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Escape Artists
Ivan Maisel
August 14, 2000
The elusive, keen-armed quarterback who can beat the beasts of defense with his feet as well as his arm is all the rage in college ball
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August 14, 2000

Escape Artists

The elusive, keen-armed quarterback who can beat the beasts of defense with his feet as well as his arm is all the rage in college ball

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You probably have a picture in mind of the perfect quarterback—a 6'5", 225-pound rock who stands tall in the pocket, shrugs off linebackers and can throw a football through a brick wall. Right? Great. Now drag that image into the trash bin. That quarterback is so over. In the mold of Michael Vick, the 6'1", 214-pound sophomore who gave such a thrilling performance in Virginia Tech's 46-29 Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State last January, the dream quarterback is now highly mobile, as dangerous running the ball as passing it. Unlike the option quarterbacks of old, these guys have strong arms and direct offenses in which they are just as likely to throw as to run. At the head of this class is Vick, the most exciting player in the nation (page 92), but he is joined by juniors Quincy Carter of Georgia, Woody Dantzler of Clemson, Antwaan Randle El of Indiana and senior Marques Tuiasosopo of Washington, each of whom is a threat to become the first Division I-A quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Dantzler, who took only 22 snaps in the Tigers' first three games last fall, stepped in for injured starter Brandon Streeter and threw for 1,506 yards and rushed for 588. Randle El passed for 2,277 yards and ran for 788. Tuiasosopo threw for 2,221 yards and rushed for 541. Carter, limited by an inexperienced offensive unit, passed for 2,713 yards and ran for 255 yards. "We lost four guys from our offense in the [1999] draft, and we still led the league in total offense," Georgia coach Jim Donnan says. "That's because of Quincy's athleticism. He basically carried us."

What has brought mobile quarterbacks to the fore is their effectiveness as an antidote to the faster, bigger defenders now crowding the line of scrimmage. "There was a day when the linebacker who ran 4.5 was a freak," says George DeLeone, offensive coordinator at Syracuse, which has been using multiskilled quarterbacks for more than a decade to make its freeze-option attack click. "Now he's commonplace. Defensive linemen are also much faster."

Washington offensive coordinator Keith Gilbert-son recalls timing the quarterback's release a decade ago. "You'd count off, thousand and one, thousand and two, thousand and three, buzzzz. Now it's thousandandone, thousandandtwo, throw it! It has to be gone." That, or your quarterback has to be mobile enough to escape the rush.

"The classic drop-back guy who's immobile is so vulnerable now to the speed of a defense that can really rush the passer," says DeLeone. "He does nothing in terms of being extemporaneous. If the play breaks down, the play breaks down. If you have someone like [former Syracuse and now Philadelphia Eagles passer] Donovan McNabb at quarterback and the play breaks down around him, that play might still go for 45 yards. That's the difference, two or three plays a game that keep the chains moving and the opponent's offense off the field, or that put your offense in the other team's end of the field. Those are unbelievable opportunities."

Coaching wisdom often favors experience over raw talent, especially at quarterback, where the mental burden is so great. But by relying on a quarterback's athleticism to offset defensive pressure, coaches have allowed some inexperienced players to flourish. Maybe you remember what it was like chasing the quickest guy in your neighborhood around the backyard. At Clemson, Dantzler, who wrote off several schools that coveted him as a wideout or cornerback, started six games last season after Streeter broke his right collarbone. "Woody wasn't prepared mentally to do what we wanted, so we gave him a chance to run in the open field," Tigers coach Tommy Bowden says. "When you give a guy's athleticism more opportunities, you can get him ready faster. You get more [defensive schemes] with a guy who can't move; you eliminate schemes with a guy who can run."

Randle El is mobile enough to have played basketball for Bob Knight, as a freshman two seasons ago. "He has the hands of a 6'5" guy," Indiana coach Cam Cameron says of the 5'10", 194-pounder. "When you have big hands, you can be more mobile. That sounds funny, but you don't have to keep two hands on the ball. Antwaan also is extremely tough, one characteristic that separates the really good quarterback from the good ones. Nobody wants an athletic quarterback who's soft. The team sees him react when he gets hit."

All eyes were fixed on Tuiasosopo when, as a freshman at Washington in 1997, he was thrust into a game against Nebraska after starter Brock Huard sprained an ankle in the first quarter with the Huskies trailing 14-0. "That game was all instinct," says Tuiasosopo, who played quarterback and safety at Woodinville (Wash.) High and refused to consider any college that wanted him to play defense. "I barely had a grasp of the offense. I was concentrating on remembering the plays." Tuiasosopo ran for only 12 yards on 11 carries but darted around in the backfield well enough to throw for 270 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-14 loss.

Last year, in a game against Stanford, Tuiasosopo was hit while passing on the first series and landed with all of his weight on his left buttock. His tailbone was bruised severely enough to hinder his mobility for the next three weeks, but in the 35-30 victory over the Cardinal that day, Tuiasosopo ignored the pain and became the first NCAA player to throw for more than 300 yards (302) and rush for more than 200 yards (207) in the same game.

Kent Baer, the Stanford defensive coordinator, says Tuiasosopo's performance reminded him of a day nearly two decades earlier when he was coaching at Utah State and had his hands full trying to stop a particular quarterback at BYU. "I remember going out on the field before the game, and Steve Young had his shirt off," Baer says, "and I couldn't believe how well put together he was. He would have been a tremendous running back. Tuiasosopo would be, too, with his ability to run the ball and take hits. But I was just as amazed at how effective he was as a passer. He made some outs to the sideline that I didn't think he was good enough to throw."

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