EAGLE POINT — Austin Marlia has come a long way since his days as a ballboy for his dad's freshman team at Eagle Point High.

EAGLE POINT — Austin Marlia has come a long way since his days as a ballboy for his dad's freshman team at Eagle Point High.

Heck, he's come a long way since last year when he was a bit player on offense for the varsity Eagles.

These days, Marlia is bigger ... well not too much at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds ... and definitely playing a bigger role at Eagle Point than one could've imagined when he was shagging raggedy footballs a decade ago.

"I remember him running around in glasses and carrying water when I was playing," says first-year Eagle Point coach Jacob Schauffler, who was a 1997 graduate of EPHS. "It's kind of fun to see someone like that develop and now to see he's a player of mine. It's kind of all come around full-circle."

And not at a better time as Schauffler looks to lead the Eagles back to the state playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Marlia currently leads the Southern Sky Conference in passing after completing 49 of 70 passes for 574 yards with five touchdowns and only one interception. The first-year starter has the Eagles at 2-2 heading into Friday night's game at Churchill, and is coming off possibly his best performance.

The junior completed 14 of 17 passes for 235 yards and three scores during last week's 48-30 win over Madison, and also rushed 16 times for 106 yards and two TDs.

"I felt like last week was a big step for us in the right direction," says Marlia, noting that the team challenged each other after a poor mid-week practice. "We're working hard this week and going to take that to Churchill."

In Schauffler's perspective, Marlia's effort against Madison was a continuation of something gained during a 42-7 throttling by fourth-ranked Mountain View a week prior.

"He's a great athlete as far as what he can do when he's got the football," recounts the coach. "We talked all summer about rolling him out and giving him a pass-run option. Mountain View was putting so much pressure on him when he was rolling out and he kept trying to throw the ball. At halftime we said if you roll out and it's not there, just take off."

The message got through in the second half and the Eagles became more effective on offense, and that confidence to freelance spilled over to the Madison game — where Marlia proved masterful.

"Last week was the first week that we really had him on the right page with the receivers and everybody and with his read progressions," says Schauffler. "Now he really is starting to become a quarterback, not just a kid with good legs who's a pretty good athlete."

It was those attributes that first drew Schauffler and offensive coordinator Jef McClellan to install the spread offense at Eagle Point, and Marlia has worked hard to make everything run as smoothly as possible.

"I did a lot of work in the offseason with passing leagues and I feel pretty confident throwing the ball," says Marlia, 16, "but it's nice having the option of rolling out for a pass and being able to tuck it and run."

That was his only option last year as a varsity fill-in on offense, occasionally lining up in the backfield at quarterback in place of Scott Erickson and running mostly draw plays to give opponents a different look.

"For me I've always been a quarterback and last year they just kinda put me in that situation to run," he says. "My whole deal was whatever I need to do to help the team out I'll do, so I was happy to do it."

With the graduation of Erickson, who is also Marlia's cousin, and the introduction of Schauffler as head coach, a new role was sketched out for the signal caller.

"The spread offense is kinda the thing now and when you get that dual threat quarterback that can run and throw, it just causes fits for the defense," says Schauffler.

Helping Marlia make the transition was some words of advice from Erickson, who put up prolific passing numbers last year (2,809 yards passing and 25 TDs) under former coach Harry Hedrick.

"With Scotty, he basically told me to just go out there and have fun and keep working hard every day and every week," says Marlia, whose older brother Jordan was also part of last year's squad. "Once you do that, everything on the field slows down."

That sage advice is beginning to pay off for Marlia, who is comfortable in his role and confident in his abilities — be it passing or running the football — thanks to the support given by his offensive linemen and wide receivers.

"I love playing quarterback because you get to touch the ball every play," says Marlia, whose dad Vince was quarterback of the 1979 Class A state champion St. Mary's team. "It's a position where you have a lot of pressure and everybody's counting on you to do a good job, and I'm willing to take that challenge."

He's also willing to take on the big boys when he scrambles, a sight that's not always the best when your quarterback isn't the biggest of athletes on the team.

"There's always concern, especially when it's your quarterback," says Schauffler of such collisions. "The last thing we want to do is get him hurt, but the thing about it is, with good athletes, they're shifty enough that they don't take a lot of real good licks."

Marlia has rushed for 165 yards and two scores on 39 attempts thus far, and isn't about to back down anytime soon. That said, he has been advised to get what he can and then slide in order to live to fight another day.

"I'm not the biggest guy out there, but I believe it doesn't matter about size or how big you are," he says. "I believe you've got to have a big heart to be out on the field to play and I have that. I just go out there and give 110 percent."

It's an underdog role Marlia happily slides into, as does the entire Eagle Point team that often finds itself in the shadows of SSC peers like Ashland and Crater when it comes to football.

"Out here at Eagle Point we know we've been out of the mix for a while," he says. "We kinda like being the underdog, we like being the sleeper. I think everybody kinda roots for the underdog."

If that's the case, then Marlia's ears must be ringing about now.

Still, he's not about to slow down until the job is complete.

"I'm feeling pretty good now," he says, "but I've still got a lot of work ahead. I'm going to keep my nose to the grindstone and keep working hard because I want to make the community proud and make my family proud."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com