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With passing making a resurgence, out of necessity, coaches are looking for a species that came perilously close to endangered status in the last decade: the quarterback who can throw. Some of these are strictly passers, including three who are making pro scouts drool: Brigham Young's Gifford Nielsen, Washington State's Jack Thompson and Stanford's Guy Benjamin.
Nielsen is the 6'5" Gatling gun who led the Cougars to the Western Athletic Conference co-championship, mainly by passing for 3,192 yards, the fifth-highest total in NCAA history, and 29 touchdowns, the fourth-best total. This year he aims to become the only player in major-college football history to net 3,000 yards in two seasons, and he is 2,884 yards away from breaking the alltime NCAA career record of 7,549 yards, set by John Reaves of Florida in 1969-71. His accomplishments are doubly remarkable when you consider that Nielsen was an outstanding forward on BYU's basketball teams for two years before trying out for varsity football. From atop BYU stadium Nielsen can see all the meaningful places of his life—where he was born, raised, educated, married and achieved stardom. "It appears that I've covered a lot of ground in a relatively short distance," he says.
That certainly is not the case for Thompson, who was born in Tutuila, on American Samoa, and is now playing football at Pullman, Wash. "The life is super here," he says. "Everyone always smiles and laughs." Last year Thompson completed 208 passes, one more than Nielsen, for a 58.6% completion average, three points better than Nielsen's. His passing yardage of 2,762 broke Jim Plunkett's Pac-8 record, a stunning feat since Thompson was mostly on the bench until Washington State's fourth game. Although he played only 30 of a possible 40 quarters, he threw for 20 touchdowns and scored two others on bootlegs. Against California Thompson rallied the Cougars from a 23-0 deficit only to lose 23-22. Said Cal Coach Mike White, "Thompson will be the greatest passer this conference has ever seen." A junior, the "Throwin' Samoan" may very well emerge as the first 8,000-yard passer.
Stanford's Benjamin last year completed 170 passes for almost 1,982 yards despite alternating at quarterback with Mike Cordova. Coach Jack Christiansen liked them both but was worried that Benjamin was too blithe a spirit to care about football. Benjamin holds the Stanford record for passing accuracy (58%), and although, realistically, he cannot I surpass the 7,887 school-record total-yardage figure amassed by Plunkett, who was a three-year starter, he is just 430 yards away from moving into second place ahead of Mike Boryla, John Brodie and Frankie Albert. Christiansen is gone now, replaced by Bill Walsh, who says Benjamin is his man, regardless of his quirks. One of them is game-day preparation. "I meditate using principles of Taoism and Zen Buddhism," Benjamin says, "followed by a couple of hours of TV cartoons."
John Robinson of USC thinks his quarterback, Ron Hertel, ranks among the nation's top five. Last year Hertel came off the bench to help beat Notre Dame, connecting on six of seven passes, including one for the go-ahead TD. You hear the same claims elsewhere. Matt Cavanaugh, a 59% passer, is back at Pitt; Army has Leamon Hall, fourth among returning quarterbacks in both passing and total yardage; Air Force has Dave Ziebart, who completed 19 of 26 and threw for three touchdowns in a victory over bowl-bound Wyoming. Michigan State's Ed Smith, the Big Ten's leading passer, is now a senior, and Dennis Sproul is back at Arizona State after passing for 174 yards a game despite injuries. Grambling senior Doug Williams holds nearly all his school's passing records, and Utah's Pat Degnan was the nation's top quarterback before breaking his hand last year.
The dropback passers won't be the only ones throwing this season; the option quarterbacks will have quite a fling themselves.
Among them is Arizona's Marc Lunsford, the WAC record holder for average yards gained per pass (9.83). Duke's Mike Dunn ran and passed for 167 yards a game to lead the ACC in offense. New Mexico's Noel Mazzone passed and ran for a record 356 yards against Utah and converted almost 50% of Lobo third-down plays. Memphis State's Lloyd Patterson threw for 14 touchdowns and 1,563 yards, both Tiger records, and rushed for another six touchdowns.
David Walker has Texas A&M thinking Cotton Bowl after turning the Aggies around last season. Walker became the starting quarterback in A&M's sixth game, when the Aggies were 3-2 and had scored as many as 20 points only once. Throwing 67 passes and completing 40, Walker opened up the offense, and the Aggies went on to win seven straight and average 38.7 points a game. Maryland will again be quarterbacked by Mark Manges, a 58% passer who threw for touchdowns in eight of 11 games last year and rushed for 448 yards. When the season was over, the Terps had an 11-0 record and a bid to the Cotton Bowl.
Houston Coach Bill Yeoman might not trade Danny Davis for all the above. Davis came on to lift the Cougars from 2-8 in 1975 to 9-2 and a Cotton Bowl victory. For practical purposes, Davis was Yeoman's only change in personnel from the previous season. He completed 77 of 161 passes for 1,348 yards and ran the ball for another 420. "I don't know what he has," says Wilson Whitley, Houston's All-America tackle, now with the Bengals, "but he sure has a lot of it."
As does Texas Tech's Rodney Allison, who is regarded as the most dangerous option quarterback in the land. He rushed for 523 yards and completed 59% of his 139 passes for 1,458 yards, nearly half of the Red Raider total in a 10-1 season. "He is in charge of the show," Coach Steve Sloan says.