DENHAM SPRINGS – It’s been nearly eight months since Denham Springs senior quarterback Luke Lunsford last threw a meaningful pass.
Lunsford had thrown for 276 yards and three touchdowns in a memorable performance, leading the Yellow Jackets to the brink of an upset of state powerhouse Acadiana before falling 38-37 in a state regional thriller.
The outing capped a junior season – his first as a varsity starter – in which Lunsford surpassed the school’s single-season record for yardage (2,753) and touchdowns (27).
By all accounts the 6-foot-2 Lunsford had positioned himself to enjoy the fruits of his labor of the past season – ranging from on-campus college junior days to droves of college coaches visiting Denham Springs’ campus for the start of spring football.
That’s where either head coaches or college quarterback coaches would get a closer look at Lunsford and determine whether the production from his talented right arm matched his game film of a season ago.
Lunsford couldn’t wait for the pivotal stage of his recruiting process, thus setting the stage for a summer of unofficial visits and the all important on-campus throwing sessions under the watchful eyes of either the head coach or quarterback coach.
Such favorable reviews generally translate into scholarship offers and in the world of quarterback recruiting, early commitments where quarterbacks are eager to claim precious spots in the recruiting class of the school of their choice.
Lunsford was one such hopeful.
“Since the Acadiana game I was looking forward to getting back at it,” Lunsford said. “I was planning to going to tons of camps that coaches had personally invited me to. I had lots of coaches that said they were excited to come watch me in the spring. I was excited to get with our new team to see how we looked and have all the coaches come out and for me to kill it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that.”
Two days into spring workouts Lunsford was bothered by pain in his lower back. That led to a trip to the doctor’s office for an examination which called for no activity over a six-week period.
No weightlifting. No throwing. No spring practice, nothing.
“I’ve gone through my whole career in football without any injuries, without anything that bad,” he said. “I pushed myself really hard during the offseason with weights.”
Third-year Denham Springs coach Bill Conides said the diagnosis was a “stress reaction” - the result of a growth spurt incurred by Lunsford, who played at 185 pounds as a junior but weighed 210 before the injury.
Conides explained the discomfort Lunsford dealt with was akin to a baseball pitcher and the amount of torque placed on the back during a pitching or throwing motion.
“I knew Luke was discouraged, he knew how important the spring practice was and that college coaches would come by and evaluate him personally,” Conides said. “We had to tell coaches he wasn’t throwing on that day (of spring practice). He took it in stride.”
Lunsford tried to turn a potentially distressing situation into a positive, maintaining a presence at the team’s practices, spring game and throughout the summer.
When players report for 7 a.m. workouts, Conides said it’s commonplace to find Lunsford there ahead of his teammates and generally one of the last to leave the team’s fieldhouse.
If you’re looking for qualities that quickly endeared Lunsford to his teammates a year ago – before ever taking a significant snap in a varsity game – it was evident again when he deemed it important enough to be with his teammates instead of alone and out of view.
“When I got the news that I wasn’t going to be able to participate in the drills, I told myself I’m still a part of this team and see myself as a leader on this team,” Lunsford said. “I’ve tried to show the quarterbacks as much as I can, strengthening the quarterback (meeting) room to make the team better.”
Conides has had nothing but admiration for Lunsford’s leadership ability.
“He made the decision that his team is more important than anything else out there,” he said. “He said he needed to do whatever it took for him to have the very best senior season possible and help his team to a state championship. I know it sounds cliché. That took me aback.
“Recruiting has kind of been put on the backburner for him,” he said. “His focus has been on getting healthy and literally doing everything in his power to win a state championship. He was there every day watching film, hanging around with the quarterbacks or helping younger kids out or encouraging them during workouts.”
Lunsford said he developed such traits from former Denham Springs quarterback Cameron Feucht, who served as a mentor of sorts when Lunsford was a sophomore.
“I got a little playing time on the varsity and you may think as a senior he could have been be mad with that,” Lunsford said of Feucht. “He always helped when I had questions or gave me a high-give when I did something good. I saw that as somebody I wanted to be like.”
During the team’s spring three-way scrimmage with Plaquemine and Donaldsonville, Lunsford was heavily involved with Conides in working with junior quarterback John McDaniel, who handled the team’s first offense in Lunsford’s absence.
That carried over into the team’s Baton Rouge Metro 7-on-7 Passing League where McDaniel took the majority of the team’s first-team reps, but the Yellow Jackets also called upon younger players such as Hayden Hand, Thor Debetaz and Reese Mooney to run series with the first team.
Lunsford was always within ear shot of the play or formation called and eager to lend advice or encouragement whether a series ended in a touchdown or interception.
“He’s been truly the team guy,” Conides said. “I tell him all the time that God’s not going to give him more than he can handle, and he’s taken that to heart. He’s been a phenomenal teammate.”
Lunsford said he’s taken an even greater cerebral approach to the position, trying to strengthen his grasp of Conides’ pro-style offense and further study opposing defenses through additional film study.
“It’s been rough not being able to participate in the spring and to show out for coaches,” he said. “I’ve tried to be as positive as I can. I’m also getting the opportunity to coach the younger quarterbacks and be able to sit back and watch the offense from a coach’s point of view. I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Lunsford said the most commonly asked question deals with a timetable for his return.
After six weeks of rest, Lunsford moved to the next stage in his return, working his with uncle Chris Purvis to strengthen his core and stretch out his hamstrings and hips.
Lunsford, who began doing footwork drills, planned to do some light throwing this week with an eye toward an Aug. 1 return in time for the start of the team’s fall camp.
“My main concern is being ready for the season,” he said. “To make sure I’m ready for my senior year and to build a championship team. This is not the kind of the thing you can put a cast on, and it would be healed when you get back. It’s more a slow-working thing.
“I thank my parents and coach Con (Conides) for helping me,” he said. “I’ve never been off for so long physically not doing anything in my life. It’s been hard not working hard. They said my senior year’s the most important year and I could still get plenty of looks by having a great senior season.”
Lunsford has garnered scholarship offers from Alabama-Birmingham, Nicholls State and Georgetown University based on a terrific junior season where he completed 56 percent of his passes (166 of 296) and combined for 32 touchdowns that included five rushing scores.
He was a first-team selection on the All-Parish team and second-team choice on the All-District 4-5A squad.
Lunsford has also taken unofficial visits to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, South Alabama and most recently to Nicholls State.
“I’m thankful to have the offers I have right now,” he said. “I would be grateful to go to anyone of those schools at the moment. I’m going to wait until I have all of my options on the table and find what’s the best spot for me. I had tons of stuff lined up. I’m chomping at the bit to get back at it and show them what I’ve got.”
Generally, everything with college quarterback recruiting, is accelerated. It’s a process that can get cranked up early in the career of a promising quarterback with the spring before the senior year of a prospect serving as a proving ground of sorts.
According to 247Sports.com, 71 of the nation’s Top 100 quarterbacks have already committed and 40 of the Top 50, placing uncommitted prospects in a position of trying to check all of their recruiting boxes – ranging from quarterback coach to style of play – in the fall.
“I plan to come back bigger, better stronger and faster,” Lunsford said. “I look forward to coming out of this thing like a slingshot, not looking back and just having the senior year I’ve always dreamed of.”
Conides, who tutored current LSU reserve quarterback Myles Brennan at St. Stanislaus (Miss.), believes the payoff will be rewarding for the team that signs Lunsford.
“The kid’s a player and is going to be really good quarterback,” he said. “Whoever gets him is going to get a stud. He’s a film rat and a gym rat. Most importantly, they’re going to get a great teammate.”