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Debuting under the lights

Saturday morning, Taylor Heinicke will be a different player.

Tonight he makes his first start as a varsity quarterback. He's one of 13 QBs among Gwinnett County's 21 football-playing schools who are first-time starters this season.

The Collins Hill junior has spent the summer tuning up in passing league, he's faced the Eagles' defense in practice the last three weeks and got a taste of varsity action in a scrimmage last week against Berkmar.

But tonight it's different. The game will be faster, the adrenaline will be pumping and tonight's game counts on your record. No pressure.

"First varsity start, I'm probably going to get carried away a little bit," Heinicke said. "As a quarterback you have to stay composed. So I'm probably just going to focus on the game and not get too hyped up."

Heinicke played sparingly last year as Connecticut signee Michael Box led Collins Hill to an 8-3 record and a playoff berth. He threw a 22-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of Eagles' win over Parkview to start the season last year.

The late score was in mop-up duty. Now Heinicke will be taking all the snaps, making all the decisions and leading the offense. It's a different world going from back-up to varsity starter in Gwinnett County football.

"He played a little bit last year, so he has some seasoning," Collins Hill head coach Billy Wells said. "Dealing with Taylor, one of his biggest assets is his composure and not being too high or too low. I've just told him to be himself."

Of the 13 new quarterbacks in the county this year, three made their debuts last week. Buford's Alex Ross and Grayson's Patrick Santry guided their teams to wins, while Norcross' Ronald Rose nearly led a fourth-quarter comeback.

Grayson head coach Mickey Conn was tempted to play two quarterbacks to start the season until one solidified itself. Santry did that in the Rams' win over defending state champion Camden County, leaving no doubt in Conn's mind who is QB would be this season.

That's not the case at Dacula where head coach Kevin Maloof plans to play Andy Agudelo and Rocky Capobianco tonight against Mill Creek.

"We're excited to find out how they respond to pressure on Friday night," Maloof said. "It's a big deal to get quarterbacks in situations they haven't been in before and see how they handle it."

The Hawks will give John Russ the start at quarterback tonight. If that name sounds familiar, Russ' older brother Ed was Mill Creek's starting QB last season.

"Every game he'll get more and more confidence," Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis said. "The key is to not to ask him to do too much, not giving him too much. Just keep it simple and let him play the game fast."

Sure, dozens of other Gwinnett County football players will make their varsity debut tonight. But it's different for a quarterback than say a lineman or defensive back. The quarterback is the most high-profile position on the field. He commands the huddle, he makes the call, he rallies the team.

That's what every coach looks for when he's trying to find a new quarterback. That's what South Gwinnett head coach John Small saw in Kent Rollins, who will make his varsity debut with the Comets. Rollins was the backup quarterback at Brookwood last season and transferred to South in January.

"We're very confident in our kids and in our players. It's a nervous excitement," South head coach John Small said. "I've got all the confidence in the world in Kent Rollins and our other players because I get to see him every day in practice. But there's definitely that nervous excitement to see how he does in a game."

This time last year Gwinnett County had eight quarterbacks make their varsity debut and two of them - Buford's Michael May and Peachtree Ridge's Nick Lombardo - led their team's to state finals appearances.

Through their first three games the duo had contrasting stats. May completed 23 of 26 passes for 359 yards, while Lombardo had a 50 percent completion rating and four interceptions. By the end of the season they were both two of the top passers in the county, so there's definitely a learning curve.

"It's going to be a lot faster, everyone is going to be going at it, it's going to be real this time," Heinicke said. "Everyone is going for that goal to win. It's going to be a lot faster."

Come Saturday morning, the first-year quarterbacks will no longer be rookies. They'll be veterans.