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Hills East has a rare gem in QB R.J. Nitti

Half Hollow Hills East quarterback R.J. Nitti throws

Half Hollow Hills East quarterback R.J. Nitti throws a pass during practice. (Sept. 19, 2012) Credit: James Escher

On a football field nestled nicely in the woods down the hill behind Half Hollow Hills East High School in Dix Hills, a secret is slowly being revealed. A big secret.

Big, as in 6-6, 225 pounds. Big as in strong arm, powerful legs. Big, as in huge numbers, like 471 yards passing last week, the fourth-highest total in Long Island history. Big, as in big-time college prospect. Well, a big maybe on that last point.

You see, Thunderbirds senior quarterback R.J. Nitti plays for a team that has won only four games since 2010 and plays on Long Island, where major-college quarterbacks are not exactly a major export.

"The problem is that he may be the best quarterback around," said Mike Patrovich, Hills East's second-year coach, "but we're not the best team around and he doesn't get the attention.

To which Nitti, whose brother John started at quarterback for Hills East and Cornell and whose father John starred at Chaminade and Yale before a brief stint with the Jets, says: No big deal.

"My focus right now is just on our season," Nitti said. "I don't want to think about college during the season. Of course, you think about it a little bit, but I want to concentrate on winning games. I've worked so hard in the offseason that if I just do that, everything else will take care of itself."

Ivy League schools Harvard, Cornell and Princeton have expressed strong interest, as has Delaware and other Division I-FCS schools. Boston College (Division I-FBS) has written several letters and West Virginia sent a representative to watch practice last week. "They already signed a quarterback," Patrovich said, "but the guy told me they heard about R.J. and that he seemed like an extraordinary kid for a Long Island football player as far as his size and ability goes."

That ability has grown along with Nitti's body. He has shown off his arm, with the 471 passing yards in a Week 2 loss to Ward Melville, and his legs, with four rushing touchdowns in a victory over Central Islip in Week 1.

"The most important part is to be more accurate with my passes," said Nitti, who became a starter midway through his sophomore year. "But I'm always working to improve the whole package."

That was quite evident last Friday night, when among his completions was a 97-yard touchdown pass to Devin McDonald in the first quarter. "Once Devin made that big play, the offense started clicking," Nitti said of the no-huddle spread. "Everything started to flow."

For the Thunderbirds, everything flows through Nitti. "You've got to build your program around one kid and we've built our program around R.J. Nitti," Patrovich said.

Nitti deflected and shared credit for his magnificent performance last week. "The goal was to win, and unfortunately we came up short," he said. "The line did a great job and the receivers went up and made plays. And of course Coach Patrovich made great calls all game long. He's the offensive genius."

Nitti carries himself with a quiet confidence but without a swagger. Patrovich has to supply the rave reviews. "You'd call him a typical pocket-passer with a tremendous arm, but he's dangerous as a runner because he's big and physical and he's not easy to bring down," Patrovich said. "The biggest change since his sophomore year has been the improvements in his technique, footwork and decision-making. He's become a smarter football player and that's the most important thing when you've got all the talent in the world."

Nitti began his high school career on the freshman team at St. Anthony's, a school with a much higher profile and a winning pedigree that would've undoubtedly helped attract more attention from potential recruiters. However, the Friars weren't a good fit for Nitti, partially because he didn't think the triple-option suited his offensive skill set, but mostly because he missed his friends.

"The main thing was I wanted to be back with the kids I grew up with," Nitti said. "It's a different feeling to fight to win with guys you've known your whole life. It's more of a brotherhood here. There's no other team I'd rather be on."

That will change next year, of course. "He's got to make a tough decision," Patrovich said. "Does he want to go to a big-time academic school like the Ivies or does he want to go to a big-time football school? If there's going to be a big-time quarterback on Long Island that's going to a major Division I school, just because of his size and his skills, he could be the guy."

If that happens, the secret would be out on R.J. Nitti.

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