What comes next? When the dust clears and the expectations are set, when success is expected, when second place in the Ivy League is now just one game away from first—what comes next?
In moments of mounting pressure and uncertainty, a sports team looks to its leader: its locker room glue guy, its most valuable player, its pseudo-assistant coach who eases players away from anxiety and toward a stable, common goal. But the Lions have lost their man. Anders Hill, who threw 16 touchdowns and over 2400 yards on ideal efficiency while leading the team to its best record in 20 years, is gone.
In the wake of his absence—which is palpable in every conversation regarding leadership or quarterback play—a question must be asked and a decision must be made. What, and who, comes next?
As of this week, the answer is a six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-fifteen pound native of Hinsdale, Illinois—a dynamic athlete described by quarterbacks coach Ricky Santos as, “very much a reserved kid.” The answer is Josh Bean.
The coaching staff did not come to this conclusion easily. Tasked with deciding between two rising sophomores, Bean and Dillon Davis, they let the two compete throughout the entirety of training camp and up to just several days prior to the team’s first game against Central Connecticut State.
For most of August, the two appeared in a dead heat, putting on display their divergent skill sets. Davis showcased his precision and throwing power while Bean reiterated why he was the Lions’ biggest goal line threat last season.
Bagnoli’s language following the Aug. 31 scrimmage reflected the coaching staff’s desire to refrain from announcing something decisive. He used measured language, praising and criticizing both players almost as a single entity.
“Both had turnovers. Both probably made some protection mistakes which is somewhat normal for a young, first-time starter,” Bagnoli said.
Even in discussing Bean alone, his language was noncommittal, saying, “He did some good things, some not-so-good things.” The key, it seemed, was to let both players embrace and learn from the process. This luxury of relaxation was a natural benefit of the fact that the two players competing are self-described best friends.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the competition itself was its participants’ insistence that it wasn’t a competition at all. At least, not in the way most expected it to be.
“Most people would expect a QB battle to be combative,” Bean said. “But really we’ve been supportive and we’ve been making each other better and pushing each other to be better at each play.”
In a testament to the culture Bagnoli and his staff have instilled so quickly, both young quarterbacks, either of whom could have easily allowed their ego to add tension in the locker room, have remained largely unfazed. Rather, they share a common goal: winning a championship by any means necessary.
“We don’t wish any ill will on each other. We want to win a championship,” Davis said. “We both understand that, so, no matter whoever is gonna give us the best chance, that’s what we wanted.”
This allowed the coaches the flexibility to remain focused on two important attributes in each of the young QBs: athletic skill, yes, but perhaps more importantly, their leadership acumen.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the ghost of Hill remains present in Lions’ practice. Considering the way people speak of him, one might assume he were a figure borne of American mythology: a larger-than-life Paul Bunyan, entirely decent, competent, and kind.
Bean and Davis describe him the way people often describe role models: full of a synthesized jealousy and admiration.
“Whenever he was in, people believed that we could get stuff done,” Davis said.
It was clear throughout the competition that both quarterbacks were attempting to emulate or live up to the precedent Hill set, both in the results he helped the team achieve and the image he worked to establish through his own behavior.
“Something that all the quarterbacks in the QB room were working on is that being that vocal leader,” Bean said. “Something that we lost in Anders.”
Both Davis and Bean clearly have their own versions of leadership, both distinctly apart from what Hill seemed to embody.
Davis talks like a quarterback: He’s full of short, efficient sentences that inspire confidence in both himself and in his teammates. When asked if it’s possible for the team to consistently make big plays throughout the season, Davis answers without pause, “One thousand percent.”
Bean is even more concise. When asked about the team’s performance in the preseason scrimmage, he said, “First, it’s a scrimmage: very limited play calling. But, I think we all made some strides. Me in particular. There’s a lot of things we can all work on. I think I can work on some things. But we’re definitely getting there.”
He knows what needs to be done, and he knows it doesn’t necessarily need to be said.
Santos sees this attribute in Bean as well as anyone else. “For me, he's leading by example. He's one of the hardest workers we have out here,” Santos said. “He still needs to speak more and he knows that.”
Neither player is Hill, but perhaps that’s for the best. It could be that this new team, with its ever-changing identity, needs something different.
When the final decision was made and Bagnoli announced Bean as the starter, it didn’t come across as though anyone had won or lost. It seemed that the team had simply made a decision about what they felt was best.
When asked why he chose Bean, Bagnoli pointed to his role on the team last year. While Davis saw no playtime, Bean was a deadly red zone tool, scoring eight rushing touchdowns on twenty-two attempts, and one passing touchdown on one attempt.
“Starting with last season, he had a chance to get into some games, acquitted himself well all the way through the season, all the way through the offseason, all the way through spring,” Bagnoli said.
Now tasked with following up an unusually good season, Santos insists that the pressure is not all on Bean. All he asks of Bean is that he constantly tries to improve.
“Be yourself. Be the best version of yourself every single day,” Santos said, “Be better today than you were yesterday. Better tomorrow than you were today.”
But perhaps more so than anything else, he advises, “Don’t compare yourself to Anders. We talk about that all the time.”
Bean is not Hill. Bean is a soft-spoken, lead-by-example, naturally gifted athlete with the room to grow into a true team leader. Already though, he is approaching this season with the poise and perspective of a senior captain.
“There’s gonna be some huge expectations out of this team this year, after going 8-2. That’s what comes of being a successful team,” Bean said. “We just gotta think about Central Connecticut right now and tell these young players to focus on every single rep at a time. Every practice. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself.”