AJ Bianco seems so familiar.
Tall, strong and composed in the pocket. Able to lead through adversity. Self-motivated. Self-analyzing. Always getting better.
The Saint Louis quarterback is featured in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior is starting this fall for the first time, and four games in, his coaches and former coaches-turned-analysts have observed a consistent growth by the two-sport standout.
Perhaps one of the most comparable of quarterbacks past is Jordan Helle, who led Baldwin during its dynasty in the MIL during the mid-2000s. Like Bianco, Helle was a tall pocket passer who prospered in the run-and-shoot offense. His offensive coordinator during freshman and sophomore years was Pohai Lee, nephew of Saint Louis coaches Ron and Cal Lee.
Helle has coached over the years and is currently a broadcast analyst, and even has a podcast with Kanoa Leahey, another Maui resident. He has seen Saint Louis plenty this season.
“AJ has steadily progressed throughout the season. He has all of the talent and tools to be elite, and to succeed in college once he gets there. I think we’ve seen some of the inconsistencies that come with not just being a first-year starter, but also a guy who missed out on a full season. Which isn’t unique to him, but I think we’ll see that with a lot of guys, especially quarterbacks,” Helle said.
“Even with all the seven-on-seven, Pylon and even padded scrimmages these guys have been playing through the absence of high school games, there is no replacement for live-game reps.”
Bianco’s timing and rhythm with his offensive line and skill-position playmakers was at its best in last week’s 27-21 win over Punahou.
“The run and shoot at Saint Louis is a rhythm and timing offense with a lot of processing pre-snap. You can see him getting more comfortable with what he’s seeing. Starting to trust what he’s processing. It will allow him to play faster, be more decisive. We’ve seen him miss high when he misses, and I think that’s in large part to him just be a split-second late on some decisions, feet aren’t quite right, arm lags behind the body and things sail. It’s all connected,” Helle noted.
“To me, that all gets worked out with game reps. No doubt he will continue to get better, quicker and even more accurate.”
The comparison of Bianco, who is originally from Maui, with Helle is apt. But Helle sees another fitting comparison.
“He reminds me a little of a young Andrew Manley (of Leilehua). Both guys have big arms and are physically imposing. Maybe they aren’t quite Chevan (Cordeiro) or McKenzie (Milton) in terms of running, but AJ, like Andrew, is more than capable of hurting you with his legs,” Helle said.
Manley was a 6-3, 215-pound slinger who was clutch from the start. He was promoted from the Mules JV team to the varsity squad late in the regular season and sparked them to an unbeaten run through the playoffs, winning the 2007 state championship.
“His first year or so as a starter in high school, Andrew was just scratching the surface. I think we’re seeing something similar with AJ. He’s already a terrific high school quarterback, but his potential is really high,” Helle added.
Manley went on to play at New Mexico State and Eastern Illinois.
The connection and run-and-shoot coaching tree from Ron Lee to Pohai Lee and Baldwin gives the comparison of Bianco and Helle some voltage. At Saint Louis, each receiver is responsible for making a read of the defense and adjusting his route.
“We had some routes when receivers could make reads based on coverage both pre- and post-snap,” Helle said. “(Coach Pohai Lee) had some wrinkles, too. Things have definitely evolved over the last 15, 20 years, but coach Po, back then, ran the ball a decent amount, especially designed quarterback runs. Definitely not with me.”
No. 2 Saint Louis meets No. 1 Kamehameha on Friday night at Aloha Stadium. The winner will earn top seeding and a first-round bye in the ILH Open Division playoffs.