As proven by Longhorns star Colt McCoy and others, no state turns out quarterbacks like Texas, where spread-happy offenses, seven-on-seven tournaments and year-round reps have prepared signal-callers to excel in Division I-A programs from coast to coast
This is an article from the Dec. 7, 2009 issue
It was Sam Houston who once observed of Texas that "no country upon the globe can compare with it in natural advantages"—and he didn't even see the 2009 college football season, which has been shaped to an extraordinary extent by quarterbacks from the Lone Star State. From the redwood forests (Stanford's Andrew Luck) to the Ozark Mountains (Ryan Mallett of Arkansas) and at many points in between (Nick Foles at Arizona, Andy Dalton at TCU, Todd Reesing at Kansas, to name a few), this land is overrun by signal-callers who honed their games to a razor's edge in Texas.
Twenty-two of the 120 teams that play Division I-A ball are quarterbacked by Texans. The quality of those QBs was on vivid display at Kyle Field last Thursday, as Texas A&M almost spoiled the Thanksgiving—and perfect season—of third-ranked Texas, a 21-point favorite. In what amounted to his national coming-out party, Aggies quarterback Jerrod Johnson gigged the Longhorns for 342 passing yards and four touchdowns, racking up another 97 yards on the ground in a 49--39 loss. Keeping his composure and reasserting himself as the Heisman front-runner, the Longhorns' Colt McCoy responded with a statistically ridiculous night: He passed for 304 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 175 yards and another score. "Because so many [high school] teams are throwing so much," McCoy, the senior from Tuscola, had explained several days earlier, "there are more and more guys coming up who are really good. Right now in Texas we've just got quarterbacks all over the place."
That a state with 8% of the nation's population accounts for, on most Saturdays, nearly one fifth of all starting Division I-A quarterbacks is even more remarkable when one considers how recently proponents of the wing T and the veer roamed the land of bluebonnets. This is the state that gave us Darrell Royal, the legendary Longhorns coach who made the Paleolithic proclamation that "three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad." It was Royal's offensive assistant, one Emory Bellard, who invented the wishbone, in 1968. Royal's influence on the state's high school coaches turned wide expanses of the state, for decades, into passing wastelands.
How'd we get from there to here? "To understand the transformation," says Chad Morris, coach at Lake Travis High in Austin, "you start with the importance communities place on winning. In Texas high school football there's an insane amount of pressure to produce."
That pressure finds its most outsized expression in the hundreds of seven-on-seven tournaments that spring up around the state every summer like revival meetings, in this case the object of worship being the forward pass. "I'm telling you, it's a huge deal," says Morris, whose Cavaliers are the two-time defending Class 4A state champions. "From the end of May to the middle of July there are tournaments every weekend. When you get 800, 900 teams throughout the state playing seven-on-seven at some level, well, gol-lee, you can't help but to get better at throwing the football around."
Look no further than the Cavaliers' own District 25-4A, in which seven-on-seven teams are fielded from the third grade up. Last season at least one first-grader—Chad's son, Chandler—played up with the third-graders. What it boils down to is that some of these kids are learning to read defenses not long after they've learned to read. See Dick get the signal from the sideline. See Dick get a presnap read. See Dick hit his fourth option on a skinny post.
It was a smashmouth conference when I got here," recalls Texas coach Mack Brown, who arrived from North Carolina in 1998. "And a lot of people said it needed to stay that way, because when the wind's blowing and the weather turns cold in West Texas and Kansas or up in Lincoln, you can't throw in those places."
Those long-held flat-earth views were being debunked by such pioneers as Hal Mumme. Before his fevered football intellect led to head coaching jobs at Kentucky and New Mexico State, Mumme was airing it out in the mid-1980s as the coach at Copperas Cove High. When skeptics carped that he couldn't throw the ball in bad weather, "I'd tell 'em, 'Well, I learned a lot of this stuff from the Canadian Football League, and last time I checked, it snows up there,'" says Mumme, now the coach at Division III McMurry in Abilene.
Two hours south on I-35, Sonny Detmer presided over an aerial attack that achieved greatness once he put his eldest son under center. Before winning the Heisman at BYU in 1990, Ty Detmer set a raft of state records at San Antonio's Southwest High, then looked on as his brother, Koy, eclipsed them.
This was an era, mind you, dominated by marquee running backs: Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, David Overstreet and Eric Dickerson. Slinging the ball around for one's bread and butter was a lonely position for Sonny Detmer and his pioneering ilk to stake out. To supplement his salary, Detmer played receiver for the San Antonio Toros of the old Continental League for $150 a game. "Made more money playing during the season than I did from teaching and coaching," he says.
He started exchanging notes with another Toros receiver, an aspiring coach named Ronnie Thompson, who, like Detmer, was committed to a pass-happy offense that his old coach at Jefferson High in Port Arthur would have condemned as an apostasy. The indelibly nicknamed Buckshot Underwood had been a Bear Bryant assistant at Kentucky.
"When I read about the camp the Bear took those boys to—the Junction Boys—man, I thought it was a comedy," says Thompson, now the athletic director at Memorial High in Port Arthur. "Shoot, we lived through the [same] thing, and we were high school kids." Was Buckshot a fan of the forward pass? "My junior year we threw 17 passes—and 11 of those were in the state semifinals against Corpus Christi Miller."
Launching his own coaching career, Thompson became an early advocate of the passing game—a reaction, in large part, to the archconservatism of Underwood. While his aerial attack was "very simple" compared with those seen today, Thompson says, "we did a lot of damage because no one else was doing it."
At wit's end during his first season as coach at Jefferson, Thompson brought a sophomore quarterback off the bench, a Methodist minister's son by the name of Todd Dodge. "We'd gone through a bunch of seniors and nothing worked," Thompson says. "It was November and we were 0-fer, as in 0-for-the-season. Todd comes in against a pretty good team from Beaumont and leads us to a 33--9 win. Next year we win six games—should have won eight. His senior year, he was flat-out smokin'."
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, author Thomas Cahill shows that in the Dark Ages, an "isle of saints and scholars" preserved most of the written treasures of Western civilization from the barbarians marauding across Europe.
Think of Thompson and Detmer and Mumme and Dodge as the saints and scholars who kept the passing game alive. After playing in 38 games for the Longhorns in the early 1980s, the quarterback known as TD got into the coaching business. As offensive coordinator at McKinney High outside Dallas in 1989, Dodge crossed paths with his old mentor, Thompson, who had landed at nearby South Garland. There, his offense drew from a potpourri of potent influences: the quick-passing game of Miami's Dennis Erickson; the Mouseketeer attack of the USFL's Houston Gamblers, concocted by offensive coordinator Mouse Davis and executed by the young Jim Kelly; the devilish run-and-shoot variation implemented by mad-scientist-coach John Jenkins at Houston.
Emboldened by Thompson, Dodge junked McKinney's I formation in favor of a four-wide set run out of the shotgun—an offense now popularly known as the spread. But his system did not earn renown as Dodge Ball until 2002, his third season as coach at Southlake Carroll High. "That was the year we put in the no-huddle," says Dodge, who left for North Texas in late 2007. "Over the next 80 games we went 79--1." The Dragons won four state championships in five years, losing only to Katy High, by a single point, in the 2003 Class 5A title game.
During that dynastic span the Dragons were quarterbacked by Chase Wasson, the state's 2002 5A Player of the Year; Chase Daniel, who would go on to shatter Missouri's career passing records; Greg McElroy, now starting for No. 2 Alabama; and Riley Dodge, who turned down a scholarship offer from Texas to play for his old man in Denton.
By the time Todd Dodge moved on to the Mean Green, a clear majority of the state's 1,100 or so high schools had embraced some species of the spread offense. "As the spread got more popular, so did the position of quarterback," says Ennis High coach Sam Harrell, whose son Graham led the Lions to a Class 4A state title in 2001 and set a Texas record for career passing yards (12,532) before putting up more eye-popping stats at Texas Tech. "When Darrell Royal made that statement, the quarterback's biggest job was to hand the ball off. Now it's a much more exciting proposition. So the pool of kids wanting to play quarterback is bigger. And in a state this big, you'll find some good ones."
They're finding them earlier and earlier. As Dodge notes, "A lot of these quarterbacks are starting to be trained from the seventh and eighth grades. It's not about taking the best player from last season's team and making him a quarterback his senior year."
If Todd Dodge is a revolutionary, his revolution was fomented by a rule change, little noticed at the time, made by the state's University Interscholastic League—the governing body for Texas high school sports. In 1996 the UIL gave schools the green light to participate in off-season seven-on-seven competitions.
Among those quick to see the value in that ruling was Dick Olin, the shrewd, white-haired coach at Robert E. Lee High in Baytown, who lays claim to holding the first such tournament. Tearing it up that opening weekend was Olin's quarterback, the quicksilver Ell Roberson, who went on to star at Kansas State. (He was followed at Baytown Lee by Olin's stepson, Drew Tate, who became a three-year starter at Iowa; and then by Brian Johnson, last seen leading Utah to a 13--0 record and a Sugar Bowl trouncing of Alabama last January.)
In 1998 Olin was one of a group of coaches who organized the State 7-on-7 Tournament. "That year we had 32 teams, and we knocked it out in one day," says Doug Stephens, executive director of the tournament's board of directors. "Now there are leagues all over the state. I would estimate that three quarters of the teams in Texas are playing seven-on-seven to some degree."
In addition to seven-on-seven in the summer, Texas kids are getting reps during the school day. Allowing an "athletic period" in lieu of a P.E. class—an option offered in Texas and a few other states—lets coaches work with players throughout the school year. Teams can have 18 spring-football practices, and programs that reach the state title game play as many as 16 times and don't finish their seasons until the weekend before Christmas. As Mumme puts it, "You're kind of foolish if you don't come to Texas to recruit a quarterback, because we're just going to out-rep everybody else."
While California was long believed to be the home of the most advanced summer passing leagues, "Texas has just taken it and run with it," says Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, whose rebuilding effort on the Farm has centered on redshirt freshman Luck, a product of Houston's Stratford High and one of nine Texans on the Cardinal roster. In Texas, Harbaugh sees a singular marriage of old-school, hard-nosed principles with the game's new, cutting-edge elements. The result: "A style of football you just don't see anywhere else," he says. "I am enamored with Texas high school football. You've got beautiful stadiums, great coaching, sophisticated video systems. They're like small college programs. And they play the game the way it's meant to be played."
The State 7-on-7 is now a three-day extravaganza staged in mid-July in College Station, home of Texas A&M. That's mildly ironic, considering the Aggies' struggles throughout much of this decade to move the ball. After his squad finished last season 78th in total offense, A&M coach Mike Sherman reached out to none other than Chad Morris for tips on how to pick up the tempo on offense. It has come to this: The man whose offensive acumen helped him land the head coaching job for the Green Bay Packers—a position he held for six years—sought the counsel of a 41-year-old high school coach to defibrillate his offense. And how has that worked out? Led by Johnson, the junior from Humble, the Aggies rank sixth in the country in total offense this year.
He's a hot property now, but Morris was popping flop sweat in 2003. In his first season at Stephenville High, he'd coached the Yellow Jackets to a 6--4 record, missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. "I wasn't on a lot of people's Christmas-card lists," he says. "If we missed the playoffs the next year, I was going to be out of a job."
He flew to Arkansas to visit "a friend of a friend," a high school coach named Gus Malzahn, who is now Auburn's offensive coordinator and is best known for popularizing the Wildcat formation now in vogue everywhere from Pop Warner to the NFL. Malzahn's Springdale High Bulldogs had played in the 2002 state title game (and would win it all three years later), powered by his no-huddle spread. "The more I studied, the more I liked it," says Morris, who installed a similar version at Stephenville before the '04 season and made the playoffs four years running.
Following the '07 season he took the job at Lake Travis, where he has yet to lose a game. True, it's a complex offense, says Morris, "but there's a plan in place. We have a meeting in April with all of our seven-on-seven dads." (The UIL forbids coaches from participating in seven-on-seven; fathers of players usually fill that role.) "We go through what we want them to run." The idea, says Morris, is "to spoon-feed" the youngsters so that by the time they get to ninth grade, they've got a solid grasp of his system, a frenetic attack in which every play begins with five players on the sideline flashing a card with a number at the offense.
It might not be anything that Coach Royal would recognize as football. But Morris's program is at the pinnacle of a sport in a football-crazed state. In addition to winning the last two state championships, Lake Travis is sitting on a 43-game winning streak, the longest in Texas. Quarterbacking the Cavs to those titles was Garrett Gilbert, now a true freshman at Texas, where he backs up McCoy.
At Lake Travis High, Gilbert succeeded Reesing, who two seasons ago led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Gilbert was, in turn, succeeded by a junior with a vast upside. We'll let Morris take it from here:
"I've got a kid named Michael Brewer. His dad [Robert] played quarterback at Texas, and so did his granddad [Charley]. Right now he is on track to break Garrett's passing record from last year. You've gotta see this kid, I'm tell-ing you...."
Now on SI.com
Look for the SI 16-team playoff bracket and poll every Sunday at SI.com/cfb
NO STATE produced more Division I-A starting quarterbacks this season than Texas, which claims 22 signal-callers, among them three from Southlake Carroll High, outside Dallas. The list includes Florida State's Christian Ponder, Ball State's Kelly Page and Tulane's Joe Kemp, who started nine, seven and six games, respectively, before being sidelined by injury.
[The following text appears within a map. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual map.]
Andrew Luck HoustonSTANFORD
Nick Foles AustinARIZONA
Donovan Porterie Port ArthurNEW MEXICO
Trevor Vittatoe BedfordUTEP
Taylor Potts AbileneTEXAS TECH
G.J. Kinne GilmerTULSA
Riley Dodge SouthlakeNORTH TEXAS
Andy Dalton KatyTCU
Nick Florence GarlandBAYLOR
Colt McCoy TuscolaTEXAS
Todd Reesing AustinKANSAS
Ryan Mallett TexarkanaARKANSAS
Kyle Padron SouthlakeSMU
Ross Jenkins HoustonLOUISIANA TECH
Jerrod Johnson HumbleTEXAS A&M
Nick Fanuzzi San AntonioRICE
Case Keenum AbileneHOUSTON
Kelly Page SunnyvaleBALL STATE
Jevan Snead StephenvilleOLE MISS
Greg McElory SouthlakeALABAMA
Joe Kemp North Richland HillsTULANE
Christian Ponder ColleyvilleFLORIDA STATE