Everywhere he saw Nebraska red. Defensive linemen snorting cold
air, linebackers jumping into gaps, cornerbacks pressing
receivers, coaches pacing the sideline, fans cheering in the
seats, logos embedded in the turf. Red, red, red, as if the
stadium were bleeding. Calmly, Texas sophomore quarterback Major
Applewhite escaped. He punched the stop button on the remote
that controls the VCR in his apartment bedroom, halting the tape
and returning to a quiet world, like the turtle spinning back to
Mr. Wizard. "They're Nebraska, and they're good," Applewhite
said, "but they're not very complicated. It's not going to be
This was last Thursday night, two days before the arrival in
Austin of No. 3 Nebraska, a 6-0 team that had outscored its last
three opponents by a combined 127-38. Moreover, the Cornhuskers
would be seeking revenge. Texas had stunned Nebraska in the
teams' last two meetings, in the 1996 Big 12 championship game in
St. Louis and last year in Lincoln, where the Longhorns ended the
Huskers' 47-game home winning streak. Yet here was Applewhite,
stretched out on his bed with his head propped up on an oversized
throw pillow, zapping through Nebraska game tapes and picking
apart tendencies as if they were as obvious as fat on a tackle.
Watch the safeties spin to one side on this slant.
They'll jump the crossing pattern here, and the post will be
November 1, 1999
We call this banjo coverage, and if they miss the tight end, it's
This torrent of arcane football lingo spewed from the lips of a
red-haired, freckle-faced cherub who would have looked more at
home if he'd been tuned to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Most of
the Longhorns' male cheerleaders have more muscle tone than the
6'1", 205-pound Applewhite does. He has neither a strong arm nor
fast feet. His secret weapons are the cookies his girlfriend,
Julie Villarreal, bakes every Thursday for the Texas offensive
linemen and the prayers that his mother, Sandra, E-mails to him
every week from home in Baton Rouge. He quarterbacked the
Longhorns to last year's 20-16 upset of Nebraska, but he had
Ricky Williams in the backfield then. A sizable number of Texans
have spent the autumn waiting for Applewhite to lose his job to
true freshman Chris Simms, the son of former New York Giants
quarterback Phil. There was surely no reason to believe Nebraska
would fall to Opie a second time.
But reason doesn't rule college football. Emotion rules. Energy
rules. Desire rules. Skill rules, too, the kind that's not easily
measured by a watch or a stack of weights. Early last Saturday
evening Applewhite took a snap from Texas center Matt Anderson
and jogged to his right, killing the final four seconds of the
game and sealing the Longhorns' third consecutive victory over
Nebraska, a 24-20 win that almost surely ended the Cornhuskers'
national championship hopes. With the victory, Texas, under
second-year coach Mack Brown, moved a big step closer to a return
to national prominence.
Everything is in place for that to happen. The Longhorns'
facilities have undergone a $90 million expansion. Seven of
Brown's assistants were offered jobs by other schools during the
off-season, but all were retained at salaries that make them
among the highest-paid assistants in the country. Recruits are
flocking to Austin. The fuse is burning, and Applewhite struck
Texas improved its record to 6-2 on Saturday because Nebraska
wasted a huge yardage advantage (429-275) by losing three
fumbles, including one by I-back Correll Buckhalter on the
Longhorns' two-yard line with 13:07 to play and Texas holding a
17-13 lead. It won because its defensive line, one of the great
secrets in college football, consistently punished the
Cornhuskers' offensive front: Senior end Aaron Humphrey, junior
tackle Shaun Rogers and senior end Cedric Woodard combined for
nine tackles for losses and never let the Nebraska option find
its rhythm. It won because Hodges Mitchell, a 5'6", 190-pound
tailback whose first love is soccer and whose father played in
the Florida State backfield with Brown three decades ago, had 83
yards on 20 carries, enough to keep the Cornhuskers defense on
Yet it was Applewhite who made the difference. After sleepwalking
through a first half in which he completed only 9 of 21 passes
for 47 yards and Nebraska took a 13-3 lead, Applewhite made three
lethal plays in the final 17 minutes. Each of them was testimony
to his videotape preparation.
With the Cornhuskers ahead 13-10 late in the third quarter,
Applewhite completed passes of 18 and 27 yards to Kwame Cavil,
putting the ball on the Nebraska 13. On the next snap Huskers
free safety Clint Finley wheeled quickly to his left while Cavil
ran a slant toward the end zone against single coverage; Finley
was too far gone to help. Watch the safeties spin to one side on
this slant pattern. Applewhite put a spiral on Cavil's chest to
give the Longhorns the lead.
After Nebraska went back in front 20-17 and with the ball at the
Texas 40, Applewhite got instructions to call an 80 Cross--a play
in which Cavil runs a shallow cross from the right and wideout
Ryan Nunez runs a deep post from the left. The safety ran up on
Cavil's pattern, leaving Nunez in single coverage. They'll jump
the crossing pattern here, and the post will be open. "As soon as
I ran past the safety, I knew Major was coming to me," says
Nunez. Applewhite hit Nunez with a 39-yard completion. Three
plays later, on third-and-six from the Cornhuskers' 17,
Applewhite called an L Pocket 828 Divide, and he watched Nebraska
defensive backs line up like twins across from Cavil and tight
end Mike Jones on the left side. Nebraska's plan was for each
defensive back to take the receiver who ran to his side, even if
the receivers crossed. Instead, both Cornhuskers went with Cavil
on a slant. We call this banjo coverage, and if they miss the
tight end, it's a touchdown. Jones was left alone, Applewhite
connected with him, and Jones rumbled home for the winning
Long after the game Applewhite, who finished with 17 completions
in 30 attempts for 213 yards and two touchdowns, diagrammed the
winning play on a white board next to his dressing cubicle. "Just
like we saw on tape," he said, dropping the blue grease pencil
into the tray. "They didn't do anything special all day."
There was scarcely a hint of emotion in Applewhite's voice. After
all, his career exemplifies diligence beating raw talent. "I
don't like the term overachiever," says Brown, "but I suspect
Major has been told many times that he's too slow, too weak or
too something else, and he's set on proving everybody wrong."
Applewhite, who was named by his father, Larry, an Alabama fan,
after former Crimson Tide running back Major Oglivie, attended
his first football camp, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he was in
third grade. Campers were given a motivational tape by former
Alabama All-America safety Tommy Wilcox. Little Major and his dad
listened to the tape all the way home to Baton Rouge, where Major
spent most of his childhood. "I know I was young, but those
messages sunk in," says Applewhite.
At every stage of Applewhite's football career, more talented
athletes have tried to beat him out and failed. When Major was in
eighth grade, he would awaken Larry at five in the morning and
drag him outside to run pass routes. When Major was in high
school, he would come home from practice and jump rope to music
in the garage, trying to improve his agility. He attended 21
football camps in nine years, including 10 that were designed
strictly for quarterbacks and receivers. At Catholic High in
Baton Rouge, he was overshadowed by running back Travis Minor,
who's now Florida State's leading rusher. He redshirted as a true
freshman at Texas and was elevated to starter a year ago only
because senior Richard Walton was injured in the third game of
Yet as Texas went a surprising 9-3 in 1998 and won the Cotton
Bowl, Applewhite earned his teammates' respect. "He made no
impression on me at first," says Cavil. "I met him on my
recruiting visit and didn't even remember him when I got here.
He's not gifted, but man, he's a winner."
Nunez likens Applewhite to Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, a
Heisman Trophy candidate who threw to Nunez in high school.
"Major reads defenses so well; plus he knows what every guy on
the offense is doing on every play. It's amazing." Applewhite
spends 20 hours a week watching tape. In his bedroom the console
that holds his television set and VCR is cluttered with dozens of
videocassettes. "I fall asleep at night watching tape, and I
watch tape while I'm getting dressed in the morning," says
Though there's improvement in Applewhite's play with each game,
there also is the lingering expectation that he will be replaced
by the 6'5", 210-pound Simms, who was regarded by most recruiters
as the best high school quarterback in the country a year ago.
"Chris and Major are like night and day," says Cavil. "I mean,
Chris is gifted."
Simms has uncommon poise for his age, an engaging personality and
a sensational arm. "Chris is extremely bright, extremely gifted,"
says Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "You could pretty
much take any word and put extremely in front of it, and it would
apply to Chris." That would include confident. Three days before
the game against Nebraska, Simms was asked if he would be ready
to play against the Cornhuskers if needed. "Absolutely, I'm ready
now," Simms said.
"Right now Major is playing because he's experienced, and he's
been shot at and hit," says Davis. "Eventually, there's going to
be a battle for the position." Brown goes further than that: "We
would like to play two quarterbacks next year." That's a strategy
that Brown used with success at North Carolina in 1996 and '97.
Applewhite has handled Simms's arrival with class. Since the
start of the summer he has tutored Simms on the intricacies of
the college game, even though it could eventually cost him his
position. "Suppose we're all working out in the summer, dripping
and bending over holding on to our shorts," says Applewhite.
"What kind of a team player would I be not to help Chris when
we're all supposed to be sweating together?" The two are
roommates on game weekends.
But the competition never dies. In a television interview before
Saturday's game, Applewhite said he expected Simms to have a
great senior season, implying that Simms wouldn't start until
Applewhite is gone in two years. "I didn't mean it in a negative
way," Applewhite said following the game. "I just started
counting my years and figured that Chris would be a senior after
I'm gone." He shrugged impishly.
Later, outside the stadium, a cluster of kids surrounded
Applewhite, waving programs and hats and T-shirts for him to
sign. His future may be uncertain, but the present couldn't have
"They're Nebraska, and they're good," says Applewhite, "but
they're not very complicated. It's not going to be calculus."
A sizable number of Texas fans have spent the autumn waiting for
Applewhite to lose his job to Simms.