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TOP GUNS
Tim Layden
October 27, 1997
As attacking defenses put quarterbacks under ever greater fire, three hotshots from the Pac-10 show how to handle the heat
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October 27, 1997

Top Guns

As attacking defenses put quarterbacks under ever greater fire, three hotshots from the Pac-10 show how to handle the heat

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Huard tasted the worst that the press has to offer in Washington's 27-14 home loss to Nebraska on Sept. 20, a defeat that dashed the Huskies' national championship hopes. He suffered a sprained left ankle in that game, courtesy of a sack by Nebraska All-America end Grant Wistrom on the Huskies' 15th offensive play.

Huard and McNown both have been active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and they became friends as high school seniors on the recruiting trail, but as quarterbacks they have little in common other than their lefthandedness. While McNown is slightly undersized and makes up for an average arm with guile and terrific feet, the 6'5", 220-pound Huard throws a smooth, tight spiral that almost always goes to the proper receiver. "Of all the quarterbacks in the conference, he's the most polished, the most accurate," one Pac-10 coach says. Huard has thrown one interception in six games this fall, matched against 14 touchdowns. Like Tennessee's Peyton Manning, he's a big man who moves effectively in the pocket. Best of all, Huard, who got his first start for Washington coach Jim Lambright in the third game of the '96 season, has adjusted to the chaos of playing quarterback today.

His father, Mike, has been a football coach for 27 years, the last 17 at Puyallup (Wash.) High. Mike coached Brock's older brother, Damon, who played quarterback at Washington from 1993 to '95 and is now a backup for the Miami Dolphins, and he coaches Brock's younger brother, Luke, a high school senior and a nationally recruited quarterback. "I've been around the game so long," says Brock. "Ever since I've been watching the Huskies, even when my brother was here, they've been playing the attack defense. It's all I know.

"Everything happens so fast," he says of the defense. "Teams are trying to pressure you into mistakes, and the onus for beating the defense is on the quarterback and wide receivers, unless you can run the ball effectively. You wind up with two kinds of quarterbacks: guys who can scramble, like Kordell Stewart, or big guys who can take punishment, like John Elway and Kerry Collins and Drew Bledsoe. I guess I'm in that category."

Leaf is in a category of his own. The fiery 6'5½", 238-pound hulk from Great Falls, Mont., thinks like a linebacker, talks trash like a Brooklyn point guard and has almost every athletic talent required to play quarterback in 1997. "Let's see," says Washington State coach Mike Price. "He runs the 40 in 4.7, he's got a 36-inch vertical jump, he's broken almost every weightlifting record we have for quarterbacks, his field vision is incredible, and he gets better every week that we play." For these reasons Leaf is projected as a high first-round NFL draft pick if he decides to forgo his final year of eligibility—which seems likely, since four of his five starting offensive linemen and four of his top five wideouts are seniors. "I don't know what he's going to do," says Washington State backup quarterback Steve Birnbaum, one of Leaf's best friends. "But face it, this team is set up for him to leave."

Right now the team is set up for him to flourish. Price is one of the rare coaches who doesn't regard the quarterback position as significantly more difficult in 1997, largely because he has long used a pass-first, quick-read offense, the elements of which he animatedly diagrammed in grease pencil last Thursday for a visitor to his Pullman office. "I can explain it to you in five minutes," he said. "We like to keep it simple."

Using Price's spread offense, this year Leaf has thrown at least 13 completions to five receivers and passed for 19 touchdowns with just six interceptions (the same ratio as Manning's). On Saturday, in a 63-37 rout of California, he threw four touchdown passes of 43 yards or more and a fifth of 14 yards. He seems impervious to heavy blitzes, not only because he gets the ball away quickly but also because he has deceptively quick feet. Moreover, he's huge. "We hit him," says Toledo. "We just didn't knock him down."

"I'm bigger than some of UCLA's defensive linemen and linebackers," Leaf says. "They fell off me. Unless you take my head off, I'm not going to feel it."

His head, at this point, is more squarely on his shoulders than it has been at any time during his four years at Washington State. He signed with the Cougars out of C.M. Russell High in Great Falls and chafed at having to sit through a redshirt season in '94. He was also prickly during his redshirt freshman year, 1995, until Price named him to replace incumbent Chad Davis late in the season. In his first start Leaf nearly led the Cougars to an upset of Washington, losing 33-30. Last year he threw for 2,811 yards and 21 touchdowns on a 5-6 team, and he carried a chip on each shoulder. "He tried to impress people with his attitude, like he had to be the toughest guy," says senior wideout Chris Jackson. "He's high-strung If there was trouble on the field, he'd be in the middle of it. But this year at Oregon [a 24-13 win on Oct. 4], things got messy and Ryan got in the huddle and jumped everybody. He said, 'I don't want to hear an) more talking. Period.' That's a leader." Then again, it was Leaf who had earned hi; team a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration after he had raced onto the field the previous week to celebrate Birnbaum's mop-up touchdown pass in a 58-0 victor) over Boise State.

Consider that act a release from all the pressure of playing quarterback in 1997 Two days before Washington State blew out California, Leaf sat at a picnic table near Martin Stadium, shading his eyes from a brilliant sun with a pair of wraparound sunglasses and imagining somebody else's good old days. Soft zones, big cushions on the corners, slow linebacker who couldn't blitz. "That would be different," said Leaf wistfully. "And that would make things easy. Really easy."

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