Dick Harmon: It takes a special type of person to be a backup quarterback
PROVO — Backup quarterbacks are glory men without the adoration, fame and ceremony.
It's a tough life filled with all the work but little game time reward. You have to love the game to accept and carve out a workable attitude as a backup QB.
Clipboards R Us.
All major college teams in the state are establishing this pecking order this spring.
At Utah State, there's a derby with starter Chuckie Keeton, a sophomore, and Adam Kennedy, a senior.
At Utah, Jordan Wynn is back. Utah also welcomes freshmen Travis Wilson, Chase Hansen and senior Jon Hays returns after a very dramatic rodeo ride in 2011.
At BYU you've got two seniors, Riley Nelson and James Lark, a unique situation. They are pushed by Tysom Hill, Jason Munns, Alex Kuresa and Ammon Olsen.
Yes, there will definitely be inductions into the Backup Club.
A guy who knows the nuts and bolts of this duty is Orem businessman Royce Bybee, who stood on the sidelines of BYU's final spring practice Friday afternoon.
Bybee, whose daughter Hayden will marry Cougar receiver Marcus Matthews on April 21, was a backup to two All-America quarterbacks. Their names were Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson. How many guys can say that? Bybee, needless to say, got little playing time in his career. He signed a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders out of college and spent almost four months in camp working with Wilson, Jim Plunkett and another rookie named Marcus Allen.
"I thought I was doing pretty well. I threw some passes right on target.
It was like throwing BBs. I thought to myself, 'I can do this, I can play with these guys.' Then, a guy from the Cleveland Browns came into camp and it was all over."
That day, Bybee's life-long dream to get on an NFL field and play died.
He's got sage advice for the backup QBs of this world.
For a QB to survive backup duty, he must possess an attitude built on steriods.
He must treat every day as if a coach were going to walk up to him and tell him he would take over.
"When I was behind McMahon and Wilson, I acted like I would be starting. It was that simple," said Bybee.
"When the preparation time came during the week, I'd prepare, go through the defenses and personnel of who'd we be playing just as if I was going to play. I was literally one play away from playing if something did happen.
"Another thing is, you are still competing, still pushing the person ahead of you. The more you can push that guy, the better off both of you will be because it makes him rise to the occasion and gets you ready — it makes the team better."
Bybee says whether a guy is No. 2, 3 or 4 in the depth chart, he must be ready.
But you've still got family and friends who expect you to be the guy. And they vocalize it.
"You can't control that. It is a coaches' decision. All you can do is prepare physically and mentally," said Bybee, who added it doesn't take away the sting of standing on the sidelines. "If you're a competitive guy, it is not easy, it is one of the toughest things you can do. But once again, looking at everything and looking at the broad perspective of the team and what you can do for the entire team is to be prepared."
Easier said than done?
"It is much easier said than done.
"You have to embrace what decisions the coaches have made. You just have to. Every kid out here behind Riley Nelson is here because they want to play. When I came off my mission and arrived here, there were McMahon and Wilson. But I wanted to play. I wanted to compete for the job. That's all you can ask for."
This past season, there was no better example of this dynamic than when Wynn went down at Utah and Jon Hays found himself — for better or worse — the Ute starter in the first season of Pac-12 play.
In Provo, Riley Nelson used a coaching decision to replace starter Jake Heaps late in a win over Utah State. Heaps then became a member of the Clipboards-R-US fraternity, but found that role changed when Nelson injured his ribs, an injury that forced Riley to sit out several games. Heaps started against New Mexico State, only to give way to Riley again in wins at Hawaii and the Armed Forces Bowl.
Starting is manna dropped from the skies. It is glory. But it is false security in college and the NFL.
Starting is really only one bad fall or serious hit away from nothing.
Offenses are only as good as their starters and backup QBs. No other position in football is as tenuous. Just ask Steve Young when he came in for McMahon at Colorado in 1981.
As spring practices wind down or just begin across the state, I salute the backups.
Don't ever give up.
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