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Fighting Scots' Tanney prefers leading by example

Barry McNamara
Alex Tanney delivers one of his 23 passes during the Fighting Scots' 42-17 victory over Ripon. He completed 15 passes for 318 yards and four TDs.
UPDATE: On Oct. 29, Alex Tanney surpassed the all-divisions NCAA record for touchdown passes, and he now stands alone at the top with 150. Entering the Bronze Turkey Game against Knox on Nov. 5, Tanney needs 325 yards to break the Division III passing yards record.

Whether on the football field or in the classroom, Monmouth College’s Alex Tanney is not a “talker.”

“I’m not real vocal,” said the senior quarterback. “To me, leadership is all about timing, saying certain things when they need to be said.”

Tanney said his off-season preparation is another way that he tries to lead.

One area where Tanney doesn’t lead is rushing statistics. On plays that end with him holding the ball in his hands, this year’s Fighting Scots are averaging three yards and a cloud of ground up tires – backwards. The statistics are much better when Tanney releases the pigskin. He has thrown 237 passes this season, completing 170 of them for 2,329 yards and 23 touchdowns.

“I don’t run the ball very often,” said Tanney, following a 53-47 victory over Lake Forest, when he threw for 405 yards and five scores. “I took off on a eight-yard run, and on film you can see that I was still looking to throw the ball even though I was five yards past the line of scrimmage.”

Running is for tailbacks and fullbacks, but passing is Tanney’s domain. Soon, in fact, the NCAA Division III records for career passing yards and TDs could both belong to him. With three regular season games remaining, the 2009 Melberger Award winner is on pace to eclipse the existing marks of 13,605 yards and 148 touchdowns. His current totals are 12,711 yards and 142 TDs. Tanney would need to average 298 passing yards and throw six TDs to equal those marks. Both figures are well within range of his season averages of 332.7 yards and 3.7 TDs per game.

The talented senior should also have some breathing room, as the Fighting Scots have the inside track on a Midwest Conference championship and an automatic NCAA playoff berth, which would mean at least one postseason game, too.

Tanney has already obliterated nearly all of Monmouth’s passing records, some of which were held by his older brother, 2004-05 Scots’ quarterback Mitch Tanney, who’s been known to chide Alex for his negative rushing yardage.

“My brother gives me a hard time about that,” said Alex of Mitch, who rushed for 163 yards and five TDs from the quarterback position as a senior during Monmouth’s 10-1 season in 2005. “It’s about the only thing he has left on me.”

Of course, Mitch can also point to a pro career as a quarterback in Europe and arena football. Alex has hopes of getting there, too, and his name is out there. In addition to his Melberger Award, he released a trick-shot passing video that has more than one million hits and was featured by national media including ESPN. Adding two major passing milestones to his résumé should also help.

“That was a great experience, and it was great publicity for the school, as well as me,” Tanney said of the video.

But there was a day last fall when records and pro prospects were the furthest thing from Tanney’s mind. In the Scots’ second game of the season, he suffered a Grade 3 AC separation of his throwing shoulder. The injury sidelined him for Monmouth’s final eight games.

“It’s definitely been an extra motivation for me to come back and have this kind of year,” he said. “Before, I kind of took it for granted. I’d never been injured. You start to wonder, ‘Are you ever going to be as good as you were?’”

The answer, it appears, is “Yes,” and Tanney has another fifth-year senior, plus a constantly improving offensive line and a talented coaching staff, to thank.

“I’ve been with Mike (Blodgett) for five years now,” he said of the team’s leading receiver, who also missed last season with an injury. “We’re best friends, and we’ve gone through the same process.”

In just seven games, Blodgett has 73 catches and 1,029 receiving yards, good for second in the nation in both categories.

“It really is symbiotic,” Tanney agreed, when asked about their on-field chemistry. “A lot of it is pre-snap eye contact. We’re seeing the same things.”

Tanney is similar to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in possessing a strong arm, but the exact opposite of Cutler in terms of how often he finds himself falling hard to the turf.

“I think I was only hit once or twice last Saturday,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with Coach (Steve) Bell and Coach (Dave) Ragone. They’re the best at what they do.”

Bell, the head coach and a former quarterback, coordinates the offense, while Ragone coaches the offensive line.

“Those guys are pretty young,” said Tanney of the five-man group that features just two seniors, James Allen and Matt Wright. “They’re getting some good experience now, and they also put in a lot of time during the summer.”

All the elements are working together to achieve a type of football yin-and-yang.

“Our no-huddle offense has definitely evolved over the past four or five years,” said Tanney, who actually ran a version of the no-huddle as a senior at Lexington (Ill.) High School, playing for his father, Monmouth College Hall of Famer Don Tanney. “We want the tempo to be as fast as possible.”

But while things are happening quickly all around him, Tanney’s experience allows time to go the opposite direction.

“One thing that Coach Bell talks about all the time is how the more you play, the more the game will slow down and you can see opportunities and openings,” said Tanney.

That experience dates all the way back to Tanney being a waterboy and ballboy for his father’s teams.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” he said. “Lexington football was everything. Everything I wore was purple.”

Tanney charted plays as an eighth grader and, even now, he enjoys calling plays for Monmouth’s JV team.

“I want to get into coaching, for sure,” said Tanney of his post-college plans, “especially last year after being on the sidelines and really seeing that aspect.”

Tanney worked a lot with his last-season replacement, freshman Brik Wedekind, and he enjoyed passing on advice.

“It was about how to handle situations, mostly football, but also some off-the-field stuff,” he said. “I’d definitely like to coach at the college level. A lot of it comes from my dad, and the guys that come back and talk to him about playing for him. I’ve also seen that coach-player relationship with the guys who come back to talk to Coach Bell.”

It’s not hard to picture the business major and economics minor wearing a headset and patrolling the sidelines in the future. That is, of course, after the possible all-time leading Division III passer tries his hand at a career between the sidelines. But pro coaches be warned – don’t count on Tanney to get a lot of first downs with his feet.