Dick Harmon: Will BYU quarterback Taysom Hill develop into an accurate passer?
Tom Smart, Deseret News
The burning QB questions in Provo have reached bonfire height this week.
How fast can Taysom Hill become an effective passer (i.e., completing more than 50 percent of his passes)?
How long will he be in training?
How long will BYU’s offensive staff patiently work with him before considering playing backup Ammon Olsen?
With stud sophomore running back Jamaal Williams likely missing one to two games with a concussion and stinger, does BYU need to evolve with more passes or utilize different personnel and keep the focus on the read option?
And how much blame should be assigned to Hill, and how much blame should be assigned to the offensive line, receivers and play-calling?
Fresh off a 20-13 loss to rival Utah, Hill is receiving a ton of scrutiny — fair or unfair — for his accuracy woes during BYU's 1-2 start. His pass efficiency rating is last in the nation at 123. He is completing 37 percent of his passes. Although BYU's rushing offense is ranked No. 8, the Cougars rank No. 96 in passing offense.
The passing issues cannot be ignored.
Future opponents USU, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and perhaps others will take advantage of this and are very capable of doing it as well or better than Utah.
The challenge is big time.
In my opinion, for BYU to maximize its chances of competing and winning against quality opponents, the Cougars must have an extraordinary playmaker at quarterback. And that guy must be able to make plays with his arm.
That one factor allows BYU to finesse around obvious shortcomings and can be a great equalizer — or at least close to it.
Hill has had nearly two months of training under the tutelage of Jason Beck and Robert Anae, coaches brought in to elevate the offense. Yet, Hill and the offense had 30 incompletions against Utah. That won’t win games.
I’m not in the corner that says Hill should be replaced, albeit, if he doesn’t show progress, like any other position on the team, another guy should get a chance in fairness to the team.
And it's not all Hill’s fault. Coaches shoulder some of the blame for not preparing him. We are only half a year removed from two consecutive spring practices where the Cougars couldn’t scrimmage due to offensive line issues. Anae’s offense is going to go through growing pains. And Hill has had at least a dozen dropped passes by receivers in three games — some of them killers.
Hill is a uniquely gifted athlete. He is a team leader and is highly respected. He has phenomenal foot speed to get around the end or break one up the middle. He is big, strong and tough. He will never be able to do it all on his own.
But what about his skill level as a passer?
Hill has the arm strength. He does not have the touch or the timing.
Last week I asked former Cougar and NFL quarterback John Beck about Hill, whom he has thrown and worked with. Beck said Hill is accurate, but he’ll never be game accurate until he feels a great level of comfort in what he’s doing — trusting protection, trusting receivers and trusting himself. And that comes with time and experience.
Some forget that after Jim Harbaugh signed Hill out of high school to go to Stanford, he elected to leave the game to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a two-year interruption. Upon returning and transferring to BYU, he played sparingly as a freshman, underwent knee surgery, then had to digest a new offensive philosophy administered by a new staff.
The mission thing is real. Until Brandon Doman led BYU to a MWC title in 2001, no BYU quarterback who had served an LDS mission had ever led the Cougars to a conference title. That adjustment alone is something neither Utah nor Utah State currently has to deal with. They have QBs who are continuing to play football immediately out of Texas and California high schools.
It sounds like an excuse, but it is a challenge.
Hill reminds me of Steve Young, a high school athlete I first interviewed out of Greenwich, Conn. He was an option quarterback recruited by Army and others. He never served a mission. Young spent time behind Jim McMahon and was three years into his college career before he became a starter. He went on to become an inductee into the College and NFL Halls of Fame.
Young, like Hill, is a tremendous competitor and hard worker. During his early days in Provo, Young couldn’t throw a lick.
In high school, passing was the last thing Young’s high school coach Mike Ornato wanted Young to do.
“Hey, if I threw the football in high school, it wasn’t in public,” said Young. His biggest recruiting look came from North Carolina, where coach Dick Crum wanted him for his running ability.
When Young got to BYU his freshman year, he turned the heads of nobody — not even assistant coach Doug Scovil, who wanted to make him a safety. His passes were wobbly, off target, and his throwing motion was awkward. He had no footwork and no clue. Even assistant Ted Tollner, who was in Young’s corner, patiently watched him work up the ranks behind starter McMahon and backups Royce Bybee, Eric Krzmarzick, Mark Haugo, Gym Kimball and Mike Jones.
All-America tight end Gordon Hudson watched Young back-peddle, trip and fall down and asked, “Is this guy a walk-on?”
Unlike Hill’s freshman appearances against Hawaii and Utah State, Young never played as a freshman but started three games as a sophomore when McMahon got injured at Colorado.
In Young’s three games as a sophomore, he was 4 of 10 for 63 yards at Colorado; 21 of 40 against USU; and 21 of 40 against UNLV. Playing behind a great offensive line, a legendary coaching staff, and having McMahon as a tutor, his completion percentage was 51.1 percent.
In time, with a lot of hard work, Young watched his challengers fall away: Krzmarzick transferred to Florida; Kimball took off for USU; Jones left for Cal-Lutheran; and Haugo transferred to San Diego State.
Meanwhile, Young became a passer, one of the most accurate BYU’s had. By the end of his NFL career, his 112.8 rating was the highest efficiency rating in recorded NFL history.
No, I’m not saying Taysom Hill is Steve Young.
But they are similar athletes. Young was a 4.43 sprinter in the 40-yard dash. Hill has similar speed — only he’s bigger and stronger than Young.
As frustrating as it is to see Hill complete just 37 percent of his passes in three games, he’s been thrown a pretty big challenge early, coming off an injury and that two-year absence.
He’ll need a lot of hard work — thousands of reps. He must create timing with his strength and fine-tune his fast-twitch muscle fiber. It takes time.
Question is, will BYU’s coaching staff give him time? Or do they put him on a short leash and prepare Olsen?
Young wasn’t allowed to even dress for BYU’s first two home games his freshman year in Provo. He didn’t make the traveling squad. His had a first year of waiting, watching and working — with little rewards at all.
Hill? His time came quick and on the run.
Something Steve Young never had to do.
Is Hill ready to be a 60 percent passer?
But Anae and Co. can make it easier by scripting throws that enable him to succeed, perfect those routes and nail down the timing.
As Beck said, Hill must find comfort in what he’s doing, how he stands, how he makes reads, how he delivers the ball with touch, and how he believes in his protection so he can concentrate on just throwing.
I haven’t seen that comfort yet.
And who’s to say Olsen will feel that comfort, even if he has better touch, if he is not given the time that an enhanced offensive line performance would bring?
Until then, like we’ve seen the past two seasons at BYU, at least Hill can run out of trouble.
And that’s something.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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