Have you heard the story about the Brigham Young quarterback? Yes, you probably have. You've probably heard many of them. But sit back because here's another. It might be the best yet.
The current model is Gifford Nielsen-nice and Jim McMahon-brash. He looks like a fullback and was recruited as a defensive back. He throws the football, plays tennis and eats and writes lefthanded—thus a recent feature story about him in Lefty magazine—but he shoots basketballs and plays golf righthanded. He's taking a beginning piano course at BYU because "I refuse to be musically ignorant." In the pocket he looks like Kenny Stabler, dancing on little cat feet and aiming quick darts over the middle, and he runs like Tony Dorsett once he's out of it.
His brother, Mike, who's on a Latter-Day Saints mission in Honduras, may be good enough to be the BYU quarterback next season. His father was so tough that when he played for the Cougars in the 1950s, he was called Grit. His great-great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young. The Brigham Young.
How good is he? "[BYU Coach] LaVell Edwards may not admit this," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice-president of player personnel, "but I think he's the best they've had there. And he's the most accurate passer I've ever seen. Period." Exclamation point.
November 14, 1983
The quarterback's best friend, meanwhile, has caught more passes (178) for more yards (2,484) than any tight end in college history. He also holds the tight-end record for most yards in a single game (259 against Utah in 1981). Further, with three more touchdown receptions he'll break the NCAA career mark (24) for tight ends in that department, too. Says Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard, "He may not be the big blocking type you're looking for, but as a receiver he's got it all."
Their names are Steve Young and Gordon Hudson, respectively. No quarterback-tight end combo in recent years has worked so well for so long, not Mark Herrmann and Dave Young at Purdue (who combined for 67 completions in 1980), not Todd Dillon and Darren Long at Long Beach State (68 in '82), not even McMahon and Clay Brown at BYU (48 in '80). When Young and Hudson finish their college careers after the Holiday Bowl in December, in all likelihood they will have combined for more than 130 receptions in two years, making them arguably the best college quarterback-tight end tandem in history.
The only reason their final total won't be closer to 150 is that Hudson missed half the San Diego State game on Oct. 22 with a concussion, as well as half the Utah State game on Oct. 29 and all of last Saturday's 31-9 win over Texas-El Paso with sprained ligaments in his left knee. He's expected to play this week against Colorado State. Still, Hudson has 44 receptions this season. He caught 67 passes both as a sophomore, when McMahon was throwing to him, and last year, when Young was his quarterback.
As for Young, he leads the country in pass efficiency, the crazy-quilt NCAA statistic that's supposed to separate the best throwers from the dump-off artists. This year he has converted 251 of 359 passes (70%) for 3,323 yards, which conies out to 369.2 yards per game and 9.26 per pass attempt. He has thrown 25 TD passes and just eight interceptions. In 1982 Young hit an NCAA-record 22 straight throws over two games, and this year he completed an NCAA single-game-record 18 consecutive passes during a 46-28 victory over Air Force. When Young is finished, he'll nestle somewhere among the top 10 alltime most efficient passers, a category that's dominated by his predecessors at BYU.
Moreover, with 4.5 speed Young may be the country's premier running quarterback. An outstanding offensive line has helped—Young has been sacked only 16 times—but just as important has been his sense of when to stay in the pocket and when to scramble. His passing and running—he has netted 418 yards on the ground—have made him the nation's total offense leader by a ridiculous 118.7 yards per game with a 415.7-yard average. Without Nebraska Running Back Mike Rozier in the picture. Young would be as strong a Heisman candidate as anyone. Brandt, among others, considers Young or Rozier the likely No. 1 pick in the '84 draft
Tall (6'4") and rangy, with unstylishly short brown hair, Hudson could be on a Latter-Day Saints recruiting poster. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Mindy Carr, in July '82, and they live in an apartment off campus. Mindy is pregnant with the first of what they hope will be several children. Though serious about his role as young husband and soon-to-be father, Hudson is a lot looser about other things, such as his studies. "I just tend to get by on my natural smarts." says Hudson, who will probably graduate a semester late with a degree in physical education "I'm not proud of if that's just the way it is." As Dart of BYU's homecoming festivities before the New Mexico game Hudson finished first in a campus jalape√±o pepper-eating contest by consuming 13.
Young, who was best man at Hudson's wedding, is only a shade over six feet and carries a well-muscled 198 pounds. He has curly black hair, a way with women and a certain Eastern swagger, as befits a kid from what he calls "the low-rent district of Greenwich, Conn."—if there is such a thing. He has a girl friend in California but says, "Put down that I'm free." O.K., he's free. Young has no marriage plans at this point, which bothers Hudson who thinks his buddy is much too cavalier about his female friends. Young chauffeurs his dates around in a beat-up '65 Oldsmobile with more than 200,000 miles on it, "not counting the times he's turned the odometer back," says Wide Receiver Mike Eddo.
Young was raised a Mormon, and he abides by the church's tenets on smoking and drinking, but he swears, though not obnoxiously. Unlike Hudson, he's an intense student. He almost graduated early, in seven semesters, despite a double major in finance and international relations. Last month the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame selected Young as one of its 11 Division I-A scholar-athletes for 1983. Law school lies somewhere in his future.
A more polite athlete than Young has yet to appear on the interview horizon, but he's by no means a vanilla personality. He's popular with the other players and has a quick wit, particularly when he's jousting with Hudson. No pair of teammates, in fact, has ever forged more achievement out of more bickering. Women, studies, sports, attitudes—you name it, they fight over it. "A nice conversation between us is an argument," says Young. When they roomed together as sophomores, they even fought over who would answer the phone. "We'd sit there yelling at each other until the damn thing stopped ringing," says Young.
In truth, though, the verbal gymnastics only mask their mutual affection. "We can get in a knockdown, drag-out argument and forget about it as soon as one of us convinces the other," says Hudson.
"Usually. I'm the one who lets myself be convinced." says Young. "He's a hundred times more stubborn than me. But he's right. We can forget about it. There's no tension between us at all afterward."
Which is fortunate, because much of BYU's success—the 8-1 Cougars are ranked No. 8 by SI and are steaming toward their eighth straight Western Athletic Conference title—has been carved out of off-the-field discussions between Young and Hudson. Hudson talks about feeling "connected" to Young during a game, almost as if "a line" existed between him and his quarterback. That feeling didn't just happen. "We do a lot of mental work together." says Hudson. "We'll go over what I should do if he scrambles a certain way. If I feel a guy will be on my inside, for example, I'll tell Steve that I'll do an inside pressure step, fake outside, then go back inside. Most everybody else would just stay outside. See, we don't do the usual thing."
Rarely does any BYU receiver "do the usual thing." Many of the patterns run by Hudson and wide receivers Kirk Pendleton (41 catches) and Eddo (21) are "option routes," that is, they have to read the defense before making their move. One basic pattern can be run three or four different ways, and Hudson, in particular, has become a master at making the right decision. "Gordie is unusual in his total knowledge of our offense," says Receiver Coach Norm Chow, who calls the plays on game days. "As a staff we are more than willing to listen to his suggestions."
The give-and-take on the Cougar practice field is unusual in college ball. During a recent workout, for example. Quarterback Coach Mike Holmgren asked Chow what pattern should be run against a certain type of man-to-man. "Comebacks," said Chow. "I think corners might work better," said Pendleton. "Make it corners then," said Chow. A few minutes later. Young and Hudson were working on a new quick route to the outside. Hudson caught the ball but told Young, "A little too fast. Slow it down just a count." They probably argued about it later, but Young slowed it down.
"The big difference with our offense is that so much is expected of the receivers here," says Young. "At other places they aren't called upon to make the decisions they have to make here. But I'll say this, too. If I don't know what I'm doing, we're beat. It's impossible for us to win if the quarterback has a real bad game. That's just a fact."
It is a fact. Just repeating one of Chow's pass plays in the huddle is an arduous mental exercise. A typical call: "Red, right, switch, zing, 62, z-comer, h-arrow and up." "Red" is BYU's basic formation, indicating two backs in a pro set. "Right" informs the tight end to line up on the right side. "Switch" tells the wide receivers their alignment. "Zing" is the motion call, in this case the flanker (the z man) going ("ing") toward the ball. (Had the call been "zack," the flanker would have gone in motion away from the ball, while "zorro," tells him to go away and then return.) "Sixty-two" is the basic play call, which gives all five eligible receivers their routes, but they can be changed, too. In this case "z," the flanker would run a corner, and "h," the halfback would run an arrow-and-up Get the picture?
The BYU attack may not have sprung full-blown from Edwards' mind, but he deserves most of the credit. "I've heard some people who've left here try to take credit for the offense," says Holmgren, "but we've had different coordinators, different quarterback coaches, different quarterbacks and different receivers. The only constant has been LaVell Edwards."
"There aren't any geniuses around here," says Edwards, 53, a low-key sort who slouches around practice in a golf hat and lets his assistants do most of the yelling. "My philosophy is that you can't do it all, and you have to make up your mind what you're good at. We have a great athlete in Steve Young, so we could probably be very successful running the option. But we don't want to run the option, so we don't waste time practicing it. We're a drop-back passing team, and that's what we're going to work on."
And work on harder than any team in college football. The Cougar quarterbacks, Young included, have had trouble with sore arms because they throw the ball so much—maybe 200 times—in practice. Occasionally, BYU finds time to work on its alleged ground game. The Cougars have a grand total of four running plays: draw, draw-trap, off-tackle and sweep. Surprisingly, they've worked well enough at times, such as in the 37-35 defeat of UCLA on Oct. 1, when the Cougars gained 265 yards on the ground. "They had seven men playing deep," says Young. "We had to run."
What's eye-catching about BYU's passing drills is how infrequently the ball touches the ground when Young is throwing. That's what captured Brandt's attention when he watched a Cougar practice last year. "Young simply refuses to throw a bad pass," says Brandt. "That's not the case everywhere you go. Even some good quarterbacks throw it all over the place once in a while. Not Young. Can Hudson catch a bad ball? I don't know. He's never had to do it."
Hudson hardly foresaw such heroics from his pal on the day he met Young, when both were freshmen. "Here's this guy who's built like a fullback and he's wearing these strange high-topped shoes," recalls Hudson with obvious glee. "The first time he goes back to pass he stumbles and falls on his butt. I said to myself, 'What is this guy, a walk-on?' He looked ridiculous."
And Young felt ridiculous after spending the first few weeks on the scout team. A wishbone and veer quarterback at Greenwich High, he didn't attract anyone's attention as a thrower. Young called home and said he was thinking about quitting and coming back to Connecticut. His father replied in a manner worthy of a guy named Grit: "You can quit, but you can't come home." Young gradually improved while quarterbacking the jayvee team, but Edwards still planned to switch him to safety in his sophomore year.
That might've happened had Ted Tollner, BYU's quarterback coach at the time and now the head coach at USC, not seen Young throwing in the field house in January after the season. Young's quick release caught Tollner's attention, and he suggested that Young be kept at quarterback. Edwards took Tollner's suggestion, and Young won the backup job. He learned under McMahon as a sophomore before becoming a starter last year.
Hudson didn't walk through the gates of BYU on a red carpet either. He was recruited mainly because of the athletic skill he showed as a basketball player, and the coaches at first thought they might play him at linebacker if he didn't workout at tight end. He did. As a sophomore, Hudson caught 33 passes from McMahon in the Cougars' final three games, and a star was born.
Grabbing 67 passes for the second straight season earned Hudson consensus All-America honors last year. He has worked particularly hard in the weight room, getting up to 235 pounds, and he says he has improved his strength. The scouts hope so, because his blocking remains the one question mark about his pro future. "Well, Gordie may be stronger," says Young, "but you still see this guy with his shirt off and you think, 'This is an All-America?' "
As for the future, Hudson says, "We're thinking about telling the pros that we're a package deal. Can't have one without the other." Certainly, most any team would want both, or either.