On a sheet of white notebook paper, UCLA quarterback Cade McNown
furiously scribbled letters and symbols representing offensive
and defensive players. He drew an offense with three wide
receivers, a tight end and a single running back lined up to run
a play the Bruins call L Change 55 Texas. The defense was
arranged in a 4-3 front with four defensive backs fanned out
behind it. McNown then drew solid lines from the receivers and
the running back, designating pass routes, and broken lines from
the quarterback, indicating possible passes. "If this linebacker
comes, I throw here," he said. "If he sits back, I look outside.
If the safety blitzes, this guy runs a go pattern." He paused.
"This all happens in 2 1/2 seconds, and it's just one play. We
work on it for about two weeks, with hundreds of repetitions.
And you better know what's going on." McNown, wearing a visor on
his close-cropped red hair and a scruffy growth of beard on his
chin, picked up his fork, stabbed at the chicken he was eating
for dinner last Wednesday night and smiled wickedly. Other than
that, the smile said, it's easy.
Playing quarterback has always been difficult. Now it's organic
chemistry, given the eight-men-in-a-box press defense (SI, Oct.
28, 1996) that college teams have turned to over the past five
years, using players who are stronger and far faster than ever.
With eight men crowding the line of scrimmage to deny their
opponents the running game and with cornerbacks therefore forced
to play man-to-man, defenses essentially gamble that
quarterbacks, under relentless pressure, will not make the right
decision on where to pass often enough.
Like any defense, the press is vulnerable. It invites big pass
plays, but to make those plays the offense needs effective
quarterback play in the cone of a tornado. "The pendulum swings
back and forth," says longtime Brigham Young offensive
coordinator Norm Chow. "There certainly was going to come a time
when the defenses were going to learn how to stop the controlled
passing game. It's more difficult to play quarterback than it
was two or three years ago."
The press, adds Alabama-Birmingham coach Watson Brown, "takes
the finesse out of the passing game." It transforms the pass
offense into a series of so-called hot routes (short passes into
areas vacated by blitzers) and bombs over the cornerbacks. It
forces the quarterback to make decisions more quickly than his
predecessors and to take vicious hits even on successful plays.
Florida's Danny Wuerffel, last year's Heisman Trophy winner,
threw 114 touchdown passes in his four-year career yet missed
seeing perhaps half of the scores because he was lying on the
ground, often under a half ton of defenders. In short, today's
college quarterback must be tougher, smarter, quicker, stronger,
savvier, more accurate and cooler under pressure. Like a Boy
Scout on steroids.
No conference is breeding this fresh strain of quarterback
faster than the Pac-10. Three of the best and most innovative of
the new breed work on the Left Coast: McNown, a junior whose
Bruins are 5-2; sophomore Brock Huard of 5-1 Washington; and
junior Ryan Leaf of unbeaten (6-0) Washington State. In passing
efficiency they rank fourth, second and first in the nation,
respectively. Their teams are all contending for a Rose Bowl
berth. Last Saturday they combined for 749 yards, 10 touchdowns
and only one interception.
None has been hotter since mid-September than McNown. The week
after the Bruins lost their opener to Leaf and Washington State
37-34, they fell behind Tennessee 24-3 at the intermission. In
the second half McNown completed 18 of 25 passes for 302 yards
and one touchdown as the Bruins came within seven points of
overtaking the Vols. He followed that performance with five
touchdown passes in the first half of UCLA's 66-3 starching of
Texas, the first of five consecutive Bruins victories. "That
team isn't going to lose again this year," says Leaf, offering a
compliment that is also a dig at Washington, which must still
play the Bruins--and Washington State.
McNown is barely 6'1" and weighs 211 pounds. He graduated from
high school in West Linn, Ore., a suburb of Portland, after
spending his first three years of high school in northern
California. He wasn't fully exposed to the passing game until he
moved to Oregon, where he became a hot late recruit of UCLA and
Washington and decided to go wherever Huard, the nation's No. 1
quarterback prospect in 1995, didn't. He became the Bruins'
starter as a true freshman, but when coach Terry Donahue, who
favored a more conservative offense, resigned following that 7-5
season, McNown was forced to learn new coach Bob Toledo's
version of the ubiquitous West Coast offense.
A year ago McNown threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns
(12) as UCLA went 5-6. In the off-season he watched tape and
worked with his receivers, committing the fine points of
Toledo's offense to memory and trying, in the words of offensive
coordinator Alan Borges, to "make new mistakes," not the same
old ones. In practices Toledo has virtually scrapped the
traditional seven-on-seven passing drill, in which a team runs
its pass offense without linemen or a pass rush. "It doesn't
apply anymore," says Toledo, who uses an 11-on-11,
don't-tackle-the-quarterback approach. "That's not the way the
game is played, with a quarterback sitting back there picking
out open receivers. You need speed and pressure."
Stoked with 18 months study and repetition, the lefthanded
McNown has become dangerously efficient in a passing game that
often rolls him away from trouble and takes advantage of his
running ability. "Cade, he's just slippery, very hard to
tackle," says Oregon defensive back Rashad Bauman. "He could be
a running back for us, easy," says Toledo.
Last season and in this season's losses to Washington State and
Tennessee, McNown was scatter-armed. Now he's a rock. "If he
continues to improve his accuracy," says USC coach John
Robinson, "he could become a quarterback in the mold of Mark
Brunell or Steve Young."
Huard tasted the worst that the press has to offer in
Washington's 27-14 home loss to Nebraska on Sept. 20, a defeat
that dashed the Huskies' national championship hopes. He
suffered a sprained left ankle in that game, courtesy of a sack
by Nebraska All-America end Grant Wistrom on the Huskies' 15th
Huard and McNown both have been active in the Fellowship of
Christian Athletes, and they became friends as high school
seniors on the recruiting trail, but as quarterbacks they have
little in common other than their lefthandedness. While McNown
is slightly undersized and makes up for an average arm with
guile and terrific feet, the 6'5", 220-pound Huard throws a
smooth, tight spiral that almost always goes to the proper
receiver. "Of all the quarterbacks in the conference, he's the
most polished, the most accurate," one Pac-10 coach says. Huard
has thrown one interception in six games this fall, matched
against 14 touchdowns. Like Tennessee's Peyton Manning, he's a
big man who moves effectively in the pocket. Best of all, Huard,
who got his first start for Washington coach Jim Lambright in
the third game of the '96 season, has adjusted to the chaos of
playing quarterback today.
His father, Mike, has been a football coach for 27 years, the
last 17 at Puyallup (Wash.) High. Mike coached Brock's older
brother, Damon, who played quarterback at Washington from 1993
to '95 and is now a backup for the Miami Dolphins, and he
coaches Brock's younger brother, Luke, a high school senior and
a nationally recruited quarterback. "I've been around the game
so long," says Brock. "Ever since I've been watching the
Huskies, even when my brother was here, they've been playing the
attack defense. It's all I know.
"Everything happens so fast," he says of the defense. "Teams are
trying to pressure you into mistakes, and the onus for beating
the defense is on the quarterback and wide receivers, unless you
can run the ball effectively. You wind up with two kinds of
quarterbacks: guys who can scramble, like Kordell Stewart, or
big guys who can take punishment, like John Elway and Kerry
Collins and Drew Bledsoe. I guess I'm in that category."
Leaf is in a category of his own. The fiery 6'5 1/2", 238-pound
hulk from Great Falls, Mont., thinks like a linebacker, talks
trash like a Brooklyn point guard and has almost every athletic
talent required to play quarterback in 1997. "Let's see," says
Washington State coach Mike Price. "He runs the 40 in 4.7, he's
got a 36-inch vertical jump, he's broken almost every
weightlifting record we have for quarterbacks, his field vision
is incredible, and he gets better every week that we play." For
these reasons Leaf is projected as a high first-round NFL draft
pick if he decides to forgo his final year of eligibility--which
seems likely, since four of his five starting offensive linemen
and four of his top five wideouts are seniors. "I don't know
what he's going to do," says Washington State backup quarterback
Steve Birnbaum, one of Leaf's best friends. "But face it, this
team is set up for him to leave."
Right now the team is set up for him to flourish. Price is one
of the rare coaches who doesn't regard the quarterback position
as significantly more difficult in 1997, largely because he has
long used a pass-first, quick-read offense, the elements of
which he animatedly diagrammed in grease pencil last Thursday
for a visitor to his Pullman office. "I can explain it to you in
five minutes," he said. "We like to keep it simple."
Using Price's spread offense, this year Leaf has thrown at least
13 completions to five receivers and passed for 19 touchdowns
with just six interceptions (the same ratio as Manning's). On
Saturday, in a 63-37 rout of California, he threw four touchdown
passes of 43 yards or more and a fifth of 14 yards. He seems
impervious to heavy blitzes, not only because he gets the ball
away quickly but also because he has deceptively quick feet.
Moreover, he's huge. "We hit him," says Toledo. "We just didn't
knock him down."
"I'm bigger than some of UCLA's defensive linemen and
linebackers," Leaf says. "They fell off me. Unless you take my
head off, I'm not going to feel it."
His head, at this point, is more squarely on his shoulders than
it has been at any time during his four years at Washington
State. He signed with the Cougars out of C.M. Russell High in
Great Falls and chafed at having to sit through a redshirt
season in '94. He was also prickly during his redshirt freshman
year, 1995, until Price named him to replace incumbent Chad
Davis late in the season. In his first start Leaf nearly led the
Cougars to an upset of Washington, losing 33-30. Last year he
threw for 2,811 yards and 21 touchdowns on a 5-6 team, and he
carried a chip on each shoulder. "He tried to impress people
with his attitude, like he had to be the toughest guy," says
senior wideout Chris Jackson. "He's high-strung. If there was
trouble on the field, he'd be in the middle of it. But this year
at Oregon [a 24-13 win on Oct. 4], things got messy, and Ryan
got in the huddle and jumped everybody. He said, 'I don't want
to hear any more talking. Period.' That's a leader." Then again,
it was Leaf who had earned his team a 15-yard penalty for
excessive celebration after he had raced onto the field the
previous week to celebrate Birnbaum's mop-up touchdown pass in a
58-0 victory over Boise State.
Consider that act a release from all the pressure of playing
quarterback in 1997. Two days before Washington State blew out
California, Leaf sat at a picnic table near Martin Stadium,
shading his eyes from a brilliant sun with a pair of wraparound
sunglasses and imagining somebody else's good old days. Soft
zones, big cushions on the corners, slow linebackers who
couldn't blitz. "That would be different," said Leaf wistfully.
"And that would make things easy. Really easy."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER McNown has passed the Bruins to a five-win streak. [Cade McNown in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Huard has thrown only one interception in '97. [Brock Huard]
COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE Leaf is so strong that even when defenders get to him, they have a hard time pulling him down. [Ryan Leaf in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Craig had a rough day against the Gators in a 24-10 loss last Saturday. [Dameyune Craig in game]
THE WEST IS BEST
While the Vols' Peyton Manning is generally acknowledged to be
the best college quarterback, the Pac-10 leads the SEC in
producing the new breed of signal-caller that teams need to
combat pressure defenses.
He's fourth in the SEC in passing efficiency. Yet he's favored
to win the Heisman and is expected to be the first player taken
in the NFL draft.
Against the press, efficiency is the key. Couch has thrown for
2,506 yards and 29 TDs this year, but he has been intercepted 10
He is averaging one interception a game, and he wilted under the
pressure of Florida's attacking defense last Saturday at home.
He leads the nation in passing efficiency and probably will be
the second player drafted, should he leave school a year early.
One of every 9.07 of his passes in 1997 has been a TD. His one
interception is second fewest among quarterbacks with 125 or
Since the second half of the Bruins' game against the Vols, he
has completed 88 of 136 passes, with 13 TDs and two interceptions.
"If he continues to improve his accuracy, he could become a
quarterback in the mold of Mark Brunell."
--JOHN ROBINSON, USC COACH
"Of all the quarterbacks in the conference, he's the most
polished, the most accurate."
--A PAC-10 COACH
"He runs the 40 in 4.7, his field vision is incredible, and he
gets better every week."
--MIKE PRICE, WASHINGTON STATE COACH