There are two quintessentially American success stories: the big
guy who gets bigger, and the little guy who makes good. The
former is embodied in the sport of college football over the last
decade, in which the six major conferences and Notre Dame formed
the cartel that controls the Bowl Championship Series. This group
of 63 schools has produced the last 17 national champions and the
last 11 Heisman Trophy winners, and it gets nearly all of the
national television time. The BCS teams dominate every aspect of
the sport--except one. They don't rule the most important position
on the field: quarterback.
Which brings us to the little guys. When it comes to developing a
great quarterback--a guy with a live arm and a Pentium chip
between the earholes of his helmet--the mid-level teams of
Division I are doing a better job than the rich and famous
programs. Two years ago the first three quarterbacks drafted by
the NFL came from non-BCS schools. In the most recent draft four
of the first five quarterbacks taken played at non-BCS schools,
including David Carr of Fresno State, who was chosen first
overall, by the Houston Texans. And this fall the two best senior
passers are Byron Leftwich of Marshall, in the Mid-American
Conference, and Dave Ragone of Louisville, in Conference USA.
"It would be tough for one of us to win the Heisman Trophy,"
Leftwich says, "but it's been proven that quarterbacks from
everywhere can play in the NFL. The NFL doesn't care where you're
from. It cares how you play."
That's not just the opinion of an NFL hopeful. "There are really
no lines drawn on the pedigree of a quarterback," says Bill
Walsh, the elder statesman of the San Francisco 49ers. The top
two quarterbacks on the 49ers, Jeff Garcia of San Jose State and
Tim Rattay of Louisiana Tech, came from schools that have their
face guards pressed against the BCS glass.
Leftwich is 6'6", 240 pounds, runs a sophisticated offense and
has a heater that Brett Favre would covet. Thundering Herd wide
receiver Denero Marriott holds up his hands to show both pinkies
jutting out at odd angles, bent by the repeated battering of
Leftwich's passes. "After a game I've got to put my hands in ice
to cool them off," Marriott says. "They stop hurting on Monday
More important, since Marshall went 2-4 in Leftwich's first six
starts, during his sophomore year, the quarterback has led the
Thundering Herd to victories in 17 of its last 20 games. Last
season he completed 315 of 470 attempts (67%) for 4,132 yards and
38 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. Those
regular-season numbers don't include his 576-yard, four-touchdown
performance in Marshall's 64-61 double-overtime victory over East
Carolina in the GMAC Bowl, in which Leftwich led the Herd back
from a 38-8 halftime deficit.
The 6'4", 250-pound Ragone, a lefthander, is 20-5 as a starter
and is a two-time C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. He runs
Louisville's West Coast offense with aplomb, having thrown for
5,677 yards and 50 touchdowns over the past two seasons, but it
is his competitiveness that his teammates love most. The next
time he slides to avoid contact will be the first. Louisville
coach John L. Smith cringes when he sees Ragone initiate a hit
but accepts it as his quarterback's way. "Hell, he won't slide,"
Smith says. "Maybe he has a greater chance of getting hurt if I
force him to do something he doesn't want to do."
For Ragone it's a simple matter of physics. "I'm not [hitting] to
prove a point," he says. "I'm bigger than most corners and
Leftwich and Ragone owe their success in part to their teams'
offensive styles. Marshall coach Bob Pruett has fashioned an
offense with West Coast tendencies (short passes into open space
are a staple) that depends on the intelligence of the
quarterback, who calls the blocking schemes and has the authority
to change plays at the line of scrimmage. "When Byron checks us
out of a play," Marriott says, "he's right 99.5 percent of the
time." In Pruett's six seasons the Thundering Herd has averaged
35.3 points and 315.8 passing yards per game. His offense is so
well respected that he has lost four offensive coordinators to
bigger schools. The most recent departure was that of Ed
Zaunbrecher, who has installed Marshall's offense at Florida
under new coach Ron Zook.
At Louisville, Smith began running the West Coast offense he had
used at Utah State and quickly turned around a team that had gone
1-10 in 1997, the year before he arrived. The Cardinals have won
the last two C-USA championships.
It should come as no surprise that Marshall and Louisville are
producing standout passers. In the 2000 draft the New York Jets
selected Herd quarterback Chad Pennington in the first round, the
first quarterback taken, while the Baltimore Ravens chose the
Cardinals' Chris Redman in the third round, the third quarterback
picked that year. "The schools that really promote the forward
pass," says Walsh, "are where you can best evaluate a
quarterback, where he is allowed to function spontaneously and
have the freedom to open up the offense and make plays."
The success of Leftwich and Ragone also reveals holes in the
recruiting system, rife with gurus and Internet services.
Leftwich is a product of H.D. Woodson High in Washington, D.C.,
where basketball is king. "A lot of these good athletes are from
schools off the beaten path that a lot of recruiters don't want
to go into," Pruett says. "They get carried away with some guru
saying some other guy is good." Pruett knows the Woodson program
well--he and Woodson coach Bob Headen played semipro football
together in the late 1960s. During Leftwich's senior season,
former Marshall offensive coordinator Tony Petersen popped in a
tape of Leftwich. "I watched five plays and said, 'I'll take
him,'" Petersen says. "He had a natural lightning release and a
big-time arm. A lot of guys will say, 'Boy, I like a quarterback
to be a coach's son with a high GPA.' Sometimes the inner-city
schools don't get looked at, but it didn't bother me where he
Leftwich, then a 6'4", 190-pound rail, drew interest from a lot
of smaller schools. "I could have gone to any I-AA school in
America," he says. But Marshall's games are televised in the D.C.
area every week. Leftwich liked what he saw when he watched
All-America wide receiver Randy Moss set records and draw
national attention while at Marshall. "It's a quarterback's dream
offense," says Leftwich. Moreover, a move from the big city
appealed to him. "I wanted to get away. I had been in D.C. my
whole life. There weren't any vacations to Florida."
Ragone's experience exposes a weakness of the early commitment
system, which has become popular in recent years. Coaches from
big schools invite top prospects to their summer camps and offer
the players scholarships before they play a down in their senior
years. The rush to secure players early widens the margin of
error. "It's hard enough for us to judge players at 22 years old,
after four years of college football," Indianapolis Colts
president Bill Polian says. "Imagine how hard it is to judge a
16- or 17-year-old high school kid."
As the top schools make their handshake deals with recruits, the
rest of the prospects fall into the pond that the mid-level
schools like Louisville and Marshall are fishing. On a steamy
June day, Thundering Herd quarterbacks coach Larry Kueck still
had plenty of potential fall recruits to sort through. "I'm
guessing that the big schools have narrowed it down to two or
three quarterbacks right now," he said. "We can't do that. I've
looked at eight quarterbacks on tape in the last two days."
The early commitments leave little room for late bloomers such as
Ragone. A product of Cleveland St. Ignatius, a powerhouse in Ohio
high school football, Ragone didn't start until his senior year.
The summer before, he went to the Miami (Ohio) camp and attracted
the attention of the coaches--for his punting. "I was not
playing," he says. "What coach is going to look at me?" By the
time Ragone led St. Ignatius to the state semifinals in November
1997, most of the big-time schools had lined up their
quarterbacks. "John L. looked at the tape and said, 'Gosh, we've
got a chance to get this kid?'" says Louisville defensive
coordinator Chris Smeland, who recruits in Ohio for the
Ohio State, the team Ragone wanted to play for, showed little
interest. The following summer in the Big 33 game, which matches
Ohio all-stars against elite players from Pennsylvania, Ragone
was named Ohio's MVP. Last year, when Louisville played at TCU,
former Ohio State coach John Cooper served as the analyst on the
ESPN telecast. "He said on TV that I was one of the better
quarterbacks in the country," says Ragone. "That was sweet."
That's not the only worm that has turned. According to Ragone,
one big-school recruiter who passed him by has become an agent.
Says Ragone, "He's tried to contact people who know me. He wants
to talk with me now."
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CHAPMAN/BRSP [T of C] GOLDEN ARMS Ten quarterbacks, including Ken Dorsey of No. 2 Miami, are among SI's dozen candidates to win the Heisman Trophy.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES LOOK WHAT WE FOUND Leftwich caught Marshall's eye thanks partly to an old connection between Pruett and his high school coach.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES LATE BLOOMER Big schools had already lined up their quarterback recruits by the time Ragone became a high school starter.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID COYLE HEAVY DUTY The 6'4", 250-pound Ragone doesn't shy away from hits because, he says, "I'm bigger than most corners and safeties."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Texas Tech's Kingsbury
COLOR PHOTO: RANDY SNYDER/THE HERALD-DISPATCH/AP QUICK ON THE DRAW In Marshall's West Coast-style offense, Leftwich's decisions have to be as snappy as his release.
FIRST CALL FOR THE HEISMAN
The Heisman Trophy race is always part talent show, part
popularity contest--with big-name favorites, middle-of-the-pack
players who need some breaks, and lower-profile guys who put up
big numbers. Ivan Maisel sizes up the 2002 season's early
REX GROSSMAN, QB, Florida, Jr. It's been 20 years since a Heisman
runner-up came back the next season and won the trophy. Grossman
has a chance to duplicate Herschel Walker's feat because he
throws the deep ball better than anyone else.
KEN DORSEY, QB, Miami, Sr. He has the quickest release in the
game and the quickest brain as well. Still, at times, a winning
quarterback has never looked so ungainly.
CHRIS RIX, QB, Florida State, Soph. Rix had 3,123 yards of total
offense as a freshman last year. With experience, healthy
receivers and a veteran line he'll take the Seminoles a long way.
CHRIS SIMMS, QB, Texas, Sr. Famous son. Lone Star State. All
legacy, no substance, say detractors. Hey, it worked for Dubya.
ELI MANNING, QB, Ole Miss, Jr. Dad Archie's no-Heisman-campaign
edict won't have as big an impact on Eli's trophy chances as the
Rebels' suspect defense will. Ole Miss may not win enough to give
him a shot.
ONTERRIO SMITH, TB, Oregon, Jr. The fast, punishing Tennessee
transfer will get enough carries to solve the lack of name
recognition. But the last Pac-10 player to win the Heisman was
Marcus Allen in 1981.
JASON GESSER, QB, Washington State, Sr. Good arm, good feet and,
as he proved in last year's 10-2 campaign, he can win. A big game
and a victory at Ohio State on Sept. 14 will bring him national
LEE SUGGS, TB, Virginia Tech, Sr. He'll have had 12 months to
mend his torn ACL, but how much will he have to share the ball
with sophomore Kevin Jones?
Dave Ragone, QB, Louisville, Sr. He doesn't have a chance to win
unless the Cardinals upset Florida State in Louisville on Sept.
BYRON LEFTWICH, QB, Marshall, Sr. His job is even tougher because
his must-win game is on the road: at Virginia Tech on Sept. 12.
Kliff Kingsbury, QB, Texas Tech, Sr. A few more 400-yard passing
games--he has four, including 44 of 56 for 440 yards against
Oklahoma State in '01--will make voters take notice.
LUKE MCCOWN, QB, Louisiana Tech, Jr. He's thrown for more than
6,200 yards and 50 TDs in two seasons. Bulldogs alums include
Terry Bradshaw and Tim Rattay.
The success of Leftwich and Ragone reveals holes in the
recruiting system, rife with gurus and Internet services.