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Comeback kid: Bucs' Herink making most of final season

Joe Avento • Nov 13, 2018 at 9:17 PM

JOHNSON CITY — Austin Herink has been the frontman for the East Tennessee State football team’s resurgence, but his storybook senior season almost didn’t happen.

The Bucs’ quarterback considered hanging up his spikes last year after taking a brutal beating in a 10-3 season-ending loss at Chattanooga.

The boxscore that day said the Mocs sacked Herink one time. What it didn’t show was the constant pounding the quarterback was taking.

It all came to a head on the final drive. With the Bucs needing a touchdown to tie, they took over on their own 13-yard line with 1:42 remaining. Herink dropped back to pass eight times.

The official printed play-by-play lists several “quarterback hurries.” In reality, he wasn’t only hurried. He was pummeled. As he let each pass go on a drive that ended up gaining 16 yards, he was knocked to the ground. He got up each time, sometimes needing the help of his linemen.

By the time the clock had run out, Herink, bruised and beaten, barely knew where he was.

“In the locker room after the game I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I don’t know if I want to keep on going with this,’ ” he said.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed and Herink decided to return for his final year of eligibility even though some of his teammates had left, graduating in four years after playing three years of football.

“I took two weeks off of anything strenuous and anything football,” Herink said. “It would be really tough for me not to come back with my friends and all the relationships I’ve built here. With a lot of people leaving, that was tough, too, but I just felt like we had some unfinished business.

“I thought, ‘You know, what the heck, what else would I do? I’m going to start coaching or whatever. Why not just finish out my last season playing and enjoy this time of still being a kid?’ ”

So he came back and immediately had to face another roadblock. Logan Marchi had transferred in from Temple and with Randy Sanders as the new head coach, everybody would be learning a new offense.

Sanders said every job would be up for competition and that was never more evident than when he announced Marchi had won the starting job.

Herink was obviously disappointed — he had started all 33 games of his career to that point — but he didn’t sulk.

“I kind of had a feeling, and feelings aren’t always trustworthy, but I just had a feeling at some point they may need me to come back in and win a game or something,” he said.

That feeling proved prophetic when Sanders summoned Herink off the bench in ETSU’s fourth game of the season. Furman was whipping the Bucs 27-6 and the offense was going nowhere.

The new quarterback energized the team and somehow ETSU scored 23 consecutive points and pulled out a 29-27 victory.

“When my moment came, I was ready for it,” Herink said. “I think that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve taken out of this season: Whatever situation you’re faced with, the only thing you can control is how you respond. You always have to stay ready because you never know when your opportunity is going to come.”

Since that fateful day, the Bucs (8-2) have continued to win. They’ve won five of Herink’s six starts, the only blemish a 30-17 loss to Wofford. They’re ranked 17th in the country and on the verge of the unthinkable. A victory on Saturday against Samford would give them the outright Southern Conference championship and the league’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

“He deserves it,” senior linebacker Dylan Weigel said. “He puts in the work in the offseason. He’s a great leader for the team and he’s a great friend to be around, so it was definitely a big momentum shift. He’s been our leader since this program returned and you’ve seen that in the games, especially the close ones we’ve won. When he came in it gave the whole team a boost.”

Herink’s passing statistics won’t wow you. He has five touchdown passes and six interceptions while completing 63.4 percent of his throws, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Starting with that pivotal day at Greene Stadium when the Bucs left Furman and anybody else who was on hand stunned, they have played with the kind of confidence that has allowed them to win six SoCon games by a total of 16 points.

Herink began his college career at Middle Tennessee State, but after one semester there, his good friend and current roommate, Austin Gatewood, suggested that maybe he should come to ETSU. When he arrived in Johnson City in time for the new program’s spring practice, he didn’t know the playbook. Yet somehow he earned the starting job.

“Being his roommate, I get to see how hard he works and he’s one of the hardest-working teammates I’ve ever been around,” Gatewood said. “To see what he’s done, what he’s been able to do this season, I’m really happy for him.”

The story continues on Saturday and Herink hopes it goes on into the playoffs.

“It’s the last stretch of games we’ll ever play,” he said. “We just have to enjoy every second of it because it’s been a great ride.”

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