Kieran McDonagh, second from right, kneels on the sideline with other quarterbacks during practice at Portland State University on Wednesday. McDonagh is vying with senior Collin Ramirez (7) and freshman Paris Penn, not pictured, for the starting job.
See an excerpt of an interview with Kieran McDonagh at Sports Editor Micah Rice's blog Tailgate Talk: College Football from a Clark County perspective.
PORTLAND — Hip-hop music echoed off the buildings surrounding Portland State's football practice field.
Occasionally, a coach's whistle pierced the baseline's din. Staccato clapping from players added a layer to the steady drumbeat.
As the sun set behind the West Hills during the twilight of a recent Vikings practice, quarterback Kieran McDonagh got his message across without cranking up the volume.
After leading his unit in a game simulation, the sophomore went player to player. With a fist-bump here, an instructional hand motion there, McDonagh — a Skyview High grad — showed how leadership can take on a calm, subtle identity.
"In the end, what people respect is the work he puts in and being a playmaker," Vikings coach Nigel Burton said. "If you can do those, it doesn't matter whether you're a rah-rah guy or a guy who's pretty quiet."
McDonagh made plenty of noise around the Big Sky Conference as a true freshman. Winning the starting job in fall practice, he oversaw an offense that averaged 438.7 yards and 34.8 points per game. In starting all 11 games, McDonagh threw for 2,187 yards and 14 touchdowns. He ran for 406 yards and nine touchdowns in the Vikings' pistol offense.
But McDonagh also had 13 interceptions as the Vikings stumbled to a 3-8 record. McDonagh, senior Collin Ramirez and redshirt freshman Paris Penn are vying to start the season opener Aug. 29 against Eastern Oregon.
"Those statistics are great and all, but what we really want to do is win games," McDonagh said.
His senior year at Skyview, McDonagh threw for 2,637 yards and 24 touchdowns while leading the Storm to the Class 4A state title game. He was named second team All-State.
At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, McDonagh was scouted as a linebacker by most college coaches who recruited him. But Portland State offensive coordinator Bruce Barnum saw him as a dual-threat -- a strong-armed passer and physical runner who could flourish in the pistol, where the quarterback starts each play about four yards behind the center (think of it as an abbreviated version of the shotgun formation).
This season, McDonagh says he feels more comfortable in his role. He expects to show more versatility.
"There are still some things we haven't pulled out of the closet," Burton said.
With a linebacker's body, McDonagh proved himself a tough rusher to tackle. But he plans on expanding his passing prowess in pursuit of Portland State's self-proclaimed goal of averaging 40 points per game this season. The Vikings averaged 35 points per game last season.
"This year I'll probably throw the ball a bit more," McDonagh said. "Last year I could have completed more of those passes and avoided those turnovers. That's the biggest thing you'll probably see."
Coach Burton ticked off a long list of areas his team needs to improve in order to challenge in the Big Sky, which saw Eastern Washington reach the semifinals and Montana State reach the quarterfinals in last year's FCS playoffs.
"Everything has to be better," Burton said. "Reads have to be better, production has to be better, touchdowns have to be better, we have to tackle better, play better defense and be better on special teams. It's across the board. With the amount of experience coming back, that's our expectation."
McDonagh hopes to play a key role in any resurgence at Portland State, which won seven games as recently as 2011. Just don't expect him to crow about it.
• Portland State held its first scrimmage of the fall on Saturday.
McDonagh was 11-17 for 165 yards passing. In one drive, McDonagh got into a rhythm, completing five straight for 66 yards.
Penn was 10-16 for 111 yards, one interception, and a 39-yard touchdown pass.