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One of the intriguing story lines heading into last year’s prep football season was the quarterback duel between Casa Grande’s JaJuan Lawson and Cardinal Newman’s Keaton Dunsford, two highly-accomplished returning starters.

They didn’t disappoint. Lawson wound up as The Press Democrat’s Redwood Empire Large School Player of the Year, and Dunsford was our first-team All-Empire quarterback. Now both are gone — Lawson to New Mexico, Dunsford to Phillips Exeter Academy, and presumably from there to Princeton University. Also gone is last year’s second-team All-Empire quarterback, Windsor’s Colin McAlvain, who will study (but not play football) at San Diego State.

Those three graduations, and a couple of others, have left the North Bay League on tricky footing. As practices officially begin Monday for the 2014 season, the most important position on the field is a series of question marks in the NBL.

“Last year’s class was special, but the NBL in general will always have talent,” Windsor coach Vic Amick said. “There are a lot of good young QBs now, and the coaches in this Empire will have their guys ready to play by Game 1, and if not then definitely by league. . . . There will be no lack of good QB play this year.”

But how long will it take the new guys to adjust?

Cardinal Newman is going with a sophomore, Jordan Brookshire — just the second soph quarterback to start for coach Paul Cronin with the Cardinals. So is Ukiah, whose coaching staff will put the ball in the hands of Brett Hoffstetter after its most likely starter, junior Gabe Knight, decided to concentrate on basketball. Walker Rotherham will get the call at Maria Carrillo, and fellow senior Jalen Roman, who played wide receiver last year, gets a crack at Windsor.

Trent Herzog, coach of defending league champion Casa Grande, isn’t sure of his starter yet; senior Brent Eger and junior JJ Anderson are still competing for the job. At Santa Rosa, senior Harvey McPeters and sophomore Cassius Banks may share snaps this season.

These are not household names, even to the most ardent of local prep sports fans. Clearly, a changing of the guard — or of the guy who stands behind and midway between the guards — is underway in the NBL.

Only two schools have returning starters at quarterback. R.J. Flores is back for his senior season at Montgomery, and Gunner Mefferd returns to Rancho Cotate as a junior. Even those two are under some scrutiny, though.

Flores was thrust into the job last year when initial starter Elijah Hicks got hurt, and helped lead the improved Vikings into the North Coast Section playoffs. But Flores has lost some key teammates, including workhorse running back Logan Francavilla and virtually his entire receiving staff.

Mefferd was occasionally sensational for Rancho as a sophomore, but he threw 14 interceptions over the course of the season, a number he will have to shrink if the Cougars are to bounce back from a so-so campaign.

“He threw some interceptions at some untimely times,” Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy said of Mefferd. “He struggled a bit, but we hung in there with him. Some of the kids probably felt we should make a change — and some parents, too. But we felt we had to live with it.”

By the final whistle, Mefferd had set a school single-season record with 23 touchdown passes. Conroy can’t wait to see what he does after participating in a passing league with the Rancho coaches over the summer, and getting extra work with former Santa Rosa JC coach Keith Simons.

“His fundamentals are a thousand percent better than last year,” Conroy said. “I remember watching the last 7-on-7 drill this summer, and his understanding of making the check calls, and getting the ball out on time — he might be the best-throwing quarterback I’ve ever had, and he hasn’t even started his junior year.”

The rest of the league’s passers may be works in progress, but there is talent to build on. Several opposing coaches are impressed by what they’ve seen of Brookshire, who led the Cardinal Newman JV team to a 10-0 record last year. He’s an athletic kid who also plays basketball, runs sprints and triple jumps for the Cardinals, and it didn’t take Cronin long to spot his starter.

“He’s just physically better,” the coach said. “I don’t know if he just maturated sooner. I don’t know what it is. But I saw him as a freshman coming in. He’s 6-1, about 195 pounds and he runs a 4.5 40. You would have thought he was a college freshman coming in.”

At Casa Grande, four quarterbacks were sharing reps during spring camps. Finally, Herzog and his staff narrowed it down to Eger, who backed up Lawson last year, and Anderson, who was the Gauchos’ JV starter. They have been splitting first-team repetitions in 7-on-7 drills.

“It’s daily competition,” Herzog said. “They’re really pushing each other. We’re probably not gonna decide until at least after our scrimmage with Piner (on Aug. 22). We probably won’t know the starter until the week we play Analy (on Aug. 29), or even into that week. We might play both of ’em that game. If one kid is doing better in a certain scheme, we might need to use him for that.”

Whoever wins the job will have big shoes to fill. It isn’t just Lawson’s ghost that haunts the Casa practices. Before Lawson was Nick Sherry, an All-Empire pick who is now at UNLV. And before him was Matt O’Brien, a proven winner who started for 2½ years, and before him was Chris Forni, who went on to San Diego State. It has been a solid decade of first-rate quarterbacking for the Gauchos.

The key for this year’s Casa Grande starter, and for the whole crop of new NBL quarterbacks, is to forget about what came before and focus on their own strengths. They may end up displaying plenty of them.

As Ukiah coach Jeff Burrell said: “There’s no Dunsford or McAlvain or Lawson this year, but these kids will make their mark, I’ll tell you that.”