New rules are but one reason for the passing explosion. "Give credit to the defensive coaches," says Offensive Coordinator Frank Sadler of New Mexico. "Defensive philosophies like eight-or nine-man fronts have shut down running games."
"Basically, it starts in high school," says Temple Coach Wayne Hardin. "I think most of the high schools are throwing the ball more than ever in the past." Adds Tulane Coach Vince Gibson, "Another reason is television. Receivers can study instant replays and perfect moves that many ballplayers didn't think about 10 and 15 years ago. This starts before high school." Other observers cite the increasing number of Pee Wee leagues and instructional camps for young players. "We're getting finished products as far as pass catchers are concerned," says Gibson. "The same goes for quarterbacks."
Certainly it helps that the current group of signal-callers—from freshmen through seniors—is also extraordinarily talented. Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the San Francisco 49ers, calls it "one of the best in the 20 years I've been in the business. It'll be a long time before there's another crop like this one." It seems to be the match of such notable groups as those of 1955, when Earl Morrall and Bart Starr were seniors and Sonny Jurgensen, Len Dawson, John Brodie and Milt Plum were juniors, and of 1970, when Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini, Joe Theismann, Lynn Dickey and Ken Anderson were in college. Elway, Blackledge and Pitt senior Dan Marino may have received the most attention this season, but there is a raft of others who have shown exceptional ability. Wayne Peace of Florida, a junior, has completed a phenomenal 74.1% of his 170 passes and has led the Gators to wins over Miami and USC. Senior Tom Ramsey of UCLA, the national leader in passing efficiency, a statistic that takes into account completion percentage, total passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions, has thrown 17 TD passes in eight games and given the Bruins their strongest aerial attack ever, stronger even than in the days of Bob Waterfield, Billy Kilmer or Heisman Trophy winner Gary Beban.
At Brigham Young, junior Steve Young has proved himself a worthy successor to the illustrious Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, by completing 160 of 266, while Maryland junior Boomer Esiason, a lefty, has brought the Terps out of their conservative shell. Last week he engineered a 31-24 upset of ACC rival North Carolina. And, oh, his name? In the months before Norman Julius Esiason was born, he kicked so much in his mother's womb that his dad kept asking, "How did Boomer do today?" And if you want to know how Arizona beat Notre Dame 16-13, and tied UCLA 24-24, look no further than junior Tom Tunnicliffe, the country's seventh most efficient passer (57.9%), whose best performance came in a 55-7 rout of Pacific. In that game Tunnicliffe completed 21 of 27 for 427 yards and six touchdowns and set eight school single-game records. Duke's Ben Bennett, also only a junior, is already on the verge of breaking the ACC career records for passing yardage (6,116, he has 5,535) and touchdown passes (37, Bennett has 34), and junior Kelly Lowrey of Florida State has made his mark as an outstanding option thrower, completing 69 of his 129 passes and leading the 6-1 Seminoles to an unexpected ranking in the Top 20. Southern Mississippi's Reggie Collier, a 6'4", 205-pound senior who in 1981 became the first Division I-A quarterback ever to both pass and rush for 1,000 yards in a season, will be as attractive as anyone to NFL scouts.
As for Indiana senior Babe Laufenberg—his real name is Brandon (Brandon?), but as the youngest of six kids he lucked out on his nickname—who briefly attended Stanford, Missouri and Pierce J.C. near Los Angeles before becoming a Hoosier, well, ol' Babe set school records by completing 34 of 56 passes, for 335 yards, two weeks ago in a 49-25 loss to Ohio State. Incredibly, he wasn't the Big Ten's most prolific thrower that day. In a 49-14 defeat by Michigan, Sandy Schwab of Northwestern, a freshman, put the ball up an NCAA-record 71 times, completing 45 for 436 yards. "It's touch football," grumbled Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler, who nonetheless has been calling more pass plays himself lately, however reluctantly.
Among this season's other noteworthy passers:
Tony Eason, Illinois. Champaign (sic) Tony, a 6'4" senior, transferred from California's American River College two years ago, having averaged fewer than 10 passes per game in his high school and junior college careers. "I came in on the ground floor," he says. Yet last season he set nine Big Ten passing records, and this fall he's averaged 41.7 attempts, 26 completions and 308.4 yards per game. His 479-yard passing performance against Wisconsin two weeks ago ranks as the second-best single-game showing in Division I-A so far this season.
"We throw high-percentage passes, four or five yards, instead of running," says Eason. "We balance those with the longer passes. If you have a 90% completion probability, that's as good as an off-tackle trap." And that explains exactly the difference between 1982 and other big passing years: Teams are throwing more short, efficient passes. They're passing to set up the run. They're passing instead of the run. They're passing to set up more passing.
Whit Taylor, Vanderbilt. Like Eason, Taylor, a 5'11" senior, never passed much until last year, when Vanderbilt dumped its veer offense in favor of a multiple-formation "smorgasbord" passing set. Taylor ate heartily off the smorgasbord, breaking 17 school passing records and leading the SEC in passing offense (3,036 yards). This fall he passed for 287 yards in a 31-29 upset of Florida and brought Vandy to within four points of knocking off Alabama.
"We have so many shifts and formations that sometimes it's almost comical to watch the defense react," says Taylor. "It gets pretty hectic for them. They talk to each other." That's another 1982 development. In emulation of the pros, college teams are adding all sorts of new twists to their passing attacks—not just shifts and motion but extra wide receivers and trick plays. "We always feel we have the advantage over the defense," says Taylor.