During a collegiate career that included highs and lows, Sean McGaughey was hardly a prolific passer.
The Oakdale graduate shared time at quarterback during each of his first three seasons at Widener, battling through injury and periods of inconsistency.
In Mike Barainyak’s mind, however, McGaughey possessed all the tools of a great quarterback.
McGaughey could put a feathery touch on throws along the sideline, or he could rifle the ball into tight windows in the middle of the field. He had sound mechanics and good footwork. He had the calm demeanor needed to play under pressure.
“And the No. 1 thing is, he’s smart,” said Barainyak, who served as Widener’s offensive coordinator last year before assuming head-coaching duties this season. “He’s as smart a quarterback I’ve ever been around.”
So when asked if he expected McGaughey to suddenly transform himself into Division III football’s third-leading passer and a first-team All-Middle Atlantic Conference selection at quarterback, Barainyak didn’t hesitate before offering his answer.
“To be honest with you, I did,” Barainyak said. “From the time I got to campus in 2017, I knew he was a special player and had some special skills.”
One of Barainyak’s biggest tasks as a coach this season may have been injecting confidence into the 6-foot-3, 210-pound McGaughey.
During his junior season, McGaughey split time with a true freshman in Mitchell Vierling, finishing the season 94-of-168 for 1,179 yards with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“Coming out of his junior year, he was a little up in the air,” Barainyak said of McGaughey, who also dealt with a separated shoulder during his sophomore season. “He felt he had let some of his teammates down with his performance and things of that nature. He was being really hard on himself.”
Vierling, Barainyak said, suffered an injury over the summer that prevented him from playing this season. In August, Barainyak basically told McGaughey he wouldn’t need to look over his shoulder and worry about others on the team competing for the starting quarterback job.
“Midway through camp, he was saying, ‘I’m going to be the guy he goes with,’” McGaughey said.
That announcement certainly elevated McGaughey’s confidence, but so did the addition of new assistant coaches – offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hogge and run game coordinator Nate Hinkle — who formed a strong rapport with McGaughey.
Before joining the Pride, Hogge served as the offensive line and running backs coach for a University of Mary Hardin-Baylor team that won Division III national titles in 2016 and 2018.
“We have a new coaching staff and a lot of great people that prepare me for games, and this is the most confident I’ve felt going into games my entire life,” said McGaughey, who helped engineer a spread offense that could sprinkle in run-pass option concepts. “It makes a big difference when you have people around you that care and know a lot about football.”
McGaughey started the season with a bang at Rowan, throwing for 284 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-28 win.
“It just kind of snowballed from there, and he pretty much had the hot hand all season,” Barainyak said.
McGaughey passed for 400 yards or more in three other games, including a 453-yard performance at Albright during which he set a single-game school record by throwing seven touchdown passes. In the 59-34 win, McGaughey finished 17 yards short of tying the single-game passing record Chris Haupt set eight years earlier.
“I had no idea that was going to come,” McGaughey said of his breakthrough season during which he finished with 3,264 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. “It’s not really something you can foresee.
“Our team’s worked hard all season, trying to change the culture. We all work our butts off, and we just have a great group of guys.”
As for changing the team’s culture, Barainyak asked McGaughey to play a key role.
Reflecting back on his high school days at Oakdale, McGaughey said he had never been vocal as a quarterback, instead choosing to keep his head down, work hard and hope others would follow.
That approach continued at Widener, where Barainyak repeatedly saw McGaughey outwork others in the weight room and during conditioning sessions in addition to poring over game film to prepare for games.
But Barainyak wanted a field general — someone who could hold others, especially Widener’s underclassmen, accountable. McGaughey playing at a high level at the beginning of the season, Barainyak said, gave him the authority to do so.
“We were able to talk to him and say, ‘Hey Sean, you’ve earned the right to now go motivate guys in a positive manner, go push guys to raise their level of play and get to the standard [we’ve set for them] and be able to stand in front of the team at any time,” Barainyak said. “And when he spoke, everybody listened. He was our leader.”
McGaughey said several others, including MAC Player of the Year James Gillespie, also helped foster a new culture of accountability. Gillespie finished the regular season with an NCAA-leading 1,326 receiving yards on a Pride team that finished 5-5 after going 4-6 the previous season.
Four of Widener’s five losses were by seven points or less.
“Earlier, I used to kind of have the coaches deal with mental mistakes or stuff like that, but when we’re out there, I kind of realized I’m the operator and the leader, and they look up to me, so I’m allowed to correct people, and if they’re not doing the right thing, kind of get on them about it,” McGaughey said. “But that goes both ways. We have a great senior wide receiver [in Gillespie], and he gets on me about stuff, too.
“It’s a relationship between players of holding each other accountable. I think that’s why we’re having some success this year.”
While vocal leadership involves providing direction, it also comes in the form of doling out praise. That’s something Barainyak has noticed McGaughey do, recalling that he passed on all of the credit for his seven-touchdown performance to his offensive line. When reflecting on his entire season, McGaughey also noted the depth of Widener’s receiving corps, which boasts five wideouts who hauled in at least 20 receptions.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Barainyak said. “We’re going to miss him.”