Duckworth’s presence on field a valuable asset for Rams

Strasburg's Ethan Duckworth scrambles as he looks for a receiver during last Friday night's game against King William. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Ethan Duckworth was engaged in a block from William Monroe High School fullback Gregory Sizemore when Strasburg’s senior defensive end saw opposing quarterback Malique Shackelford, with the ball in his hands, sweep to the outside before making a cut back inside as he searched for running room.

Duckworth attempted to pursue Shackelford back into the interior of the defense but, as he planted to make his own cut, his left foot remained entrenched in the turf of Glenn Proctor Field at Ram Stadium. Still locked in Sizemore’s block, Duckworth’s body crumpled over top of his cemented foot, causing his knee to bend at an unnatural angle. Duckworth felt the joint lock up.

He hoped he could walk off the unusual sensation in his knee. As he climbed to his feet Duckworth felt his knee “pop,” a painful reaction that sent the senior back down to the turf to await the arrival of Strasburg athletic trainer Abbie Hansberger. Duckworth didn’t know it at the time, but he had just felt his kneecap shift back into place after becoming dislocated when his leg buckled beneath him.

On Tuesday evening, 11 days after the injury, Duckworth described the pain he felt that night on Nov. 4 as “one of the most painful things I’ve ever felt.” That’s saying something for a kid that two years ago suffered a ruptured kidney during an offseason wrestling camp the summer before his sophomore year.

“I was laying there and I was thinking my season is probably done, high school football’s done,” recalled Duckworth, also the Rams’ starting quarterback.

After suffering the injury, which occurred midway through the second quarter of Strasburg’s regular-season finale, Duckworth was helped to the training room, where he said Hansberger tested the mobility of his knee and tried to get the senior put some weight on his left leg.

“I couldn’t really do anything,” Duckworth said.

The senior emerged on crutches in the second half and stood idly by as the Rams, who were locked in a 7-7 tie before Duckworth’s injury, crumbled without their senior quarterback in a 38-7 loss.

The next morning, Duckworth – who avoided ligament damage when his kneecap shifted back into place, Rams head coach Mark Roller said last week – hobbled into the school’s training room, where Hansberger put the senior through various exercises to mitigate the pain and increase his range of motion. Late that Saturday, Duckworth said, he was able to walk a little bit on his own.

Those sessions with Hansberger continued throughout last week as the Rams prepared to take on King William in the first round of the Region 2A East playoffs. With Strasburg set to take on unbeaten Goochland in the second round this Friday after last week’s victory, Duckworth is still making daily visits to Hansberger’s office.

Twice a day, Duckworth makes a trip to the school’s training room. On his first visit of the day, which takes place during school, Duckworth said he puts ankle weights on his left leg, places a foam roller under his knee and lies on his stomach, then repeatedly straightens out his knee in order to extend his range of motion. Hansberger then makes Duckworth do single-leg squats and lunges. His second visit to the training room, he said, primarily consists of hamstring stretches to keep his leg loose. He’s also begun easing his way back into the weight room.

“I’ll be glad when I’m done with that time,” Duckworth said with a laugh, adding that his trips to the training room could last another two or three weeks. “It’s been terrible, but (Hansberger is) doing a lot of work, taking out of her own time just to help me get back out playing.”

As unbearable as those rehab sessions have been for Duckworth, they’ve done their job. The senior returned to practice early last week to prepare for King William. He was walking gingerly, in full pads, around the practice field on Nov. 8, a Tuesday, while trying to break in a new knee brace. Labeled by Roller last week as a game-day decision, Duckworth suited up for the Rams last Friday and played every snap at quarterback in a 41-20 win.

He did so without setback and with minimal pain, save for a couple times when Duckworth said his left foot – the plant foot for the right-hander – was turned too far in or out when it landed on the grass during a pass attempt.

Duckworth completed 8 of 14 passes for 79 yards and a pair of touchdowns against King William and rushed three times for 29 yards, including a 19-yard gain on a quarterback sneak on his first carry of the night late in the first quarter, a result that sent a wave of relief over the senior quarterback.

Duckworth wasn’t flawless against the Cavaliers. He missed on a couple pass attempts and fired wide of a wide-open Grant Scott on what would’ve been a touchdown on a drive that ended on downs deep in King William territory midway through the first half, and he threw an untimely interception from the Rams’ 19-yard line with 6:21 to play with Strasburg trying to ice a 21-point lead. But Duckworth’s presence alone was a huge payoff for the Rams.

“For those guys to see him out there was a great boost of confidence for our team,” Roller said. “When you’ve gone to battle with someone through the whole season and all the sudden he gets hurt, it kind of makes you wonder what’s going on. To have him back, those guys were feeling protective. I think for us, having him back was a big morale booster just for the fact that if he wasn’t I’m not sure that we could’ve done the things that we did offensively as a team.”

That Duckworth is now considered the heart and soul of Strasburg’s offense is a testament the senior’s mental growth within the sport’s most scrutinized position.

As a junior last season, Duckworth entered summer camp in competition with classmate Ryan Bowers for the Rams’ starting quarterback spot. Neither showed enough in the preseason to earn the confidence of the coaching staff, prompting Roller to thrust running back Adam Miller into the role, a move based more on Miller’s natural athleticism than his quarterbacking ability.

“I had no idea how to read the defense at all,” Duckworth admitted, adding that he entered his junior season not expecting to face much competition for the quarterback spot.

Afforded a year to mature as a QB and faced with the realization that this year would be his last with the Rams, Duckworth put in extra work this past summer. He studied film to strengthen his ability to read defensive coverages and improve his pre-snap reads, and he’s had the luxury of taking nearly every quarterback snap at practice this season (Miller transferred to Sherando for his senior season and Bowers did not play football this fall).

As the Rams’ undisputed starting quarterback this season, Duckworth has completed 80 of 160 passes for 1,007 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while also rushing for 259 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that garnered the senior second-team recognition on the All-Bull Run District team.

Not at all limited to one side of the ball due to his valuable status on the Rams’ offense, the 6-foot, 195-pound Duckworth (also a second-team all district defensive end) has tallied 53 total tackles, tied for the team’s third-highest total, while playing nearly every down at one of defense’s most physically taxing positions.

“There’s many times that he’d walk off the field after the game and Coach (Tripp) Lamb and I would be wondering how he could actually walk because of the beating he took,” Roller said.

It’s that toughness, along with his calming influence, that draws praise from Duckworth’s teammates, and those attributes could prove an invaluable asset as the No. 7 Rams attempt to knock off second-seeded Goochland on the road Friday night.

“He’s definitely got the leadership role that we love about him,” Rams senior lineman Ryan Jenkins said. “No matter what the score is he’s always cool, calm and collected and he’s never freaking out. If we’re down he’ll just get focused and try to get us right back in the game. He’s never down or anything. He’s just always positive and trying to keep us driving forward.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com