High school football fervor crescendos this time of year in Texas as playoff possibilities loom large, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a hotter player in the Lone Star State right now than quarterback Grant Gunnell.
The 6’6", 205-pound sophomore at Houston heavyweight St. Pius X High School tossed at least five touchdowns in each of the past eight games, per MaxPreps, winning those matchups by an average margin of 40 points.
"We really don’t feel like anyone can beat us," Gunnell told Bleacher Report. "We’re going for state."
Undefeated St. Pius X faces St. Thomas Catholic High School on Friday night and will be able to punch its ticket for a first-round playoff bye with a win.
Gunnell, considered a 4-star recruit by Scout.com, figures to emerge among top-rated prospects at his position when 2019 recruiting class rankings are ironed out across the industry. Another impressive postseason run would help cement his status as one of the nation’s most impressive young passers.
He points to last fall’s second-round playoff game against Midland Christian School as a turning point in his prep career. Just weeks after becoming a rare full-fledged freshman starter, Gunnell threw three touchdowns in a 51-35 victory.
"That gave me a lot of confidence heading into the offseason," he said. "We worked together as a team, and I tried to step up. I’ve really become a much better passer, honestly. There’s been major leaps from freshman to sophomore year."
His statistics from that pivotal postseason matchup (15-for-28 for 195 yards and those three scores) actually seem rather pedestrian when compared to his current production. Gunnell hasn’t thrown for fewer than 325 yards or four touchdowns in any game this season.
After a 6 TD performance 2019 4* QB Grant Gunnell is the Big 12 Region Underclassman of the Week – https://t.co/QLYDcIJpbW pic.twitter.com/4bPptOyl04
— Greg Powers (@GPowersScout) September 22, 2016
Through nine contests, he is completing 73 percent of pass attempts for 3,928 yards and 54 touchdowns. He’s surrendered just seven interceptions on 286 throws and has never been picked off more than once in a single game.
"Grant’s a great student of the game, watching film with me daily at lunch," St. Pius X head coach Stephen Hill said, per the school’s website. "When he comes off the field after the first series, he discusses the offense with me in great detail."
Gunnell faced a significant transition last year, as he previously orchestrated a run-heavy, veer-option attack. The outlook is tremendously different at St. Pius X.
"I needed to learn how to throw on time out of a three-step drop by using reads and progressions," he said.
After splitting reps to start last fall, Gunnell became the main man under center approximately midway through his freshman campaign. Despite a solid season (66 percent completion rating for 1,447 passing yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions), he understood that improvement was necessary in order to take a step forward in his progression.
Gunnell spent this past offseason fine-tuning mechanics while working with trainers and a seven-on-seven squad. The differences are noticeable in 2016.
"I used to throw a little sidearmed, so I worked really hard to develop an over-the-top throwing motion to make it more fluid," he said. "That work paid off."
Gunnell polished his approach after earning starting reps as a freshman.
In turn, the St. Pius X staff has entrusted Gunnell with more opportunities. He hasn’t hesitated to take advantage, throwing for 1,541 yards and 23 touchdowns during a three-game stretch that lasted from late September through early October.
"We run like 98 percent spread so there’s a lot of responsibility," Gunnell said. "I’ll give hand signals to my receivers based on whether I see a defense in cover-two or cover-three. Then I have to call the protections at the line."
This isn’t exactly business as usual for a passer with limited varsity experience.
"As young as he is, we’ve given him free rein to change plays and protections, things that you wouldn’t frequently do with a sophomore," Coach Hill said.
College programs are paying close attention, and his first scholarship offers arrived in May from Texas State and Oklahoma State.
— Grant Gunnell (@grantgunnell5) June 13, 2016
"When I came back for spring ball with my new-and-improved throwing motion, college coaches started to take notice," Gunnell said. "Then once I started attending camps, things really blew up."
His offer list has expanded to include Texas A&M, Florida State and nearby Houston. He’s spent time at each of those campuses.
Gunnell figures to be among the most heavily pursued Texas prospects in his class, though the state’s most storied college program has yet to give chase. Despite the lack of a Longhorns offer, he traveled to Austin for the team’s season-opening victory over Notre Dame.
"It was an amazing environment," Gunnell said. "After [Texas quarterback Tyrone] Swoopes scored that winning touchdown, the fans were absolutely crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that."
The Longhorns are just 15-18 under head coach Charlie Strong, casting doubt on whether or not he’ll be retained by the university’s administration for 2017 and beyond. Regardless, Gunnell remains intrigued.
"I definitely hope to hear more from Texas," he said. "I like [offensive coordinator Sterlin] Gilbert a lot."
LSU is another school dealing with uncertainty atop its coaching staff. Gunnell anticipated a Tigers offer earlier this year, but one hasn’t arrived, an event potentially linked to the midseason dismissal of head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
"They’ve said they were going to offer, but it’s never happened," he said.
Elsewhere in the SEC, Gunnell has personal ties to Arkansas. Both his parents attended the university, and his grandfather was a member of the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team.
Gunnell grew up with an affinity toward the program and said that Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is expected to visit St. Pius X in January.
Dialogue is also increasing with Nebraska, Oregon and Michigan, according to the quarterback.
Wolverines assistant coach Jay Harbaugh traveled to Houston this year, and Gunnell may return the favor by visiting Ann Arbor before Christmas break. Northwestern is also in the mix to host him if he does indeed journey into Big Ten Conference territory this winter.
2019 Houston St Pius QB Grant Gunnell. Already has several offers pic.twitter.com/7ylRjbpbFI
— Brian Perroni (@Perroni247) June 14, 2016
For now, everything—even rapidly increased recruiting interest—is essentially an afterthought when compared to his quest for a state title. Whether this sensational sophomore season ends with a championship trophy or not, expect a ramped-up recruitment to commence afterward.
Gunnell aims to announce collegiate intentions before his junior year.
"I’ll probably try to commit next summer," he said. "I don’t have many specifics I’m looking for in a school right now other than a place that I love. I think once I visit campus, it will probably come to light."
Tyler Donohue is a national recruiting analyst for Bleacher Report. All player ratings and information are courtesy of Scout.com.
Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.