Have you noticed? BYU, the school that has brought you a famed quarterback or two over the years, also has produced an inordinate number of outstanding tight ends.
First, there was Clay Brown, who, in the minds of many Cougar fans, still lies in the end zone of Jack Murphy Stadium, forever clutching the Miracle Catch. Brown passed the torch to Gordon Hudson, who was twice a first-team All-American. Then came David Mills, who, in his single season as a starter, caught 1,000 yards worth of passes for the national championship team. Mills' heir was Trevor Molini, the most gifted of them all but, finally, a victim of drug addiction. All of this is to say nothing of Todd Christensen, a fullback at BYU who has simply become the best tight end in pro football.BYU's tight end position is now the property of Darren Handley, a senior from Sandy who is out to make his own mark. He began last year by making a team-high 52 catches for 636 yards and 3 touchdowns, and most of that action came in the last half of the season. The 1988 season, which begins in Laramie next Thursday, could be considerably better.
Handley doesn't yet have the hands of Hudson or Mills, or the open-field running ability of Brown, or the raw speed of Molini, but he is solid in all three areas and, what's more, he brings his own gifts to the position. First, there is his size.
At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Handley looks like an interior lineman, but with 4.7 speed. Translation: He's heck to tackle. Last year he caught a pass on a short five-yard out route against San Diego State, turned upfield and began sprinting up the sideline, only to see a defensive back angling in. "I thought about making a move inside, but it was slick, so I went right through him," says Handley, who turned the play into a 35-yard gain. "I love running over people, using my size. It's my revenge. They (defenders) get free shots at me all day."
If there is something else that sets Handley apart, coaches say it is his ability to find holes in the coverage. "He has a great feel for the game," says BYU Coach LaVell Edwards. "He's like Gordon Hudson in the way he finds the open seam and in his understanding of the game and making the right decisions."
In some ways, perhaps it was all meant to be. Everything has fallen into place so far for Handley to rise to his current position. He was listed as the third-team tight end only two years ago, as a sophomore, stuck behind two juniors. "For a while I wondered if I would have only one year to be a starter," says Handley. But then George Tavita quit the team and Molini ran afoul of the law, which paved the way for Handley to start the final three games, including the Freedom Bowl. Molini ran into more problems during the off-season and that left the job to Handley in '87, as well.
And then one more thing happened to propel Handley into the limelight. Sean Covey became the starting quarterback, and he did what his predecessor failed to do: make consistent use of the tight end. Through the first seven games of last season, with Bob Jensen starting at quarterback, Handley had just 23 catches - an average of about three per game. Over the next five games, with Covey starting, Handley had 29 catches - an average of about six per game.
"Sean sees the field and reads defenses really well," says Handley. "He sees all the receivers. Bob was scrambling a lot. He was a little gun-shy after the Pitt game. He was hesitant to stay in the pocket."
"We were out of sync for a while last year," says Edwards. "But our tight ends are always going to catch a lot of passes."
It was BYU's habit of throwing to the tight end that lured Handley to BYU in the first place. Handley was an All-American at Alta High School, having taken up the game at the urging of Troy Long, who is now an all-conference safety for BYU. Handley probably would have come around to the game anyway. After all, his father, Dave, was a much-traveled wide receiver for BYU, Utah State and Weber State, and his brother, Todd, was a quarterback at Alta and the University of Utah.
Darren's career, if not his life, nearly came to a premature end the summer before his senior season in high school. He underwent surgery on his left shoulder to repair a football injury, but, as a result of post-operative complications, he developed four potentially life-threatening blood clots - one in the neck, two in the shoulder and one in the left bicep.
"The doctors told me I would never play football again," said Handley. "I was lucky just to be alive." The fear, of course, was that one of the blood clots would break loose and lodge in the heart; a blow in football, to say the least, might do just that.
Handley, who spent two weeks in the hospital, sought a second opinion about the future of his football career. Two weeks before the season began, doctors, apparently believing the clots were secure, cleared him to play.
Handley has played since then, but the four clots remain. "If the blow I took against TCU last year didn't do it, nothing will," says Handley, addressing the obvious question.