Vince being Vince is why Texas is a title contender
Once the coaches let Vince Young have some fun last season, Texas started winning. Now, determined to prove he can beat teams with his arm as well as his legs, Young has the Horns thinking national title.
HOUSTON -- The objectives are lined up one after another like planes trying to escape Atlanta at rush hour. Conference championship, national championship, Heisman Trophy, maybe even -- dare it be said -- beating Oklahoma. Though there are many questions to be answered, Texas coach Mack Brown believes he has solved the most important puzzle before him. In order for the Longhorns to fulfill their potential, Brown must Let Vince Be Vince.
That means the Vince Young who led Texas to come-from-behind victories in the second half of its last four games last season, not the Vince Young whose mistakes helped Texas fall behind.
That means the Vince Young who can start dancing in the backfield and force the defense to abandon its scheme, not the Vince Young who looked at midseason as if it might take him all day to stand in the pocket and hit an open receiver.
Someone asked Lloyd Carr, the Michigan coach whose defense could not stop Young in a 38-37 loss in the Rose Bowl this past January, about the Texas quarterback.
"Vince Young is the finest athlete I've ever been on the field with," Carr said.
Better than Tom Brady?
"I said athlete," Carr replied.
Say what you will about the doubts maintained about Young and his passing ability. They might be based on experience. They might be rooted in the skepticism that many African-American quarterbacks face if they don't look like John Elway the minute they step onto the field.
"If I complete the ball to my guys, I'm a quarterback," Young said. "If you can sit in the pocket and deliver the ball when the blitz comes, I'm pretty sure you're a quarterback. ... Every quarterback is going to make a bad pass. I have never seen a quarterback go into the game and be all the way perfect."
The transition is simple to trace. Once Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis threw out a few chapters from Young's playbook, he began to play better. After six games last season, the coaches focused on the throws that gave Young the most confidence and tossed out the rest.
The change made Brown a believer.
"Bart Starr had bad technique," Brown said. "Fran Tarkenton. Johnny Unitas. Brett Favre ran all over the place. The technique we want is the guy who gets it in the end zone. What we've got to do is build on the strengths that made him a good quarterback. We put too much in style points. Style points are what's on the [board] at the end of the game. He's a loose kid who knows how to have fun. I believe we took that away from him."
The most amazing thing about the change is that the coaches didn't suggest it. Young did. He went to them and asked them to trust him more. The change was immediate and dramatic. One week after laying an egg in consecutive games against Oklahoma and Missouri, Young went 10-of-15 for 142 yards passing and added four rushing touchdowns in a 51-21 victory at Texas Tech.
Young performed back-to-back miracles against Oklahoma State, when he brought the Horns back from a 35-7 deficit with 49 unanswered points, and at Kansas, where he made one of the great plays of the season. With a fourth-and-18 on the road in the final minute, Young scrambled 21 yards for a first down.
"It was real amazing," Young said. "I knew they [the linebackers] were fixing to drop real deep. When I sat back, I saw all those guys drop and turn their heads. I don't know why they did that."
Last came the comeback bowl victory over Michigan, when Young completed 16 of 28 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, also rushing for 192 yards and four touchdowns. That is how a Heisman candidacy is born.
"His best asset is to make plays with his feet," Brown said. "When he starts running, and everybody comes up, that's when he stops and throws."
Young understands that he will be priority one for teams defending the Longhorns. A year ago, defending Texas meant stopping All-American tailback Cedric Benson. If Young beat you, so be it. It is easy to trace the change in the quarterback through that lens.
Oklahoma limited, if that's the word, Benson to 92 yards, and beat Texas 12-0, the Longhorns' first shutout since 1980. Young went 8-for-23 for 86 yards. Michigan held Benson to 70 yards, and Young produced a Rose Bowl for the ages.
This year, the roles of the positions will be reversed. Defenses will be focused on Young, and Texas must find a tailback to take the pressure off him. Young said they have one in his roommate and non-relative, 6-foot, 215-pound junior Selvin Young.
"If they want a target on me, that's fine," Vince said. "It will leave different guys open on offense. There's no question about Selvin. We know what he can do. It's just getting him back in gear, getting him back on the field."
The skinny kid who shared time with Chance Mock two seasons ago has morphed into a national star. Vince Young embraces the responsibility. Faced with the task of persuading his teammates to show up for voluntary summer drills, Young didn't beg or cajole. He told them, "Anybody who wanted to beat Ohio State, meet me to work out."
The marquee game of the first month of the season will be Texas' visit to Ohio State on Sept. 10. Brown believes his quarterback will be ready.
"There was a time this summer I called him on a Saturday night, and he was at home in Houston, and it was about 9:30," Brown said, "and some of the coaches would say 'Don't call your quarterback in Houston at 9:30 on Saturday night. That's really dumb of a coach to be that naive.' I was calling him to get a number from him, and he was whispering.
"I said, 'Oh, oh, must have messed up, I don't know where he is.'
"I said, 'Where are you?'
"He said, 'I am over at the house with some of my friends.'
"I said, 'What are you doing?'
"We are watching the Oklahoma State football game on film," Vince replied. That's the game that the Horns fell behind, 35-7, then exploded to win, 56-35. Young finished 18-of-21 for 278 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown.
Brown said, "I hope you started at halftime."
"We did," Vince replied.
"Vince," Brown said, "he is what you see."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.