SANTA MARIA — It’s been a couple of years since Gunnar Jespersen got in the face of Kris Dutra, saying he was coming to play for the Allan Hancock College football coach whether Dutra liked it or not.
The truth is that the Santa Maria junior college was a lot nearer to the former Atascadero High star’s hometown than it was to his heart, but because it was either this or the working world, Jespersen was putting his soul into it.
It’s not that Dutra was in a state of dislike, either.
He probably wasn’t too keen on the idea of a 5-foot-8, 180-pound quarterback, but, honestly, Dutra didn’t know anything about him. Because Jespersen didn’t get any recruiting letters or phone calls his senior year, it’s safe to assume few college coaches knew anything about the former all-San Luis Obispo County first-team quarterback.
“The guy told me he was going to leave his mark on the program,” Dutra said. “He said, ‘You don’t know much about me, but you will.’ ”
The redshirt sophomore hasn’t grown much, if at all, since that day, but his declaration has proven true.
Today he leads the Bulldogs (9-1) — enjoying their best season in a decade — into the state playoffs with his football-playing future and those of his teammates hanging just as heavily in the balance as any title hopes.
Dutra said Jespersen is as good as any quarterback he’s coached, a list that includes former Cal Poly star Jonathan Dally, who had an impressive record-breaking two-year run at Cal Poly after transferring from Hancock in 2007.
There still isn’t much of a market for a short college quarterback, but if Hancock can make some sort of run in the 10-team playoff, which starts for the Bulldogs today in the Golden Empire Bowl against Bakersfield College (9-1), the thinking is Jespersen can attract some suitors.
“That’s where the playoffs are going to be huge for me,” Jespersen said. “If we can dig deep into the playoffs, then I think it’ll turn some heads finally. I really have high hopes and big dreams, and I really hope they don’t fall through.”
And it’s not just Jespersen.
Offensive lineman Riley Gauld, a unanimous selection on the All-Northern Conference first team, already has offers from San Diego State and Nevada and is waiting to hear back from schools such as Tennessee and South Carolina, Dutra said.
Center Tyler Vogt, receiver Marquelo Suel and former Nipomo High standout punter Mike Trujillo, all unanimous all-conference first-team selections, are playing the waiting game and could use all the exposure they can get.
It won’t come easy against Bakersfield, the only team to beat Hancock this season. The Bulldogs had to erase a three-touchdown, second-half deficit against the Renegades and ended up losing 31-24 after a controversial call took a Hancock touchdown off the board in the final 30 seconds.
“That put a little tingle in us when that happened,” said Bulldogs linebacker Brennan Locker, another all-conference first-team pick, “but it just adds motivation for us to want to be a great team.”
Jesperson rolled out and threw incomplete in the end zone on fourth down from inside the Bakersfield 5-yard line to essentially end the game. That play is probably one reason he was passed over for conference player of the year in favor of Renegades quarterback Logan Kilgore.
Jespersen was still an all-conference first-team selection. He’s passed for 1,644 yards and 16 touchdowns while throwing just three interceptions this season. He’s also rushed for 283 yards and three more scores, and though those totals won’t rank him very high, his 162.80 pass rating is third in the state.
If you ask Dutra what makes his offense tick, it’s not the offensive line that paves the way for its state-leading running game or the former St. Joseph High running back tandem of Ryan Anglin and Thomas Sua.
“It’s Jespersen,” Dutra said. “That guy makes the whole thing go, and I don’t think anybody on the team would dispute that at all. He is really good at getting the best out of the guys that are around him.”
That wasn’t always the sentiment. Teammates were just as skeptical as coaches when Jespersen set foot on campus despite Jespersen passing for 1,488 yards, 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions while leading Atascadero to its first league title since 2006.
“I’m like, ‘Aw, man, can he throw the ball? Is he going to be able to see over the line? What is he going to do?’ ” said first-team all-conference linebacker Isiah Anderson, who’s since become Jespersen’s roommate.
Now, Locker and Anderson, the two linebackers most pivotal in the success of Hancock’s 3-3-5 stack defense, are believers. Anderson said he’ll continue underestimating short quarterbacks but only because he knows his is one in a thousand.
“It’s a show watching that guy,” Locker said. “He’s not an average quarterback. He makes things happen.
“I don’t know anybody else that watches film as much as that guy. Every time I go over to his house, he’s always watching something, some sort of film. He’s just a really good studier.”
He has to be. In spite of Jespersen’s success, there really is something to that lack of height.
With a line that averages about 5 or 6 inches taller than he is, Jespersen can’t just look over them and see the field.
So he’s developed a close relationship and a sense of timing with Suel, a 6-4 receiver who has about 45 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. It’s to the point where Jespersen doesn’t have to see Suel to know where he is.
And his familiarity with the film helps him predict what he’ll see from the defense before it happens.
Not being blessed with the height of his 6-6 older brother Christjan, also a former Atascadero and Hancock standout, Gunnar has become renowned for his guts, his ingenuity and a natural athleticism that shines above his smaller frame.
He would have liked some extra height, but it’s just as sweet succeeding as the pugnacious underdog.
“If I was 6-6, you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now because I wouldn’t be at Hancock,” Jespersen said. “My whole life would be a different play, but everything happens for a reason. I’m happy where I’m at, you know? I’m living the good life.”