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Dick Harmon: Playing 2 QBs is a risky idea

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 31 2010 12:28 a.m. MDT

The two quarterback system isn't unique in the annals of BYU's coaches.

Rare, but not unheard of.

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall announced last Friday he'd deploy a two-quarterback system this season and start junior Riley Nelson in the opener against Washington on Saturday in LaVell Edwards Stadium.

It will be the day BYU honors its All-American quarterbacks, from Steve Young to Ty Detmer, from Jim McMahon to Robbie Bosco.

Generally, this ploy doesn't work out very well, as evidenced as far back as the McMahon days with Marc Wilson in the late 1970s. It divides teams, retards the progress of both QBs and tends to cause friction with not only coaches, but teammates, fans and families of players.

One guy tends to rise up and end this game of playing with a two-headed monster.

The unique thing about BYU's current situation with Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps is both are very proficient in different ways and, according to Cougar coaches, neither rose up and clearly grabbed the job.

Mendenhall told reporters on Monday that when he told the team he'd be going with two QBs, the squad nodded in approval and understood why.

To guess that BYU is preparing two separate offenses to accommodate each one "is unrealistic," according to Mendenhall. Yet, in watching the two operate, both excel at different aspects of what he calls BYU's core formations.

BYU tried the two-headed QB back in the late '80s with Sean Covey and Ty Detmer. Detmer replaced Covey seven times in 1988 before earning MVP honors in the Freedom Bowl win over Colorado.

Remember the year after Steve Sarkisian led BYU to the Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State? The Cougars opened up against Washington in Provo with QBs Paul Shoemaker and Kevin Feterik. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow started Shoemaker, ran the ball a lot, then replaced Shoemaker with his preferred guy, Feterik. Feterik started the rest of the season.

BYU's current staff has its roots at Snow College's 1985 NJCAA national championship, where Badgers head coach Paul Tidwell — now coaching BYU's linebackers — used a two-quarterback system under the tutelage of then offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. Mendenhall was a defensive back on that team and witnessed what Crowton tried to do every day in practice.

Mendenhall knows it can cause defenses problems.

Back in 1985, Snow had a freshman quarterback in Kevin White. He didn't make many mistakes, read defenses and had a decent arm.

The older Snow QB was Gary Swim, one of the best all-around athletes on the team. Swim could throw bullets, ran a 4.5 time in the 40 meters but struggled to grasp coverages.

Crowton made Swim his pet project, according to redshirt quarterback Joe Evans. Now a Utah businessman, Evans played at BYU after his Snow career (Deseret Book recently published a book called "Encompassing Charity" about his experiences backing up Detmer).

"Crowton was determined to make Swim a quarterback because he was such a great athlete. He used a lot of high-tech stuff like the Russian boxer character (Ivan Drago) in one of those Rocky movies. Swim was Gary's creation, and he wanted to use him."

Snow's defense was very good that year; perhaps that's why Tidwell and Crowton experimented with two QBs.

"Kevin didn't make very many mistakes, but he and Gary rotated back and forth every game," said Evans. "We had a huge offensive line that year. Kevin wouldn't kill you with mistakes. Gary would come in and make a big play but then, well, he'd also make mistakes.

"Depending on who was playing well that day, that guy would play more, and it went that way most of the season. It was not the ideal situation."

But as Snow's season progressed, Kevin got better and Gary struggled to make decisions under pressure. In Snow's championship game in Tulsa, Okla., against Northeast Oklahoma, White started and stayed in the entire game.

Swim went on to play at Kansas State and White transferred to Utah State.

"My opinion is the reason coaches do it is because they haven't made a decision yet," said Evans.

"Rather than rush a young kid out, they use the older guy and they need to let things play themselves out. You learn more about a player from game situations than in practice. In games you learn who is a gamer."

But what if both quarterbacks are gamers?

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

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