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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

Filling big shoes, Gabe Hernandez puts own spin on Peoria High's quarterback position

(Fred Zwicky/Journal Star) Peoria High quarterback Gabriel Hernandez, left, might outsize his older brother Orlando, right, but that doesn't mean the older one can't get the upper hand when wrestling around, something they did often growing up.

PEORIA — Gabriel Hernandez turned 16 one week ago but when he laces up his cleats Friday night at Peoria Stadium for his second varsity start, he will showcase the poise and maturity of an older quarterback.

He hopes to be a mix of the previous two quarterbacks to lead Peoria High — Orlando Hernandez, Gabe’s older brother, and Coran Taylor, who is competing for the starting quarterback job at Illinois as a freshman.

“You look at it for the last five years and we’ve only had two guys in that spot,” Lions coach Tim Thornton said. “He’s definitely got some shoes to fill and I think he has a good understanding that he could fill them without necessarily being the same person. He’s going to carve his own niche as being his own kind of quarterback.”

The older Hernandez, now at Elmhurst College, led the Lions to a state semifinal in his senior season (2014), which was the best season the program had seen in 26 years.

“I think with Gabe, having a younger brother, I just wanted to be that role model for him. That being said, I was always trying to do the right thing to show him right from wrong, so he could follow in my footsteps,” Orlando said.

But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Gabe was going to play football. He lost interest during JFL, put on weight and then fell in love with the game because of the quarterback position.

“I kind of just lost my passion for football and after two or three years out of the game, I just really missed it,” the younger Hernandez said.

But his arm strength and, perhaps most noticeable, his love for his teammates got him back in the game.

His arm isn’t as strong as Taylor’s, who led Peoria High to the 2016 Class 5A state championship with an offense that broke several state records. But he learned a lot from him in his two years as an understudy and scout team quarterback during the playoffs.

“He’s really helped me improve, just trying to step up to his game and trying to live up to being able to play as good as him,” Gabe said of Taylor. “Just that challenge of having to compete every day with a Division I quarterback just made me better.”

Quarterbacks coach Dave Fauser lauds Hernandez’s football IQ. So does his older brother, who often discusses defenses when the two are together.

″(Gabe’s) football IQ is a lot higher than mine was when I was in his position,” Orlando said.

Being a cerebral player coupled with his physical maturity, Gabe will separate himself in comparisons against those who came before him.

Said Thornton: “He makes some really good decisions for us. He kind of eats the film study up a little more and he’s got a nice little mid-range, touch ball. Coran had that laser arm where you could throw it as far as you wanted down the field and Orlando would just move around and couldn’t get sacked and made plays with his legs after the fact. Gabe can throw into some windows that are there but you can’t really see them yet. He just knows where they’re going to be based on the coverages.”

Following in his brother’s and Taylor’s footsteps is a tall order. Peoria High has made five straight playoff appearances for the second time (1986-90) in program history, with his two predecessor’s posting a 45-14 mark.

Gabe is ready to build on that success because of his passion and competitiveness, which Orlando said they get from their dad, Hilario Hernandez.

“Competition just runs in the family and I know he wants to be great,” Orlando said. “I know (Gabe) knows that he has high expectations and I think he’s ready to fulfill them, so I have full confidence in him.”

A young, yet experienced Lions teams has a “special bond” according to Gabe, who hopes make a program-record, sixth straight playoff berth.

“In past years, I don’t think a team like this has ever been so close and had such a good team chemistry between everyone on this team, and I think it’s going to make us real good,” Gabe said.

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