Nebraska's offense is built around Eric Crouch, the latest in a storied line of option quarterbacks
This article originally appeared in Athlon's 2001 Big 12 college football annual.
by Mike Babcock
Eric Crouch still gets the reaction on occasion when he meets a stranger. "You're not as big as I thought you were," the stranger will say. And Crouch will resist the urge to respond, "Well, how big did you think I was? If you read the program, it tells you."
The Nebraska Cornhuskers' senior quarterback would never be so disrespectful, even to a stranger whose perception of him is somehow different from the reality. It's simply not in his character.
Crouch goes out of his way to accommodate. He understands the unique demands of his high-profile position. As the Cornhuskers' quarterback, his life is not his own. No matter where he goes, someone is always waiting to ask for something - an autograph, a handshake, a pose for a photograph. He has been stopped on his way to class. He has attracted not-so-subtle attention when he goes out to dinner with family and friends - the sideways glance, the nudge of recognition. Those things go with the territory, a responsibility he eagerly accepts.
"I'm not doing it for the respect," he says of the way in which he's embraced the attention. "I'm just doing it because you get so much support here, out of the state of Nebraska, that I feel any way I can give back to the people and my family and friends, I'm willing to do that. I understand that comes with the role and the territory."
He has been so willing to give of his time and energy that Turner Gill, Nebraska's quarterbacks coach, has discussed the matter with him, to make sure it doesn't become a distraction.
"We've all been there," says Gill, who was a three-time first-team All-Big Eight quarterback for the Cornhuskers from 1981 to 1983. "I've been there. I know exactly what he's going through.
"You (have to) give people a little bit of your time, which you do. He's done more that his share. So he doesn't have to feel guilty if he tells somebody that asks, 'Sorry, I can't do that.'"
As for the comments about his size, well, size is no longer an issue, if it ever really was. According to the program, Crouch stands 6'1" and weighs 200 pounds - his weight fluctuates some, but not enough to matter. And, more importantly, he has shown the physical toughness needed to run an option offense.
Since he became Nebraska's starting quarterback in the third game of his sophomore season, he has never missed a snap that mattered. That despite surgeries on his right shoulder after each of the last two seasons and the assorted bumps and bruises of carrying the ball 349 times.
As a sophomore, he became the first quarterback to lead the Cornhuskers in rushing since 1955, gaining 889 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns on a team-high 180 carries.
Nebraska's offense is built around Crouch, the latest in a line of option quarterbacks that began with Gill and has included Steve Taylor, Gerry Gdowski, Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost, among others.
Tom Osborne, Cornhusker coach Frank Solich's predecessor, turned to the option in the early 1980s primarily because his teams couldn't consistently win against rival Oklahoma with a pass-oriented offense (believe it or not, Nebraska led the Big Eight in passing in 1974 and 1976).
Crouch - who was born, appropriately enough, the week after Osborne's first victory against Oklahoma in 1978 - was a member of Osborne's final recruiting class in 1997. Solich has modified the offense to fit his own philosophy. But the option remains an important part of the job description.
The position has evolved to the point that Crouch is like a second I-back. When the Cornhuskers evaluate a quarterback, they look at his ability as a runner first. And Crouch is a prime example. He ran an option offense similar to Nebraska's at Omaha's Millard North High School.
"He only threw three or four times a game, if that," says Gill. "But I saw his arm strength. I saw him in (summer football) camp. And I knew he had the skills to be able to throw a football."
Nebraska's quarterback has to be able to throw well enough to keep the defense honest, and he has to be able to read defenses, an ability that's difficult to judge by observation.
Fewer and fewer programs seem to be willing to take on such an offense because of the demands on the quarterback. "I think the hard thing is to find all those (qualities)," Gill says.
It's not that high schools don't run option offenses. Many still do. But the quarterbacks tend to be smaller players, according to Gill. "5'7", 5'8", 5'9" and 165, 170 pounds. You can find those kinds of guys," he says. "But we'd like for him to be at least in that 6-foot range, somewhere around there."
Crouch possessed the requisite physical qualities and skills, plus he grew up in Omaha, less than an hour's drive from the Nebraska campus. And, he was a Cornhusker fan.
Still Nebraska took nothing for granted in recruiting Crouch, a Parade All-American, the USA Today Nebraska Player of the Year and a two-time, first-team, all-class all-state selection. He seriously considered Notre Dame and Ohio State, among many schools that recruited him. He attended camps at both schools before finally committing to the Cornhuskers.
He also took recruiting trips to Notre Dame and Ohio State, "just to give myself an opportunity and a look, so that if I liked them, I'd maybe give them a shot," he says. He tried to keep an open mind, even though "I was really leaning toward Nebraska, home state, same offense in high school.
"Being close to home and having my family here is pretty big. If I get homesick, it's an hour away. That happened quite a bit when I was a freshman. I'm glad it worked out the way it did."
Of course, once Crouch arrived at Nebraska, a new set of challenges awaited.
He wasn't the only high-profile quarterback the Cornhuskers recruited in 1997. Bobby Newcombe, the most publicized high school player in New Mexico, chose Nebraska as well.
The two were linked from the time they signed letters-of-intent, and their competition attracted unabated media attention until Crouch finally earned the job and Newcombe moved to wingback.
Newcombe played as a true freshman, switching to wingback early in the season, while Crouch elected to redshirt after Osborne gave him the choice to do that or what Newcombe did.
As it turned out, Crouch had surgery on his right foot and left knee that fall and was ready to compete with Newcombe at quarterback in the spring of 1998, following Frost's departure.
Newcombe won the job but suffered a knee injury in his first start, creating an early opportunity for Crouch, who also missed games that season because of a hamstring pull and a hip pointer. He came back wiser the following spring and matched Newcombe play-for-play. But Solich named Newcombe the starter for the 1999 opener at Iowa. The competitive Crouch was so upset by the decision that he went home to Omaha, causing Solich to make an impromptu visit there. As a result, Solich didn't participate in the Big 12 coaches teleconference and missed a speaking engagement.
"Eric really took it very hard, which was understandable," Solich told reporters.
His disappointment didn't last long. Against Iowa, Crouch ran for three touchdowns, and against California the next week, he ran for two touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass and caught a touchdown pass from Newcombe. Two days later, Solich announced that Crouch would be the starting quarterback and Newcombe would return to wingback. The Cornhuskers' quarterback controversy had ended.
Crouch will enter his senior season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, though the odds are against a running quarterback. Frazier helped lead Nebraska to back-to-back national championships and 25 consecutive victories, yet finished second to Ohio State's Eddie George for the award in 1995.
If Crouch is perceived to have a weakness, it is his passing. But Gill takes exception. "He has all the skills and all the potential there," says Gill. "He's just been unfortunate. I don't know if he's ever been 100 percent since he's been playing here."
After a second arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder following last season, Crouch will be passing pain-free, and "I like his arm strength," Gill says. "I like the things he can do throwing. He's an accurate passer. He's done a tremendous job under the circumstances. There's no question he can be the passer we know he can be, hopefully in the high 50-percent range. And we'll go from there."
Crouch never let on that the shoulder was bothering him last season. And he'd dismiss the other aches and pains associated with taking hits on nearly every down. "The bottom line, when you're running the option game, is you're including 11 guys on the play," says Gill.
"In most cases in an offensive scheme, you're only counting 10 guys. The quarterback's involved but he's not going to block or he's not going to run the football. Obviously we don't do it every play. We hand the ball off and there are 10 people involved on some plays. But there are quite a few plays where the quarterback is involved. In the option game, we don't mind our quarterback getting hit."
That's why some people are surprised when they see Crouch out of pads. The wonder how he can keep getting up after being hit by linebackers who are 30 or 40 pounds heavier.
The size questions are "strange sometimes," he says. "I used to let that get to me a little bit." But not anymore.