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Funny thing, Edwards seemed the least likely person to turn Brigham Young into a passing powerhouse when he became the coach. He had been a defensive coach at BYU for the previous 10 years, and he still swears that defense wins football games, although he's willing to admit that 83 points is a pretty good defense against any opponent. As a defensive assistant, however, he had found that a well-conceived passing attack gave him more problems than anything else. Most important, Edwards wanted a recruiting advantage. With so many teams running option offenses, he thought there would be less competition for skilled passers and receivers.
Yet though the Cougars have repeatedly come up with top quarterback talent, it isn't because they've outrecruited anybody. Instead, they've generally had to settle for players no one else wanted. Edwards' first good passer was Gary Sheide, who finished second in the NCAA in 1973 and 1974 and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. He was virtually unknown when he came to BYU after two years at a junior college he had attended to sharpen his baseball skills. His successor, Nielsen, who finished sixth in the 1976 Heisman voting and was a favorite for the trophy the following year before being sidelined by torn knee ligaments, was a local boy who grew up four blocks from the BYU campus. He's also a Mormon, so there was little doubt that he would attend Mormon-sponsored Brigham Young. Not that anybody much cared. In high school Nielsen was slow afoot as a Wishbone quarterback and had never demonstrated any passing ability. It wasn't until his third year at BYU that he finally chose football over basketball.
When Nielsen moved on to the Houston Oilers, Marc Wilson became the regular and thereupon set 13 NCAA records to finish third in the Heisman race before being drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders. The Cougars had to go to the state of Washington to get Wilson, but he too was a Mormon and had been largely overlooked by recruiters after missing most of his senior year with a broken jaw. McMahon is another Utah boy, a Catholic who wanted to go to Notre Dame but wasn't recruited by the Irish.
Unquestionably, the best recruit Edwards ever signed was Scovil. Scovil had always been associated with top quarterbacks. As a collegian he succeeded Eddie LeBaron as signal caller at the University of the Pacific. He coached Roger Staubach at Navy and in the late '60s, while head coach at his alma mater, he tutored Bob Lee, who's still making a living as an NFL quarterback. After that he spent six years working on Dick Nolan's San Francisco 49er staff. When Nolan was fired, Scovil decided he was ready to "do things my way," but was unable to land a job as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. Eventually he got in touch with Edwards, who offered him just the inducement he was looking for. Edwards handed Scovil the BYU playbook and told him he could do whatever he wanted with it.
What Scovil has done is install a complicated passing game and then drill the Cougars until they execute it to perfection. In large measure it succeeds because the Cougars emphasize it so strongly. "For 2½ hours at practice almost all the quarterbacks and receivers do is throw and catch," says Davis. "Our execution level is incredibly high." Scovil estimates, for instance, that the Cougars can complete a basic seven-yard sideline pass eight of 10 times. This precision is rough on opponents, who have just one week to get ready for the BYU aerial fireworks after spending the rest of the year defensing run-oriented option offenses.
Yet Scovil's sophisticated attack would baffle even the best-prepared opponents. BYU quarterbacks spend freshman year learning the system on the junior varsity and then are redshirted for a season before they are deemed ready to handle the offense. Receivers need almost as much schooling, because Scovil's system requires that each knows all the other receivers' routes as well as his own. On most plays there are five receivers in the pattern. To tax defenses further, Scovil alternates both wide receivers on every play to keep a fresh pair in the game at all times. Orchestrating the whole attack is Scovil himself, calling the plays from a list he prepares after studying the opponent all week. "The year he was with the Bears we had the same offense," says Davis, "but the guy calling the plays just didn't have Doug's feel for the game. We finished eighth in passing. It was such a letdown."
"There's no question that it's the system that makes the quarterback here, not the other way around," says McMahon, who's not known for his modesty. Indeed, before this season got under way he was talking about the Heisman. But why not? In 1978 McMahon split time with Wilson and eventually was named the All-WAC quarterback ahead of Marc. Last year, while McMahon was redshirting to rest a surgically repaired left knee, he watched as Wilson became an All-America and the top vote getter at his position in the Heisman balloting.
At 6'1", 180 pounds, McMahon is smaller than either Nielsen or Wilson, both of whom stood 6'5", but he's quicker and has a stronger arm. When he cocks that arm, it makes a grinding noise, the result of bone fragments left over from a high school shoulder separation. Off the field McMahon wears glasses to improve the vision in his right eye. The pupil there is a trifle egg-shaped. At the age of six he was trying to untie his shoelaces with a fork and ended up sticking it in his eye. But he has no visual aid on the playing field. "I've got radar," he says with an easy smile. "I can see the color of the jerseys and that's enough."
Or, as UTEP will testify, more than enough.