PROVO — It’s turned out to be a big ask of BYU quarterback Beau Hoge to switch to playing running back for the Cougars. It is not without precedent in Provo, however.
Once upon a time in the mid-'70s, Springville High produced a remarkable athlete, a star quarterback named Scott Phillips. He was lightning quick, a smart, agile, versatile QB known for his running ability. He signed with the Cougars in the same year LaVell Edwards convinced Roy High’s Jim McMahon to be a Cougar and learn the passing game from the legendary Doug Scovil.
It didn’t take long for BYU coaches to make the big ask of Phillips, a Utah County legend. They asked him to switch from quarterback to running back. Phillips, like Hoge, was a team player. If it gave him the opportunity to see the field and get the ball, he’d gladly do it.
A 10-flat 100-yard sprinter in high school, Phillips ended up being a quick study in BYU’s offense and like Matt Bellini who’d follow him a decade later, he became a dangerous threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield. In time, his receiving numbers were among the best in the old WAC when the Cougars owned the record books.
In his career for the Cougars, Phillips rushed 212 times for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns for a 5.5-yard average. As a pass-catching back, his numbers were even better. He caught 131 passes for 1,551 yards and 11 touchdowns for an 11.8-yards-per-catch average.
A weapon? Absolutely. A legendary one.
Phillips ended up being drafted in the fourth round by the Seattle Seahawks, part of a 1981 BYU draft class that included Nick Eyre, Glen Redd, Lloyd Jones, Eric Lane, Glen Titensor and Clay Brown.
I spoke to Phillips this week in light of the minor controversy kicked off on BYUtv when Beau Hoge’s father, former NFL All-Pro running back Merril Hoge, voiced his displeasure with the move of his son from QB to running back.
Phillips, who graduated from BYU law school, works for Northwestern Life and lives in Provo. I asked him what he thought about the move at the time and how his thoughts on the decision have aged since the '80s.
“At the time I thought it was a good move,” said Phillips. “I was able to play varsity and when the first stringer Roger Gourley got injured, I got to play a lot. In terms of playing soon and often, it was a good thing. We had a lot of quarterbacks stacked up. I was a running quarterback in high school. It did isolate my best skill, which was running. Who knows if I could have beat out the Jim McMahons of the world back then. It made sense, but I did like to throw as well.”
Looking back, he still believes it was the right move but he often thinks, “What if …”
As it turned out, two of the QBs he was battling for the spot, McMahon and Marc Wilson, ended up inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and McMahon helped the Chicago Bears win a Super Bowl.
“We had quite the quarterback factory back then. It was tough sledding. I have no regrets. I think I prefer being the starting running back than the second-string quarterback, I know that.”
Phillips chuckles, thinking if he’d beat those guys out for the job if it would have been him in the Hall of Fame and they’d have been home working a regular job.
Phillips ended up making huge plays in his career, including crucial catches in the thrilling come-from-behind 1980 Holiday Bowl win over SMU. “I caught more passes than I had runs. Back then a lot of us caught a lot of passes and we used running backs a lot.”
Indeed, if you look in the record book, Phillips led the league in receptions coming out of the backfield. At times, Phillips did throw some passes.
When the pro scouts came around, he was clocked at a 4.38 in the 40, which propelled him higher in the draft. Phillips had a quick burst, a tool that proved valuable his entire career.
How does this relate to this season?
Hoge is taking one for the team by making the switch. I’d imagine it hasn’t been easy as evidenced by the passion his dad expressed, which made headlines.
While Hoge isn’t as fast as Phillips, being a former QB, and a smart one at that, gives him advantages that coaches say they’ve witnessed already. He knows the offensive schemes so well he can envision how it all comes together. While he’s made plays with his feet — because like Phillips, that is one of his strengths — he’s also become a key target as a receiver.
But an undersold trait Hoge possesses is how well he blocks in the backfield, whether it be in pass pro or just picking up a blitzing linebacker, corner or safety. He is physical enough to get dirty and dedicated enough to take pride in that craft.
That makes Hoge very valuable.
In 2018, perhaps Hoge can become a key weapon like Phillips was back in the day.
Jeff Grimes and AJ Steward hope so.
And so do the QBs he once battled.