After twisting a knee in the fourth week of last season, River Hill quarterback Austin Altman watched most of the Hawks' run to the Class 3A state football championship from the sideline.
By the time he was ready for action again, five weeks after the injury, the Hawks had settled into a steady running game behind Raamah Vaughn, with whom Altman shared reps early. Altman and his passing game were grounded, but he understood coach Brian Van Deusen's reason for sticking with what was working. He used the experience to his advantage.
"That was the time," Altman said, "when I was self evaluating, saying, 'What do I have to do so next year I can be the guy who's making the plays instead of the guy who's writing down what's going on in the game?'"
Altman certainly figured that out and now he's the guy leading the No. 2 Hawks (13-0) into their fifth state final in seven years as they prepare to defend their title against Huntingtown (12-1) on Thursday at 7 p.m. at M&T Bank Stadium.
With his arm and accuracy, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior has given a new dimension to a River Hill offense known for its running game. He has completed 107 passes for 2,241 yards and 27 touchdowns with eight interceptions and has set six school passing records.
"The biggest thing he's improved on over the years is his decision making," Van Deusen said. "He watches a lot of film and there's been times when he'll go to his third read and a lot of times in high school you don't see that. For me, it's about calling the plays, having confidence in Austin's ability to make decisions. I know he's got a strong arm. That's why we started him in four games last year. We saw the potential."
Relying on the run in 2011, the Hawks completed 43 passes for 889 yards. Altman put up more than a quarter of that in one game, completing 12 passes for 236 yards in River Hill's Week 5 win over Glenelg, 27-13.
Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said the play-action pass on top of a running game that has accounted for 49 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards, makes the Hawks especially dangerous.
"It puts your safeties and your cornerbacks and your outside linebackers in such a bind," Schmitt said. "It just challenges the defense and at the same time, they sell it up front. When you pull a guard on a play-action pass, that can be just deadly and they're able to do that … or give you great backfield action and Austin has just been really consistent throwing the football."
Altman has completed 66 percent of his passes this fall — not far off the state single-season record of 69.4 percent. One of his favorite targets, split end Nick Ball, also set a school record with nine touchdown receptions.
The Hawks, who have won 23 straight games, are more likely to throw more on first down and go for big pass plays earlier in the game rather than always rely on the rush to set up the passing game.
"We've had some great running backs come through here over the years. This year, we have probably our best group of receivers," Van Deusen said. "Obviously [Michael] Campanaro was the best receiver we ever had, but as far as a core group — with Nick Ball at split end and Justin Arn and Evan Griffin at the halfbacks and then we have a tight end that's really come along in Cory Daniel — we have four receivers that Austin has confidence in. Not only are we balanced run-pass, but we're balanced in who we throw the ball to."
Ball (34 catches, 638 yards), Griffin (30 catches, 617 yards, seven touchdowns), Arn (13 catches, 413 yards, four touchdowns) and Daniel (16 catches, 196 yards, five touchdowns) give Altman plenty of options. Slot back Stephan Osong also has 11 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have good chemistry between all the backs and the wide receivers and that helps," Griffin said, "because we know where everyone's going to be and we've got the timing down on each play."
Altman said each receiver knows how to create space and get open.
"As far as strengths, I'd say it's the speed," Altman said. "All over the field, I'm surrounded by guys who run 4.4-4.5 [second] 40s [yard dashes], so they're able to find some open space, and that's key, and they've all got real reliable hands."
They make it easier for Altman, who is in only his fifth year of organized football. He had always been a soccer player, but he said he burned out in eighth grade. Having friends who played football and knowing he was headed to River Hill, he figured if he wanted to switch sports that would be a good time.
He wasn't a quarterback until his freshman year, but laughed when he said he was "about seventh-string," and he didn't play the position in a game until his sophomore year. He said he honed his passing skills in 7-on-7 along with the Hawks receivers during the offseason.
"Without the line to have to worry about pressure," he said, "I was just dropping back, making my reads and finding the open guy. That's where I learned how to play quarterback, how to make those decisions and how to translate that to the season."
This fall, Altman has thrown for 200 or more yards in six games, which is not only a single-season school record but a career record. He also set River Hill records for passing touchdowns in a game (five) and a season and passing yards in a game (263) and a season.
After having to watch so much of last season, Altman is thriving on the Hawks' playoff run as they aim for their program's fourth state title.
"When it's time for business, he's in the zone," Osong said. "He's like your typical QB. He wants to be that leader on the field. He wants to be the one making the big plays."