PROVO — There are many keys to the historic success of college football in Provo, but nothing is bigger than the quarterback and his backup.
I’d say the same thing about Utah, USU and whoever else. If you don’t have a large presence at QB, you play defense and live on hope and luck.
If Kalani Sitake has a chain mover, he’ll be in business. If not, due to performance, injury and lack of a solid backup, things could go downhill fast.
New England wins because it has Tom Brady, an elite talent and charismatic leader who, in his last game, nobody could count out even when the Patriots seemed down and out. That’s QB play. A true delivery man who exudes extreme confidence. The right guy who can lead a team, reach his potential, and surpass expectations.
Get the wrong guy and you are rudderless and uninspired. Utah’s best seasons ever were with Alex Smith and Alabama slayer Brian Johnson at the helm.
The fact that Tanner Mangum has played 13 games, helped lead the Cougars past Nebraska in his first college game, and has a win over Boise State as a starter are factors Sitake believes benefit the Cougars heading into this season.
Now, he needs backup insurance.
BYU’s most productive seasons occurred when the Cougars featured a smart, executing QB who could finesse points and offset the strengths of opponents, which, in most cases, are legion due to recruiting restraints.
I remember standing outside a Utah Valley Hospital room in the fall of 1977 waiting to interview All-American Gifford Nielsen, who’d undergone surgery after an early hit against Oregon State the previous Saturday. Before that, Nielsen had it rolling, leading the Cougars to a 39-0 win over Kansas, a 65-6 win at Utah State, and a 54-19 shelling of New Mexico. Doug Scovil had Nielsen just where he wanted him. Then, he was gone.
The next week led to an opportunity to produce a story for The Sporting News after the debut of his backup, 6-foot-6 relatively unknown Marc Wilson. The week after Nielsen went down, Wilson got his first career start at Colorado State against the Baker brothers, two talented defensive linemen.
That day in Fort Collins, Wilson threw an NCAA-record seven touchdown passes in a 65-17 blowout. It was one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen.
The Nielsen-less Cougars ended up 9-2 and shared the WAC title.
Backups matter. I saw the same thing when Jim McMahon went down and Steve Young came in to chalk up a win at Colorado. Ty Detmer replaced Sean Covey his freshman year in 1988 and ended up MVP in a Freedom Bowl win over Colorado. Brandon Doman finished the 2000 season as a starter with wins over New Mexico and Utah, LaVell Edwards’ finale.
The situations go on and on. When you have that position solidified and backups are golden, good things happen.
When the Cougars open camp in 10 days, the leading backups fighting for a role and reps are sophomores Beau Hoge and Koy Detmer. Hoge is an athlete with a decent arm; Detmer is a technician whose strength is timing. Neither are battle-tested in Division I. But neither was Mangum in Lincoln nor Wilson in Fort Collins.
St. George native Kody Wilstead, a freshman, is intriguing because in his short spring action after missionary service, he physically looked very much the part of a BYU QB in form and movement. Wisconsin signee transfer Austin Kafentzis is another enigma. Those who’ve seen him play in high school compare him to Ute safety Chase Hansen in talent, a versatile athlete who is big and fast.
This summer, Detmer is hoping that Mangum and company are spending valuable time creating chemistry and finding timing in workouts directed and driven by players.
He’d be wise to advise them of the words spoken by the late, great Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll: “If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them, day in and day out.”
That’s the only way QBs get better and deliver when counted upon.
Wilson and Young proved that a long time ago.