Football at the collegiate level did not start out easy for senior quarterback Ja’Quill Burch.
It all started in 2015 when Burch was in his senior year playing for Elizabeth High School. In the first game that season, the Minutemen came out to a dominant 40-23 victory as Burch had 195 passing yards and three touchdowns.
But then, tragedy struck for Burch in the form of an injury. In the next game against Hunterdon Central Regional High School, his high school career came to an end. However, in the search for a college to play football for, one school was still calling his name even with the injury.
“I broke my foot in my second game of my senior year,” Burch said. “But later into the year, Montclair State still [recruited me]. In the end, I felt wanted.”
At Montclair State, Burch did not get down on himself or give up on the opportunity. He used it as motivation for better days — as a drive to make sure he gets back out on the field and plays quarterback again.
“[The injury] made me love the game more,” Burch said. “It made me work harder and appreciate the game more.”
Burch is currently in his fifth year with the Red Hawks due to updated NCAA eligibility rules from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. So, if there was any question of his love for the game after that injury, consider the fact that he has been here beyond the average four years.
In his sophomore year, Burch earned the starting role over longtime starter John Apicella. He started in all 10 games of the season, and in his first career start against Salve Regina University, he made it clear he was ready for the job.
With 171 yards passing and two touchdowns, he capped off his first collegiate football game and only got better from there, with 247 yards and two touchdowns in his next game followed by 191 yards and three touchdowns a few games later. And in a win against Rowan University, Burch was 22 of 41 for 240 yards. And yes, four touchdowns in the game.
Let’s not forget the multiple honors he has received from the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC): Second-Team All NJAC honors both in 2018 and 2019 and First-Team All-NJAC in the shortened spring 2021 season (due to COVID-19), where he also lead the Red Hawks to the NJAC North Championship. Burch has been a force not only in respect to Montclair State but also in the whole conference.
Mike Ramos, senior defensive back and honorary captain for Montclair State, has been there for all of Burch’s offensive highlights in his career. Ramos believes when Burch plays, he is more than just a player on the team.
“I love how Burch is a field general and runs the offense,” Ramos said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder and he is great with battling through adversity. Burch is like an extended coach on the field.”
For anyone who has watched Burch light it up on Sprague Field or out on the road for the Red Hawks, you would think a majority of the offensive success could be contributed to his accuracy and his playmaking. Burch thinks much differently because to him, it’s all about the many components of an offense in football.
“I think it’s a combination of our offensive line and our skilled [receivers and running backs],” Burch said. “When those two things come together — when those two groups start to click — that’s when we really start to take off as a unit.”
Escaping the pocket and scrambling to give yourself time to find an open man downfield is crucial in today’s game, as we have seen with professional players like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and new stars like Jalen Hurts who are making this a part of their game. Burch also utilizes this playstyle, having five rushing touchdowns in his career and closing in on 50 rushing yards this year.
But even with the way things are looking in today’s playstyle of football, Burch is not a believer in quarterbacks moving out of the pocket and looking to run around the line of scrimmage. He is all about how the game of football was originally meant to be played.
“[No], I don’t think mobile quarterbacks are the future,” Burch said. “Pocket passers will last forever. Mobile passers don’t have longevity; they won’t last that long.”
The coaches on the team are extremely proud of what Burch has done in his five years as quarterback. Mike Palazzo, recruiting coordinator and special teams coordinator, preaches the story of where Burch started and where is he now, making sure to include the adversities he’s faced and how it’s paid off in the end.
“Burch is a perfect example of what a Red Hawk should be: a leader,” Palazzo said. “When I talk to my receivers, I would say, ‘Hey, would [Burch] do that?’ If a kid is screwing around or doing this and that, I’ll tell him, ‘Would [Burch] do that?’ He has never missed a practice, he is never late, he fights through injury, he is always dialed in and he leads by example.”
One of the players who has learned a lot from Burch is Eric Cowan, a sophomore tight end for the Red Hawks. Already in his second season with the team — the fall 2021 season being his first normal one — he has already developed that on-field connection with Burch.
“Burch has been very inspiring to me throughout my entire time here,” Cowan said. “Since day one, he has always been like a big brother to me. [In regards to] just always motivating me to keep working hard and improving as a player and a person.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Steve Sciarappa is also in his fifth season with the Red Hawks alongside Burch, seeing him develop his game from the beginning.
“I love his competitive nature,” Sciarappa said. “He wants to win at everything, and one of the funny things about [Burch] is that he is never shy to tell an official when to make a call or set the game clock. He wants to command everything on the field, and I really look forward to seeing him mature these last few weeks as a player.”
So far this season, Montclair State has been underwhelming. They are currently sitting at a 1-6 record, winless in the conference and currently on a three-game losing streak heading into the end of the season. Burch himself is not having a great season either, with only three touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, he isn’t dwelling on the Red Hawks’ disappointing season.
Burch makes it clear that the past is in the past, and all you can do is look ahead.
“We just have to get ready for the next game. That’s all we can do,” Burch said. “We get the opportunity to play again, even with a 1-6 [record], so we’re gonna get ready to play Rowan and hopefully take care of them.”
The Rowan matchup will be this Saturday at home, in addition to the program’s annual senior night. After this game and his final season, Burch wants to get his master’s degree in the spring. But currently, he is only focused on one thing: winning his final game at Sprague Field.
“Getting my master’s is more into the future, but my future now is Rowan next week,” Burch said.