Commentary

Lone Star State signal-callers sprouting up among title contenders

Originally Published: December 27, 2007
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The transformation, at least a decade in the making, is complete this week. Texas high school football used to start and end with the option game. The only pass a quarterback had to know how to throw went 3 yards backward to a tailback.

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesTexas native Matt Flynn led LSU to the BCS National Championship game.

To track where Texas football is now, you could look at the NCAA statistics; eight quarterbacks who played high school football in the state are ranked in the top 25 in passing efficiency and/or total offense. You can watch coach Mike Leach plug in another quarterback at Texas Tech, where junior Graham Harrell leads the nation in total offense.

You could watch the BCS bowl games, which have no Texas schools but do have three Texas quarterbacks:

• The Sugar, where sophomore Matt Stafford of Highland Park will start for No. 5 Georgia;

• The Orange, where sophomore Todd Reesing of Lake Travis will start for No. 8 Kansas;

• And the BCS Championship Game, where senior Matt Flynn of Tyler will lead No. 2 LSU.

(And don't forget Missouri junior Chase Daniel of Southlake, a Dallas suburb, who will return home to play for the No. 6 Tigers in the Cotton Bowl.)

Or you could just remember this rule of thumb: As Texas throws, so goes the nation. "You know you can go to Texas and get a guy who's maybe going to be a little ahead of the curve," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

In some regards, the Texas high schools are doing what high schools always have done: copy the most successful collegiate programs.

"Colleges have found that if you spread the field, you don't have to block as many. You can play basketball on grass," said Texas coach Mack Brown, whose Longhorns play Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) . "You can have five great players and hide six. Just about everybody in the state is running some sort of spread."

But the ardor with which the Texas high schools have embraced the spread over the past decade has brought the prep passing game a sophistication that is unusual for such young players. In the most famous example, Southlake middle schools run the same spread system as Southlake Carroll, which won four out of five state championships from 2002 to '06 before coach Todd Dodge left for North Texas.

You want guys from a state that plays good football and guys who play against good competition and against other future college football players. ... They ask their quarterbacks to do a lot of things, and that gives you a chance to develop those
guys.

--Mike Bobo

"You want guys from a state that plays good football and guys who play against good competition and against other future college football players," said Bobo, who entrusted his offense to Stafford last year. "A lot of teams out there are running the spread offense and throwing it around a lot. They ask their quarterbacks to do a lot of things, and that gives you a chance to develop those guys."

About a decade ago, Texas high schools allowed seven-on-seven competition in the summer. As in colleges, coaches cannot run the summer work. Unlike colleges, however, Texas high schools not only compete against each other, they have a state championship every summer at Texas A&M.

"The seven-on-seven encourages coaches to go to that type offense," said D.W. Rutledge, the executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association.

There's a reason former Carroll quarterback Daniel was able to fill in successfully when Brad Smith was injured at Missouri as a freshman in 2005. And Colt McCoy started at Texas as a freshman in 2006. McCoy also is a prodigy of sorts. He played for his father Brad at Jim Ned High in Tuscola, Texas. Stafford enrolled at Georgia in January 2006.

"I felt like Matt knew a little more when he got here, a little ahead of most quarterbacks," Bobo said. "The spring was like his redshirt year. He'd been through 15 practices when he got to the fall and had learned the system. His head wasn't swimming as much when he got to the fall, and he'd also been through it at a little higher level playing in Texas."

The most daunting part of having a freshman run a college offense isn't the football. It's the personal. Anthropologists could earn their doctorates studying the culture of the locker room. Seniors don't cotton to answering to freshmen, especially in a huddle. Peyton Manning used to tell the story of being summoned onto the field as a freshman at Tennessee in 1994 after an injury sidelined starter Jerry Colquitt. Manning went into the huddle and rah-rahed his teammates about how they would march right down the field together and score a touchdown.

A senior offensive lineman, who, unlike his gung-ho quarterback, had reason to use a razor, interrupted Manning.

"Shut up and call the play," the lineman said, and you need not tax your imagination to fill in the missing colorful words.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesColt McCoy's experience in high school helped him take the helm of Texas as a freshman.

Here is where the nature of the spread is helpful. If there is no huddle, then there are fewer social issues.

"When Colt didn't get in the huddle, he just called the signals," Brown said of his offense last season. "We had three guys going to the NFL, a center and two guards, and little Colt who looks 12 years old. We spread them out where he wouldn't have to talk to them."

Texas owns a grand legacy of passing quarterbacks. The first Heisman won by a player west of the Mississippi went to TCU quarterback Davey O'Brien in 1938. His predecessor with the Horned Frogs, Slingin' Sammy Baugh, remains on any credible list of the best college quarterbacks ever.

In the 1960s, when most coaches still believed in 3 yards and a cloud of dust, Dallas native Jerry Rhome set NCAA passing records at Tulsa. Don Trull, though not from Texas, set nine Southwest Conference passing records at Baylor.

At the end of the decade, Texas assistant coach Emory Bellard created the wishbone offense and revolutionized the sport. The Longhorns, under coach Darrell Royal, won consecutive national championships (1969-70) and became the prototypical offense for national champions at Oklahoma and Alabama.

As college football moved away from the option toward the pro set and the West Coast passing game, Texas high school football stuck with the option. But heads began to turn when the University of Houston used the run-and-shoot to pile up points and yards, and win the 1989 Heisman Trophy for quarterback Andre Ware, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Brown's offense serves as a primer on the evolution of the Texas quarterback. After tailback Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy in 1998, Brown's first season, Texas went to more of a passing game with quarterback Major Applewhite of Louisiana. Applewhite shared the job for two seasons with Chris Simms of New Jersey.

However, since 2003, when redshirt freshman Vince Young of Houston split the job with junior Chance Mock of The Woodlands, Texas, the Longhorns' quarterback job has been for Texans only. Young won the job for good, led the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship and has been replaced by Colt McCoy, who has two years of eligibility remaining.

"There are 10 quarterbacks a year that can all play," said Brown, referring to the state's annual high school crop. "It's a real good thing." In fact, it may be too good. "It's a real problem when you try to pick the one out of the 10 that will separate from the rest," Brown said, "and the other nine are mad at you and their coaches are mad at you."

Sometimes you sign them and it still doesn't work out. When Brown played McCoy as a redshirt freshman, he sat freshman Jevan Snead of Stephenville. At the end of the season, Snead transferred to Ole Miss.

Snead didn't fail. He just spread the Texas gospel to one more campus.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com