LAVELL EDWARDS toed the accelerator and his golf cart lurched across the practice field, not stopping until he had a front-and-center view of the quarterbacks. No big surprise there. For someone who has been churning out passers for a couple of decades, keeping an eye on the quarterbacks is pretty much imperative.
"I was really anxious to get going this spring," said Edwards, who is in the midst of his 27th spring practice as BYU's head coach. "There's a lot to do, the way things ended last year."Of course, at BYU the first item of business - even when it isn't the most important item - is the quarterbacks. It's something they've learned to live with. At BYU, picking a quarterback is no more important than, say, picking a spouse. It's only your happiness at stake. They can turn out tight ends and offensive linemen until the cows come home, and still the only real story is the passing game. That's how it's been ever since Edwards declared the Cougs would be traveling by air.
Speaking of air, there has been considerable optimism in it this spring. The reason is, Edwards has said his team intends to pass more this season. Rumors have persisted the Cougars were slowly abandoning their aerial attack, in favor of a more balanced approach. Not so, says Edwards. Would Sinatra ever abandon "My Way"? Las Vegas abandon neon? New Orleans abandon the Mardi Gras?
Never. It's what made them famous.
"We are going to throw the football," said Edwards, echoing a statement he made 27 years ago. "But then again, we never had any tendency not to. There was no philosophical shift. Last year was just determined by the circumstances."
Oh, yes. Last year. For most teams, a 6-5 season is at worst a moderate success. At BYU it's an abject failure. This is a team that has played 286 games without going scoreless - an ongoing NCAA record. It's a school that has won 73 percent of its games in Edwards' 26 years. Five losses? You could usually spread that over three seasons. But more important, the Cougars lost three games in November - something that hasn't occurred at BYU since he became the head coach. The Cougars finished up with a loss to Utah, capping what was a weird year all the way around. It was a year in which the Cougars never really decided whether they were a passing or running team. At season's end, Edwards was feeling woozy one day and ended up having emergency surgery to repair blocked cartoid arteries.
"My wife tells me that's why I had them run the ball so much in the Utah game," said Edwards. "I wasn't getting enough circulation to my brain."
Actually, the Utah game was only one of several in which the Cougars strayed far from their original commission. For part of last year they looked like they were reading from Bronko Nagurski's playbook. In one game they ran the ball 10 straight plays. Cougar Stadium took on the look of an archaeological dig. You wondered when they'd unearth Pete VanValkenburg or Eldon Fortie. The Cougars, grinding it out on the ground? Inconceivable.
Several factors contributed to the dearth of frequent flier miles last season. First was the unstable quarterback situation. The Cougars used three quarterbacks - Kevin Feterik, Paul Shoemaker and Drew Miller - in the starting lineup. Feterik and Shoemaker were injured, and the Cougars never knew from week to week who would be leading them. Then there was a problem with receivers. Once the opponents had scouted the Cougars and locked up Ben Cahoon - the only reliable receiver - BYU had nowhere to turn, except to the run.
The suspicion that BYU passed less than normal isn't a delusion. The Cougars averaged just 227 yards passing. That's the lowest since 1975, Edwards' fourth year as coach, and exactly half the number of passing yards they gained in 1990. The Cougars' yardage has dropped steadily since 1993, bottoming out last year when they ranked only 39th nationally. In part, that has been due to the presence of good running backs like Brian McKenzie, Jamal Willis and Ronny Jenkins, in part due to injuries and in part due to personnel.
Still, for a school that prides itself on its ability to strike fear into the hearts of any defensive back alive, this was indeed was a dangerous trend.
But by the time Monday's practice rolled around, Edwards really didn't want to talk about last season. As is his custom, he was looking ahead. In the process, he insisted on two things: First, that he hasn't settled on a starting quarterback, be it Feterik or Miller; and second, this year they won't trying to make their living off the run. You can take those to the bank. Both were decisions he made after his brain was getting all the circulation it needed.