The junior quarterback steps in to replace top recruit who is at Georgia.

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LAKE STEVENS — Conor Bardue doesn’t say much. His aw-shucks demeanor fits how competitors view Lake Stevens High this football season.

The past three years were electric. Quarterback Jacob Eason, now a freshman at the University of Georgia, was a top recruit in the nation as he led LSHS to three consecutive WesCo 4A league championships. Toeing every NCAA recruiting guideline, the stream of coaches to the town of about 30,000 felt like a parade.

“Once winter break was over, it turned pretty quiet,” said Vikings coach Tom Tri as Eason departed in December 2015 to enroll at Georgia.

WesCo 4A teams to watch

Lake Stevens: Insists a third straight conference title is doable despite losing stars like quarterback Jacob Eason.

Glacier Peak: WesCo 3A champions make debut in league with 33 returning seniors and first-year coach Nick Bender.

Mariner: No surprise: Roster packed with talent advanced to postseason but needs consistency to rise to top of conference.

Monroe: Averaged 38.5 points per game last season and returns enough all-league talent to clinch conference title.

Kamiak: Expectations are low with youthful roster, which is why Knights could cause problems as a sleeper.

Jayda Evans

In the thaw is Bardue. At 6 feet and 185 pounds, the junior quarterback isn’t imposing.

But unlike many would think, he’s ready for this moment to replace Eason under center. Perhaps not in the sense of matching Eason’s success, although Tri will still run a pass-option offense.

“I’ve just always known I’m going to follow him,” Bardue said. Tri may also use Tre’ Long in the position.

Bardue’s grooming began as a ball boy, coaches constantly stating the benefits of being Eason’s backup. As a freshman, Bardue started taking notes as he watched Eason play in games. At practice, Bardue studied how the 6-5, 235-pound quarterback paid attention to fundamentals, tried to mimic Eason’s mechanics and watched how his mentor led the team despite also being a quiet guy.

As a sophomore, Bardue took 30 percent of the snaps at practice and in games. He completed 11 of 16 passes for 140 yards and one touchdown.

There were even head-to-head competitions between the quarterbacks. A favorite was setting a bucket 30 yards away to see who could throw in the most footballs.

“He has a better arm,” Bardue deadpanned.

What Bardue learned in the shadows of Eason will be on display Friday. Lake Stevens plays at Stanwood in the first of two nonleague games.

“We started off a little shaky, but Conor is starting to trust himself more and getting more confident,” said Hunter Eckstrom, a 6-foot senior wide receiver and cornerback. “We played seven-on-seven this summer, and all these teams wanted to play us because we didn’t have Jacob. We went in silent and then dominated. That’s the type of team we are this year.”

Five players to watch

Zach Zimmerman

QB, 6-2, 185, Sr., Monroe

Outlook: Should draw interest from Division I colleges after passing for 1,546 yards and 15 touchdowns last year.

Isaiah Cole

WR/CB, 5-8, 177 Jr., Monroe

Outlook: Playmaker was a first-team All-Wesco kick returner last season and scored five touchdowns as a receiver.

Hunter Eckstrom

WR/CB, 6-0, 185, Sr., Lake Stevens

Outlook: All-leaguer improved leadership skills and strength after amassing 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

Anthany Smith

FS/RB, 5-11, 195, Sr., Mariner

Outlook: One of the league’s top defenders, could also be a key piece offensively as team vies for WesCo title.

Ayden Ziomas

QB, 5-10, 150, So., Glacier Peak

Outlook: Budding star completed 66 of 95 passes for 1,112 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against 3A schools.

The Vikings open WesCo 4A conference play against Mariner on Sept. 16. Offseason reclassifications moved Glacier Peak up to 4A this season. The Grizzlies won the WesCo 3A title last year. In addition to Lake Stevens, Glacier Peak will have to contend with a loaded Monroe team if it wants to rattle the hierarchy in the upper division.

“I feel like teams are going to be gunning for us because they want payback. I mean, we put hammers on people the last few years,” said Tri, whose team outscored its opponents 625-170 last year. The Vikings made the state semifinals last year.

“We’re going to have to find a way to go through some of those growing pains,” he continued. “But I like to hide in shadows. Feel you can come on in here and beat the hell out of us. … Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”