they were able to make plays.”
The playmaker is completing 65.7 of his passes, with 11 touchdowns and one pick (he has thrown 129 passes without an interception). He is one of 20 candidates for the Jerry Rice Award, presented annually to the top freshman in the Football Championship Subdivision. On Wednesday, he picked up the Gridiron Club’s Gold Helmet from the New England Football Writers for his performance against Bucknell.
“To adjust to the college game this quickly is a very rare occurence,” said Gilmore, who compares Pujals’s recruitment with that of former Crusader great Dominic Randolph, who did not start his senior year in Ohio. “And that turned out pretty good, too.’’
But most of all, what Pujals has given the Crusaders is renewed hope, and a legitimate shot to make a run in the Patriot League after a 2-9 season in 2012.
“We’re 1-0 in league,” said Pujals. “It’s a new slate for us.”