Atascadero head coach Vic Cooper admits he was torn when it came to choosing a starting quarterback last season.
After a three-way competition, the choice was narrowed down to two juniors coming into the season: Carson Rinkenberger, a polished, more traditional pocket passer who could manage a game, and Elijah Cooks, a 6-foot-4 athletic dynamo who was pretty raw.
“I’ll be honest, at times last year, I thought one of them was better than the other,” Cooper said.
The two ended up splitting time in 2015. But this season — as senior leaders — their roles are more defined, setting up the two to emerge as a powerful combination in the PAC 5 in 2016.
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“Since the beginning of the summer, it was like, ‘You are going to be the starting quarterback,’ ” Rinkenberger said at practice this week. “A lot more of the game will be on me this year, which I am excited for. More opportunities to show what I have.”
Cooks will still be a big part of the offense, both as a quarterback in rushing situations and as a pass-catching tight end, a position at which he is already turning heads of Division I scouts. Cooks, who grew to 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, said he received his first official offer from the University of Wyoming this summer.
“My height is a big factor,” Cooks said. “How big I am helps me out a lot because I can get around faster than most linebackers at the tight end spot.”
Cooks is quick to squash any talk of a rivalry with Rinkenberger.
“(Carson) has been like a brother to me, so I enjoy working with him,” Cooks said. “I love the way he throws the ball.”
Cooks figures to get the ball a lot more through the air this season after hauling in 13 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games last season.
“He can play inside, he can play outside, he can play QB, we can run him on reverses, we can do all kinds of things with him,” Cooper said of Cooks, who as a junior was also a star on the Greyhounds basketball team. “He’s got probably the best hands I have ever coached. He’s got naturally soft hands, and that probably comes from basketball.”
Cooks will be just one of the options for Atascadero in an offense that will shift from the power formations of 2015 to a spread attack in 2016.
Though Cooper said Atascadero will continue to be the run-first team fans are used to seeing, Rinkenberger — who threw for 911 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a game manager — will almost certainly see his numbers go up with more targets to throw to and a smaller offensive line more suited for pass blocking.
Senior wide receiver Lucas Sprouse, running back Tysen Delkener and new tight end Garrett Raminha add a dynamic to an offensive attack that relied on now-graduated running backs Marc Martin and R.J. Reusche to move the ball last year.
The main questions now?
Can a completely reconstructed offensive line give Rinkenberger time to throw, and can he handle the increased workload? Those questions will begin to be answered when Atascadero opens the season at home against Foothill on Aug. 26.
If the line can hold up and Rinkenberger can stay anywhere close to his 68 percent completion percentage of 2015, he and Cooks could be a deadly combination and have the Greyhounds in the mix for a PAC 5 title come October.