”Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck.”
— Don Shula
It really comes down to that, the football simplification that a team is only as good as its quarterback. If that is even partially true, and it is at least that, college football teams in the state of Utah are … in luck.
Fortunate for what happens on the field and fortunate on account of the kind of characters leading a team, handling the ball on every offensive play.
Utah has a guy who will run around and through linebackers, whose talent is great even if his mechanics might on occasion be flawed, who might go all catawampus on would-be tacklers, but all of that makes the results, the winning, the style that much cooler.
BYU has an emotionally mature leader who not only can make the right read and deliver a spiral deep, but could also put a blowtorch to your feet and settle you into feeling like he’s doing you a favor.
Utah State has a good ol’ boy from Texas, a kid built more like Danny DeVito than Josh Allen, a savvy-veteran quarterback who has the demeanor of a character from a John Wayne movie, and who throws the ball around the yard — tell you what I’m gonna do, pilgrim, and then I’m gonna do it to you, anyhoo — like he couldn’t give a fistful of Fs if it were to bore a hole straight through a cornerback’s belly en route to the anticipatory hands of his intended receiver.
Good stuff, all around.
Look at what these schools have — and everybody here got that look just last year, when Cam Rising replaced Charlie Brewer, and threw for 2,493 yards, 20 touchdowns, five picks, and altered the course of the season for the Utes from dismal to dangerous, winning a Pac-12 title en route and going to the Rose Bowl; when Jaren Hall replaced Zach Wilson, and despite missing three games threw for 2,583 yards, 20 touchdowns, five picks, and sustained the ongoing lift of BYU football toward something more than it had been; when Logan Bonner rode in on a horse and threw for 3,628 yards, 36 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and boosted the Aggies from a listing one-win wreck to an 11-win luxury liner, including a Mountain West championship.
Quarterbacking around the horn is accounted for, then. May the gods of good health keep it that way. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. More on that later.
This story goes beyond just colorful, strapping dudes throwing spirals. I once had a long conversation about quarterback play with a man who knows a bit about it, Mike Leach. Two things stood out from that session, which transformed from an interview into a seminar: 1) Having a strong arm is way down the list of top priorities for a successful QB and a QB guru, 2) Leadership and poise and competitiveness are near the top.
It works for each of the Big 3.
A quarterback, granted, could be Napoleon Freaking Bonaparte and if he can’t deliver a timely ball, he might as well be marching on the City of the Seven Hills in the dead of bitter winter. But there’s so much more that aids guys like Rising, Hall and Bonner.
Leach put it like this: “Everyone always wants to ask about a quarterback … How strong is he? … How big is he? … How far can he throw it? … That’s backwards. What comes first is … Can he make good reads? … Can he lead? … Is he accurate? … As a quarterback, your ultimate job is to elevate the people around you. You have your finger on the trigger. You decide what happens. … Everyone draws off of what [you] do.”
He added that quarterbacks, unlike players at some positions, “can be trained to be great. You can’t do that with a running back. But a quarterback can learn and play, if he focuses.”
That’s exactly what has happened here.
Rising, who ultimately emerged as the Utes’ top quarterback after battling through consecutive competitions for that position against two heralded transfers, first Jake Bentley and second Brewer.
Somewhere in that fight, he earned the respect of his teammates and his coaches, and that respect was reciprocated with his dynamic play.
A transfer from Texas himself, Rising proved to be substantially better than either of the other guys. It just took him time and healing to get there, overcoming injury and adversity. When he bubbled up after a couple of early games last season, Utah ratcheted its play to levels that had been placed in doubt through initial losses. Kyle Whittingham had always spoken highly of Rising, but folks on the outside had waited to see how much of it was true.
Turns out, a lot.
You know what happened. The Utes soared with the replacement, winning nine of their next 10 games because Rising made other offensive players more than what they had been. I went back and watched the film. It’s not as though the QB is silky smooth. He’s kind of the opposite, something like Joe Kapp reincarnated. He’s strong and tough and does not give up on plays, especially when he takes off running, which he is apt and gifted enough to do. There are times when he powers his way through tacklers, times when he motors away from them. But he also can drop a ball in a basket from distance, even when he back-foots his passes.
It’s a hoot to watch. And it works.
Hall is similarly athletic, faster, smoother. And his overall positive effect on his team is apparent. After Wilson went to the NFL, observers wondered if BYU’s quarterback play would sag. It did not. Stats can blow Pinocchio’s nose straight through a window sometimes, but the fact that both BYU’s and Utah’s quarterback numbers were so similar as their teams won and won some more is no coincidence. Each of the two can do things, can make things happen, particularly when everything around them starts to break down. Each can pick up a first down or score a touchdown with his legs.
In the modern college game, that’s pretty important.
Aaron Roderick, a heady offensive coordinator who does not hand out trust easily, believes Hall to be in rare position to climb this season beyond what he did last time around.
“Jaren’s a great decision-maker and a very accurate passer,” he said. “He’s a great athlete, too, but his ability to throw the ball downfield is what makes him so dangerous. He’s a leader who knows how to communicate. When he speaks to the team, they listen. He knows how to resolve issues with teammates without sounding condescending or finger-pointing. He makes everyone around him better.”
While Hall and Rising have exceptional talent and a shot at the NFL, Bonner is more a quarterback of the people. A quarterback from a bar with a heavy drawl, where everyone knows your name. And his teammates swear that if their team was trailing by five with four minutes left in the game, he, regardless of who has what stack of talent, is the one they want driving the bus for the TD and the win.
Utah State has a crowded quarterback room, what with Cooper Legas, who won the bowl game for the Aggies last season, and a transfer from Wyoming who also has won a bowl game, but Bonner is the man of the moment in Logan.
He’s an imperfect-looking quarterback in the perfect system for a quarterback of any shape. Bonner is 6-foot-1, weighs a few biscuits over 230 pounds, has the thick form of a bowling pin, and none of the Aggies cares one iota about appearances. The kid can hurl the thing around, not just hurl it, but get it to the right place at the right time for the right reasons.
Take that, all y’all.
Blake Anderson’s offense puts the vert in vertical passing, having been one of the teams near the top of the list of national attacks last season with the most 30-to-40-yard plays. Bonner’s accurate and effective.
What he isn’t is mobile.
But his demeanor in the huddle is a strength, leadership is a strength.
One other detail — Bonner had a few layers of muscle, joint and skin sheered off him last season by opposing defenders, getting knocked out of a couple of games. But he returned to play on, which endeared him to his teammates all the more.
His health, though, even now is in question. There are whispers that his injured knee from season’s end is not yet fully whole, with the eve of the opener at hand. But his toughness makes him of the disposition not to easily yield. We’ll see.
It was Peyton Manning who, speaking for all QBs, said, “If your team’s going to win, you need to play better than the other quarterback.” That may be true, but in the losses — be they few or more than a few — that are sure to come to the in-state schools this season, more often than not their quarterback won’t be the primary reason for defeat.
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