A terrible mistake has been made. Redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer has intercepted a pass thrown by junior quarterback Vince Young during a summer workout for Texas players, and instead of casually flipping the ball back to the offense, Palmer has turned upfield, palming the ball at arm's length and whooping as if he had just clinched the Big 12 title. It is an oppressive summer night in Austin, and players are wearing only shorts and T-shirts, sweating rivers. No pads. No helmets. Ordinarily, no contact. But Palmer is weaving through teammates who are already huddling for the next play, and the 6'5", 230-pound Young is sprinting toward him. Young turns slightly and drops his shoulder into Palmer's chest, the sound of the hit like a butcher slapping a side of beef. Palmer lands on his back, his feet flipping skyward.
Younger players stare in wonder. Older ones nod knowingly. "That's Vince," says junior cornerback Aaron Ross. "Just doesn't let up."
So now Palmer knows. "I'm comin'," says Young. "I'm always comin'."
Texas is comin' too, riding on Young's broad back in pursuit of its first consensus national championship since 1969. In less than two full seasons as the Longhorns' starter, Young has passed for more than 3,000 yards, rushed for more than 2,000 and accounted for 43 touchdowns. Numbers don't illustrate that Young is also the most kinetic quarterbacking presence in college football since Michael Vick ran wild at Virginia Tech. Last fall he rescued three games from defeat and salvaged countless plays with his spontaneous athleticism, leading Texas to an 11--1 record and a 38--37 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in the Longhorns' first BCS bowl appearance. "He has unique abilities," says Texas coach Mack Brown, "and great heart." With Young under center, plays are never dead, games are never over.
Oklahoma State knows. Last November the Cowboys whipped and humiliated Texas in front of its home crowd in Austin, running up a 35--7 lead with 1:21 left in the first half. But before the next 25 minutes of action had ticked off the game clock, Young had led the Longhorns to 49 consecutive points, putting his Vin-sane signature on the victory by slaloming 42 yards for a touchdown on a broken play with 6:57 still to go. "I should have called timeout," he says now, rewatching the tape and noting that tailback Cedric Benson was lined up on the wrong side. "But I didn't, so I just tried to make a play." Young closed the 56--35 victory with a school-record 12 consecutive pass completions.
Kansas knows. One week after the Oklahoma State comeback, Texas appeared to be dead and buried again. The Jayhawks led 23--20 with a little more than a minute to play and had the Longhorns in a fourth-and-18 hole at the Texas 45. Then Young scrambled out of a collapsing pocket, darted right, made Kansas linebacker Nick Reid miss terribly in the open field--"I gave him a little two-step," says Young--and ran out-of-bounds after a 22-yard gain. Five snaps later he hit Tony Jeffery with a 21-yard touchdown pass to win the game.
Michigan knows best of all. In the Rose Bowl, Young rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns, and passed for 180 yards and another score. He brought Texas back from a 31--21 deficit in the last 10 minutes, beginning with his 10-yard touchdown scramble after escaping Michigan defensive tackle Patrick Massey, who had spun him 360 degrees in the pocket. "How in the world ...?" intoned venerable ABC announcer Keith Jackson after Young crossed the goal line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, a senior at Texas when Young redshirted, watched the Rose Bowl on television, enraptured by the performance of his former understudy. "I knew he had ability," says Simms, "but he's doing things nobody else in college football can do."
And Young, 22, does even more. During the off-season in Austin it's Young who keeps the keys to the practice-field gate. It's Young who'll tell a joke when tension needs to be broken. ("He'll even do a little dance now and then during stretching, just to crack everybody up," says junior tailback Selvin Young.) And at the team's first meeting in preparation for the 2005 season it was Young who, upon seeing players behaving as if they were in a nightclub still celebrating the win over Michigan, shouted, "Hey, y'all! Rose Bowl's over!"--turning the room stone silent and everyone's attention to the future.
Like Ryan Palmer learned on a muggy summer night, the guy never lets up.