How High Will Vince Young Go?
In retrospect, Young’s relatively poor showing in the Heisman race is surprising. It’s not as if he came out of nowhere. He had a monster game in the Rose Bowl the previous year, passing for 180 yards and rushing for 192 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-37 win for Texas over Michigan. This past season he was virtually the whole offense for a team that had the fourth-highest scoring average since 1900.
Reggie Bush was one of several stars in the USC offense, and yet, he won the Heisman Trophy easily.
Why? Probably because of the fragmented nature of college football, as opposed to the NFL. Those voting on NFL honors usually have a chance to get a good look at all the candidates, but there are more than three times as many Division 1-A teams as NFL teams, so voters usually see only a portion of the teams. In the NFL, moreover, voters also have a better line on the history of the all-star candidates.
Usually, the fact that voters don’t see everybody works against west coast teams. In this case, though, Bush’s exploits made all the highlight shows – including his push of Matt Leinart for the winning touchdown in the Notre Dame game. He is an unbelievably exciting player to watch – some have called him the most exciting ever in college football – and it has been a given for some time that he would be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. When it appeared at one time that the 49ers and Houston Texans would be playing for the No. 1 pick in the season finale, it was dubbed “The Reggie Bush Bowl.”
It would be hard for a Heisman voter not to have that in his mind when he cast his ballot, and I’m sure the publicity Bush generated got him elected. Young probably never had a chance, though I’d be inclined after watching him on Wednesday to say that he was more deserving of the award than Bush.
But that doesn’t mean that Young will be the No. 1 pick in the draft, if he declares; he has a year of collegiate eligibility left. Bush also has a year of eligibility left but there seems to be no doubt that he will come out and be the first pick. Most likely, the first quarterback taken will be Leinart. There are some questions about Leinart – some think he’s a “product of the system”, operating behind a huge offensive line with multiple weapons – but he is a classic pro-type quarterback. Young is not.
It’s at times like this that I wish there were still pro teams operating out of the old single wing. Young would make a great single wing tailback, able to pass or run out of the formation, as he’s done out of the spread in Texas.
As a pro quarterback, though, he will have his problems. For openers, he’ll be operating out of a different system, and we’ve seen with Alex Smith this year how difficult that can be for a quarterback. Though he’s completed a high percentage of passes in his college career, he has an awkward throwing motion. Many of his shorter passes will be cut off by faster pro defenses, which will tighten up because they won’t fear his ability to throw long.
Most of all, pro scouts will look at Young and think “Michael Vick.” The Atlanta Falcons made a trade with the San Diego Chargers to get Vick. The Chargers then picked LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees. Who do you think got the better of that deal? Vick is a great athlete and he can make spectacular plays but he has never developed the consistency required of a pro quarterback, and he’s had injury problems because of his running.
That’s why I think Leinart will be drafted ahead of Young.
NOT EVERYBODY agrees with me. When we were taping “The Last Honest Sports Show” last night, J. J. Stokes said he thought Young would be taken ahead of Leinart; J. J. believes Young can learn the pro system and be a star.
In the early years of the NFL, there were many star quarterbacks who played single wing tailback in college – Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, even Y. A. Tittle. But, even when they were playing in the single wing, they were passers first, runners second. Young is a better runner than passer at this point.
When we were talking off-camera last night, Donovan McNabb came up as a comparison to Young. Both are big and very strong, but McNabb’s running has been a complementary part of his game, not the main focus.
Probably the closest comparison to Young in the last 20 years would be Randall Cunningham, who was a great all-round athlete. Cunningham had some outstanding games throwing the ball and he was probably as good a running quarterback as there ever was. But as good as he could be at times, he never came close to developing the kind of consistency that would get him to the Hall of Fame.
Another good running quarterback who did make the Hall of Fame is, of course, Steve Young, who was good enough as a runner to be used briefly as a running back with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, when injuries to other backs forced his move from quarterback.
But Steve Young was always a very good passer. Playing out of a pro-type offense at BYU, he set an NCAA accuracy record at slightly more than 70 per cent. His development went backward in the USFL and when he went to the woebegone Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he was, he told me later, told by coach Ray Perkins to “go out there and make something happen.”
When he came to the 49ers, Steve had his problems fitting into a system, but he learned and became much more effective. Though his singular most exciting play was a 49-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings, he set passing records in the NFL, including six touchdown passes in the 49ers’ last Super Bowl triumph.
STEVE YOUNG learned he could be more effective passing the ball than running it. Will Vince Young learn the same lesson, or will he be another Michael Vick? That’s the question NFL coaches and executives will be pondering as they prepare for the draft.
I don’t have access to draft boards, but I’ve talked frequently to NFL coaches, execs and scouts, and I believe that skepticism about Vince Young’s ability to adjust to a pro system will affect his draft position. He’ll still go high, but he won’t be the first quarterback taken, no matter how good he looked in the national championship game.
NOTES: “The Last Honest Sports Show” on which we discussed this subject will be aired at 6:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday night on Channel 44. Also, I'll be updating “Letters” about noon today.
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