BYU football fans, spoiled for most of the past 20 years with all-star quarterbacks, can be a tough group to please - just ask John Walsh.
Despite leading the Cougars to a 4-1 record and averaging 314 yards passing through the first five games of the 1993 season, Walsh wasn't exactly a fan favorite. While Walsh had supporters (most importantly the BYU coaching staff), some Cougar faithful felt Steve Clements, a former high school standout in Texas a la Ty Detmer, should be given the keys to the powerful offensive machine. More still thought Tom Young could become a clone of his NFL MVP brother, only right-handed, if given a chance.The quarterback debate was discussed over water coolers and on radio talk shows throughout the state. When Walsh went down with a sprained knee early in the Notre Dame game, Young and Clements had an opportunity to show what they could do.
One week later there was no debate, and Walsh was a fan favorite. Now the 6-4 junior is the consensus preseason WAC Player-of-the-Year and a projected NFL first-round draft pick.
Walsh quieted his critics and made fans out of skeptics with a gutsy performance in the second half against Fresno State.
Despite not practicing the week prior to the Fresno game, Walsh entered with the Bulldogs leading 17-3 late in the first half. He proceeded to pass for 439 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in perhaps the greatest single half (and one series) of football by any BYU quarterback. The Cougars still lost, 48-45 to the Trent Dilfer-led Bulldogs, but nobody could say No. 7 in blue didn't do his job.
With the strong-armed Walsh back for the '94 campaign, along with capable backups in Clements and Young, BYU's quarterback position rates a preseason grade of A+ in comparison to the rest of the WAC.
After the Fresno game Walsh continued to put on passing clinics. He threw for a BYU-record 619 yards against Utah State. He piled up 417 yards passing at San Diego State and 423 more against Utah. In the Holiday Bowl against a tough Ohio State defense he threw for 389 yards and was voted the game's MVP. For the season he was fifth in the nation in total offense, completed 62 percent of his passes, threw for 3,727 yards and 28 touchdowns.
"It's a pleasure to be a receiver when you have a quarterback like John Walsh back there," said Tim Nowatzke, who will be one of Walsh's top targets this season. "His arm is strong, he's in great shape and he's right on target with his passes."
Walsh, just a junior in eligibility, has been heaped with praise in preseason college football previews but he's taking it in stride. "I don't pay too much attention to what they say about me in the media," Walsh said. "I didn't pay attention to it when they were saying bad things about me, so I'm not going to start now that they're saying good things."
One question Walsh is already tired of answering is whether or not he's turning pro after this season. As of right now he says he's planning on staying for his senior season at BYU. The NFL draft may be enticing, however, if he has an outstanding year and is a projected top five pick in the first round, as ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper predicted during the '94 draft.
Walsh's strong arm and leadership ability on the field are mentioned as his best attributes. On the downside, he doesn't have great mobility. He was sacked for a total of minus 377 yards last year, although he seemed to get the ball away earlier and was sacked with less frequency during the second half of the season. He also has been a bit injury prone. After winning the starting job in '92 he suffered a season-ending shoulder separation in the third game of the year and last season he had a knee strain that caused him to miss parts of two games.
Should Walsh go down with an injury, Clements and Young, both seniors, will be ready. Clements, the high school All-American who has played sparingly at the college level, is penciled in as the second QB right now.
"Everyone wants to start, but there is only one position," Clements said. "John has established himself as the starter and he deserves it. I'm just going to establish myself as second string and I'm going to work hard so I'll be ready if needed."
Young is best known for his 262-yard passing game in the Aloha Bowl against Kansas after the 1992 season.