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Mention Peter Lalich to a high school football fan in Fairfax County and you’ll likely see a wistful head-shake preceding an exasperated sigh. For many of the area’s longtime spectators, the sound of that name conjures memories of a 6-foot-5 gunslinger who often looked more like Tom Brady putting on quarterback clinics than a 17-year-old kid playing prep football games. A more exacting mind would recall the West Springfield High signal caller who racked up a state record 3,275 yards from scrimmage in his 10-game senior season back in 2006.

Yet that same fan would also remember how all that talent went to waste. Rated one of the top five quarterbacks in the country by Rivals.com, Lalich wound up starting for the University of Virginia in his freshman season before being booted from the team for an alcohol violation the following year. He then squandered an opportunity at Oregon State, where another alcohol-related incident derailed further hopes of gridiron glory and all but erased his name from the minds of casual followers.

Those misdeeds form part of the lore of a young man who might ultimately be remembered as a successful NFL quarterback. The Springfield native is now vying to make his way onto football’s biggest stage, either through selection in this month’s NFL Draft or free agency this summer.

“I believe that if I was standing next to any [quarterback] from the top of the draft, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Lalich said.

Lalich’s return to relevance has been sparked by a re-dedication to his playing career and an abandonment of the distractions that once threatened to destroy it. While his naysayers cast their attention elsewhere after the Oregon State incident, Lalich revitalized his craft in the unheralded ranks of Division 2 football at California University of Pennsylvania, a program with a history of turning frustrated transfers into productive players.

After redshirting the 2010 season, Lalich embarked on a stellar 2011 campaign that featured a school-record 3,725 passing yards along with 31 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. He put up 2,413 yards in seven games before his 2012 season was cut short by a staph infection in his hand.

In less than two full seasons as a starter, Lalich led the Vulcans to a 16-4 record and placed himself in fifth place on the school’s all-time list for passing yards and touchdowns.

“He’s one of a kind,” said Mike Kellar, who was an offensive coordinator for 19 seasons before taking over the Cal-U head coaching job last year. “I’ve coached several quarterbacks who were all-conference, All-Americans, players of the year, and I’ve never seen anyone from the tangibles to the intangibles to the personality who was quite like Pete.”

Lalich’s physical tools have always been the first thing to make coaches’ heads spin. Standing at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, Lalich has the size and wherewithal to hold his own with defensive linemen barreling down on him. A pocket passer by nature, his exceptional arm strength allows him to zip passes across his body on the run or chuck 70-yard bombs on a dime.

“Physically he’s about as good as you’re going to get,” Kellar said. “I watched Matt Barkley’s pro day yesterday, and I told a couple guys I was with, ‘My guy looks just like that, only my guy’s bigger.’”

Yet it’s Lalich’s mental grasp of the game that typically impresses coaches most. Kellar recalls sitting in his office straining to keep up with his former pupil, who frequently took pleasure in inventing complicated plays at the whiteboard. Lalich remains adamant about mastering any concept that could give him an edge on the field, whether it be learning a defender’s techniques so that he can better anticipate a pass rush or studying ankle flexion so that he can expend less energy throwing the football.

His intrinsic understanding of the X’s and O’s was ingrained from an early age, gaining full traction when his parents had a quarterback guru teach him protection schemes in ninth grade. At West Springfield, Lalich used to call his own shots, flourishing in a no-huddle offense that ran scripted plays where they would go five plays in one formation and then five plays in another.

“At that point it was all on the quarterback to make the right decisions of who to throw to,” said Bill Renner, a former West Springfield head coach whose son, Bryn, is the starting quarterback at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Peter had an understanding to start with on who is number one and who is number two, etcetera, but he got to the point where he could do two-thirds of the games like that because he knew the offense so well and he knew when he came to the line of scrimmage what was a good thing to throw and not throw and where we wanted to run and where not to run. The elite guys have the plays in their brains, and he has that.”

Lalich is currently finishing up his master’s degree in exercise science at Cal-U while keeping himself fit in case any NFL teams want to put him through individual workouts. He spent January and February training intensively in Miami, Fla., at Bommarito Performance Systems, an NFL Combine/Pro Day prep camp that saw him work out with NFL receivers like Wes Welker and Antonio Brown.

While he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine in February, Lalich participated in Cal-U’s Pro Day on March 11, performing in front of scouts from 15 NFL teams. Only two teams — the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers — have conducted in-depth interviews with him so far.

By most accounts, Lalich sits near the bottom of the list of top 40 quarterback prospects being scrutinized for the NFL Draft, which begins April 25. That position has less to do with his skill set on the field than it does with the off-field incidents that cloud his past, starting with the day he was caught playing beer pong at a party at UVa’s football house.

The prodigious talent that drew recruiting offers from Miami and Michigan out of high school has left many wondering whether Lalich might be an easy first-round draft choice had he remained a four-year starter at Virginia.

“I’d probably be in an easier situation than I am now,” Lalich said. “But I feel like I’ve grown a lot from all the stuff that happened to me. It’s probably best that this is the way it happened.”

Lalich asserts that he turned a corner after leaving Oregon State. No longer an immature college kid looking for the next party, he has eschewed his former lifestyle in favor of total dedication to preparation for the NFL.

Whether he’s selected late in the draft’s seventh round or picked up as a free agent down the line, Lalich says he’s just chasing his goal rather than attempting to defy those who doubted him.

“I don’t really try to prove them wrong. I just try to do the best I can do,” he said. “Even if I do make an NFL team I’m still going to have doubters, so I can’t really concentrate on what they say.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com