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Leading the Pack : Hawthorne’s Curtis Conway Rated ‘World’s Fastest Quarterback’

Times Staff Writer

Like a finely tuned sports car or a thoroughbred race horse, Curtis Conway fits the built-for-speed mold. And, as every football scout knows, speed sells.

The senior quarterback for Hawthorne High School spent most of last season impressing scouts by running circles around the opposition. When the dust settled, two games into the CIF-Southern Section playoffs, Conway had accounted for a staggering 39 of the Cougars’ 42 touchdowns.

Those numbers eventually made their way to Allen Wallace, co-publisher and editor of Super Prep magazine in Costa Mesa.

“That stat really got me,” he said.

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When Wallace also learned that Conway runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and was second in the 100 meters at the state track meet, it didn’t take much convincing from college recruiters for Wallace to reach his conclusion: Super Prep rated Conway the top quarterback prospect in the nation in its preseason issue.

Explaining the rating, Wallace said: “It was based on the fact that Conway seems to be the world’s fastest quarterback.”

That’s a strong endorsement, but nobody argues the point. Dick Lascola, who has been scouting preps for 13 years, shares a similar view.

“He’s probably the fastest (quarterback) I’ve ever seen,” he said. “If he stays healthy and does well in the classroom, he will be able to pick and choose what college he wants to go to. I think he’s one of the better players not only in Southern California but in the nation.”

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Conway has proof that colleges feel the same way. It lies in a large bag at his grandmother’s house. The bag is nearly filled with recruiting letters.

“It’s like a big ol’ trash bag,” he said.

That’s not to say Conway considers the letters garbage, but he admits that the attention can become distracting. Scouting services and football publications have included him on virtually every preseason All-American list, a good sign that he will be among the nation’s most sought-after players.

Conway, however, is taking nothing for granted. The 6-2, 180-pounder believes he must prove himself this season, which gets under way at 7:30 Saturday night when Hawthorne travels to face Hueneme High in Oxnard. The Cougars are No. 3 in the CIF Division II preseason rankings, an honor largely based on Conway’s return.

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“Everybody is giving me a lot of publicity,” he said. “It’s nice and all, but sometimes it’s too much.

“I hope to live up to it. I don’t want to have a great junior year and a down senior year. I want to have at least an equal season to last year.”

Conway’s junior season was equal to a dazzling career for most players. He rushed for 834 yards and 21 touchdowns and passed for 1,517 yards and 18 TDs, leading Hawthorne to a 9-2-1 record, the Ocean League tri-championship and the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference playoffs. He was named South Bay Back of the Year by The Times and was one of three underclassmen selected to the all-Southern Conference squad.

El Toro Coach Bob Johnson, whose team defeated Hawthorne, 26-20, in the playoffs on its way to a second straight CIF title, has vivid memories of Conway, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in the game.

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“He scares you to death,” said Johnson, a former quarterback at Redondo High and El Camino College. “He can break it open at any time. He’s as good as I’ve seen in that way. He just runs around and beats you. It’s not that he can’t throw, but the real way he beats you is with his scrambling. Trying to contain him is tough. One time he made six or seven of our guys miss him.”

Lascola says Conway reminds him of Johnson’s son Bret, a UCLA freshman who was a prep all-American at El Toro. Johnson agrees that both quarterbacks are elusive, but he says their strengths are in different areas.

“Bret is a passer first and a runner second,” he said. “Conway is a runner first and a passer second.”

Johnson’s opinion is shared by a number of other coaches and scouts. That is why Conway’s name frequently shows up in publications under the heading of “athlete/quarterback” or “utility back.” Some observers believe he would be more effective playing a position other than quarterback in college.

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Lascola, head of the Fallbrook-based Scouting Evaluation Assn., isn’t one of them.

“I think he’s a strong quarterback,” he said. “He would make a great quarterback at an option-type school or in a sprint-out attack. I think he would be awesome. He gives a team two dimensions: He can run and pass.

“I don’t think he’d fit in at a drop-back quarterback school. That’s not to say he couldn’t, but I think he’d be better off at an option school.”

Conway’s opportunities in athletics appear limitless. Aside from being an accomplished quarterback, he has also played wide receiver, running back and defensive back at Hawthorne, all with distinction. In addition, he is among the nation’s top sprinters. He took second in the 100 meters (10.85 seconds), third in the 200 (21.3) and ran a 46.5 leg on the winning 1,600 relay team to help Hawthorne capture its second consecutive state track title in June.

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Said Wallace: “With that kind of speed, even if he matriculates to another position, I’m satisfied that given the right opportunity in the right football program he will give a (college) team a lot of options.”

Conway is keeping his options open. He favors quarterback, but he does not rule out the possibility of playing another position in college, particularly wide receiver. And he would like to continue running track. Schools at the top of his shopping list include USC, UCLA, Arizona State, Miami, Florida and San Diego State.

“I would like to play quarterback, but I want to go in my freshman year and get some playing time,” he said. “If I have a better chance of playing wide receiver, I’ll play receiver. There won’t be a big argument about it.”

Hawthorne Coach Goy Casillas plans to use Conway primarily at quarterback and defensive back. He hesitates to play his star on defense, but Conway has been insistent about going both ways this season. The Cougars could use him. They graduated all of their starting defensive backs.

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“I really want to do it,” Conway said. “You can lay out better hits on defense. I just love the game. I don’t like to be on the sidelines. Coach says I might get hurt, but I’m not thinking about that. If it happens, it happens. I can’t worry about it.”

Conway demonstrated his dedication for football this summer. Although he worked as a file clerk in a downtown law office, he was one of a handful of Hawthorne players who did not miss a passing-league game. Casillas, starting his second year as head coach, says Conway looks better than ever.

“The first couple of passing-league games at El Camino, he was raw,” he said. “Then he really started coming along. The last couple of weeks he was something else.”

That’s bad news for opponents, most of whom have come out on the short end in battles with Conway. In three years as a starting quarterback at Hawthorne--two on the varsity and one on the freshman squad--Conway’s teams have an overall record of 26-6-2.

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Little wonder Casillas wants to keep the same basic formula.

“You can’t mess with success,” he said. “We want to be as versatile as possible on offense, using as many types of plays to take advantage of all of (Conway’s) talents.”

That will include running more sprint-out plays and allowing Conway more opportunities to audibilize at the line of scrimmage, Casillas said.

Much has been written and said about Conway’s speed and quickness (“He runs like a dog through the defense,” Casillas says), which might lead some to believe he is lacking as a passer. Lascola says nothing could be further from the truth.

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“He can throw the ball, he has a good arm,” he said. “He has a lot of football savvy. He knows how to field the rush, he knows how to take a hit, when to throw the ball out of bounds, when to scramble. I feel he has the strength and toughness to play quarterback at the university level.”

Some scouts have labeled Conway an option quarterback based on his speed. Conway, however, can’t understand why, since Hawthorne runs a multiple offense.

“I don’t think I’m an option quarterback,” he said. “I’m more of a roll-out quarterback. Most of my running (yardage) comes from scrambling.”

Regardless, Conway is frequently listed as one of the nation’s top option quarterbacks and draws comparisons with Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, the former Banning High star who, like Conway, played Pop Warner football in Inglewood. Perhaps because of the comparison, Conway has been mentioned as a possible recruit for Oklahoma or Nebraska, well-known option schools.

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Of course, all of this could become a moot point if Conway fails to meet NCAA academic requirements. He has yet to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and his grade-point average needs improvement.

“Curtis isn’t going to be a brain surgeon,” Casillas said, “but he is capable of improving his grades.”

Conway is not worried. He says he takes schoolwork more seriously now and plans to study harder. With that in mind, it is somewhat ironic that football and recruiting figure to be two of his biggest distractions this fall.

Then again, nobody said living in the fast lane would be easy.

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