Derrick Lewis vividly remembers the first football game he coached at Jonathan Law — and not solely for the reasons one might think.
On paper, the 2014 season opener wasn’t much of a game. The final score — Harding 38, Law 10 — might’ve elicited a few oohs and aahs, but it wasn’t one that reverberated throughout Connecticut.
You see, the buzz that night was about the future. The future for not just Harding, but for the school’s freshman quarterback who seemed poised beyond his years.
“I knew what we were getting into that night,” Lewis said he remembers thinking. “I don’t think the kids knew what we were getting into. All the cards lined up for Harding that night.”
That night, a star was born.
Taisun Phommachanh, whose father, Sam, played quarterback at Harding from 1988-1990, dazzled spectators with his live arm, pinpoint accuracy and superb athleticism.
Displaying skills that would eventually earn him a ticket to big-time college football, Phommachanh lit up Law for 274 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-27 passing. The 38 points scored were the most by Harding in a game since 2008.
“We made a decision that we were going to cut him loose,” Harding coach Eddie Santiago said of Phommachanh, who on Saturday announced his commitment to ACC powerhouse Clemson. “Sure enough, the second half of that game he ripped it up. He really took over with his arm. He showed what type of kid he was going to be.”
Phommachanh proceeded to throw for 2,540 yards and 20 touchdowns that year, helping Harding match its win total from the previous three seasons combined (5-24). And as a sophomore, well, Phommachanh (2,315 yards, 30 touchdowns) was even better. So, too, were the Presidents, who in their first season as members of the Constitution State Conference went 10-0 and made the playoffs for the first time in 37 years.
“Here’s the thing with Taisun, Taisun’s the whole package,” former Harding offensive coordinator Steve Christy said. “He’s got the greatest talent in the world, and he’s really a great kid. When you combine those two things, you get a D-I top prospect.”
— Taisun P (@tydollaz3) April 14, 2018
Phommachanh, who wound up transferring to Avon Old Farms following his sophomore season and reclassifying to the Class of 2019, is indeed a Division-I prospect.
In fact, recruiting site 247 Sports lists the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Phommachanh as the nation’s top-ranked dual-threat quarterback and No. 88 prospect overall.
Phommachanh chose Clemson, a program just two years removed from winning the national championship, over offers from several other major college programs including Florida, Florida State, Penn State, LSU, Michigan and South Carolina.
“I’ve been dreaming of being able to play college ball since I was a kid, the day has finally arrived (where) I can commit to a school (where) I feel at home,” Phommachanh, 17, posted Saturday on Twitter from the Clemson Spring Game. “I believe Clemson University will elevate me Academically and athletically. With that being said, I am 100% committed to the Clemson University.”
MIRROR IMAGE OF DAD
Phommachanh’s meteoric rise certainly doesn’t surprise Santiago, who, while growing up in Bridgeport, swung by Hedges Field regularly to watch Sam play quarterback.
What amazed Santiago during those trips was how effortless Sam sometimes made the game look. Smart, poised and accurate with a quick release, Sam made all the throws in the face of pressure — traits Santiago now sees in Taisun.
“The way he released the ball and delivered the ball was a mirror image of Sam,” Santiago said. “One thing that stuck in my mind was how quick Sam got the ball out. Taisun was able to do the same.”
Taisun first showed those abilities at Harding, where he started 22 games over two seasons, including five when he was still only 13 years old. He’s continued to do so at Avon Old Farms, an all-boys boarding school located one hour north of his home in Stratford.
“He’s changed big time,” Sam said. “He’s grown as a man. He’s so independent now. It’s crazy, just to see the transformation from Harding — he was still a baby there. Having him go to that prep school, it was definitely big because you’ve got to learn to do everything yourself.”
Added Taisun: “Just being away from home, it’s helped me mature a lot.”
Phommachanh’s path is slightly similar to that of his mentor, former Bridgeport Central star Christon Gill, who played a postgraduate season at Avon Old Farms in 2010.
Coming out of high school, Gill received interest from multiple Division-I programs, including Penn State, but he landed at the FCS level after the Nittany Lions’ coaching staff was overhauled following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Rated by Rivals.com as a two-star prospect in the Class of 2010, Gill wound up at Western Carolina, where he made 283 tackles (17.5 for loss) over 39 games at linebacker. He was twice named an All-American.
“That’s my little bro,” Gill said of Phommachanh. “We stayed in the same household. He traveled with me everywhere. We’re not blood-related, but … he’s always been around since I was a youngin’. When I was going on trips to Penn State, he was going with me.
“Sam, he’s a father figure. I didn’t have a father growing up so he played that role.”
Knowing how stressful and unpredictable the recruiting process can be, Gill said he rarely talked football with Phommachanh before Saturday.
“I’ve been in that position. It can be overwhelming,” Gill said. “I just give him my experience. To me, outsiders will tell you anything. You’ve got to kind of live through it and understand the experience. I give him the jewels and leave it at that.”
— Christon Gill ™ (@C_G_7) April 14, 2018
Phommachanh’s first college offer came from UConn during his freshman year. But it wasn’t until last May that he received his second and third offers from Minnesota and Maryland, respectively.
Up until that point, Phommachanh felt as though he had been overlooked.
“It always seemed like they (many Division-I programs) looked down on me,” Phommachanh said.
Added Sam: “As a freshman and sophomore, you would see guys get offers because they were from Cali or down South or Texas. You would sit there and you’d wonder, ‘Oh, are they going to come and look here?”
It was after Phommachanh’s stellar junior season at Avon Old Farms, in which he passed for 2,402 yards, 26 touchdowns and just one interception and guided the Winged Beavers to the New England Class A title game, that schools from all around the country came calling. Among them was Clemson, which offered Phommachanh during his on-campus visit in March.
“We have national exposure here at multiple levels,” Avon Old Farms coach Pierce Brennan said. “I think being at a place that allowed him to get that kind of exposure, that goes a long way. I think there’s kids all over the country that are at schools that don’t get the kind of exposure that Avon does. He’s reaping those benefits.”
Phommachanh visited five other schools — Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Penn State and South Carolina — but it was Clemson that made a lasting impression on not only Phommachanh, but his entire family.
“Coach Dabo Swinney at Clemson, he was a big impact,” Sam said prior to his son’s commitment. “It’s a whole different environment when you go there because you see these guys, they play football and you would think that’s all they care about. But they’re the total opposite at Clemson. They preached a lot of family. You could literally see it with your own eyes.
“The coaches are bringing their kids to practices. It was great to see that because I know coaches can be tough.”
On Saturday, Phommachanh became the third highly touted quarterback to commit to Clemson in as many years, following five-star recruit Hunter Johnson of Brownsburg, Ind., from the Class of 2017 and top overall prospect Trevor Lawrence of Cartersville, Ga., from the Class of 2018.
An early enrollee, Lawrence figures to compete with returning starter Kelly Bryant, Johnson and redshirt freshman Chase Brice for the No. 1 job this season.
The Tigers’ recent track record of producing successful dual-threat quarterbacks — two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and current Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Bryant — appealed to Phommachanh, his father said.
“Yeah, that has something to do with it,” Sam said. “Obviously, they had Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant and even guys before them. They always kept the dual-threat.”
The Phommachanh File
- School: Avon Old Farms (Junior)
- Position: QB
- Height/Weight: 6-4, 205
Harding: 22 games, 60.2 completion percentage, 4,855 yards, 50 touchdowns, 17 interceptions; 602 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns
Avon Old Farms: 17 games, 63.1 completion percentage, 4,307 yards, 41 touchdowns, 8 interceptions; 917 rushing yards, 19 touchdowns
Did you know?
Besides football, Phommachanh plays guard on the basketball team and runs track. He drew interest from some college basketball programs early during his time at Avon Old Farms, but “we didn’t really entertain that part,” his father, Sam, said.
“When people look at Taisun, they just see Taisun the football player. He’s one of those real humble kids. He doesn’t say much. He’s one of those guys that really sticks to his family. He’s one of those guys that’s just laid back.” — Sam Phommanchanh