Byron Left Behind

September 17, 2002
Byron Left Behind
by Keith Weiland

Seems only natural that a guy from a school named Marshall can tote a rifle like the one Byron Leftwich rode into Blacksburg with on Thursday night. That rifle carried bullets with it, too. Unfortunately for Leftwich and his Heisman hopes this fall, the Thundering Herd receivers made sure that rifle was only loaded with blanks.

In a highly anticipated game between two top 25 teams, Marshall had underdog hopes of upsetting Virginia Tech on national television. A win would make the Herd this year’s version of Fresno State and its quarterback a legitimate Heisman candidate, not unlike the quarterbacking Bulldog counterpart of a year ago, David Carr.

The first quarter set the tone for the evening. A dropped touchdown pass and a blocked field goal prevented Marshall from securing an early lead. The Hokies then ran the ball nine times for 90 yards while the Herd defense seldom offered a discouraging word. By the time the score read 33-0 early in the fourth quarter in favor of the favorites, the Heisman Trophy had stiff-armed poor Leftwich, and Marshall’s Cinderella hopes were dashed.

Ah, but the Heisman is more than just being a talented football player. It’s politics and spin doctoring mixed with a heavy dose of national exposure. For a player from small conference such as the Mid-American, everything would have had to fall into place for Leftwich against the Hokies. Ugly drops and poor route running by Marshall’s receivers have instead caused Leftwich to fall out of the race.

Though the Heisman may have fallen to the wayside for Leftwich, his stock in the 2003 draft has not. In fact, if anything, Leftwich has solidified his status as the leading candidate for the number one overall pick next April. And it’s not like winning the Heisman is a good indicator of success in the NFL, anyway. Just ask Eric Crouch.

With a Hokie defense expecting the pass all night – Marshall only rushed the ball 16 times for a paltry 34 yards, plus an anemic kicking game that made tilting at goal posts quixotic – Leftwich still managed to post his fifth consecutive game with over 400 yards passing. He also added three touchdowns. Had his receivers been able to catch his passes in the endzone, Leftwich might have added two more scores to his already impressive totals.

So what makes Leftwich such a desirable commodity in the draft? Two things are immediately noticeable from the first pass he throws: (1) Leftwich has the strongest arm in college football, and (2) he is a big human being, listed at 6’6″ and 240 pounds.

Watching him play, a few other things begin to stand out. Leftwich has incredible poise in the pocket, for one thing. And well he should. Someone that big isn’t prone to happy feet. Leftwich also uses his arm strength to throw a beautiful deep ball. It’s hard to imagine a receiver being able to outrun anything he throws downfield. He’s on the money every time, too.

Leftwich is smart with the football. He has the patience to read defenses and go to the second and third options if the first one isn’t there. In 2001, Leftwich tossed only seven interceptions in 470 pass attempts. With just one interception in 90 attempts thus far into the 2002 season, Leftwich is proving he has yet to hit a ceiling.

In this era of the Michael Vicks and Donovan McNabbs, some may point to Leftwich’s lack of mobility as a reason why he may not achieve elite status in the NFL. Maybe he won’t be the most mobile quarterback, but he won’t be an easy guy to take down, either. Plus, his weight shouldn’t be too much of a concern. His nearest physical counterpart in the pros, Daunte Culpepper is about twenty pounds heavier and two inches shorter.

Leftwich wasn’t the only player on the field scouts were watching closely on Thursday night. Virginia Tech’s backfield has two star tailbacks capable of creating waves in the NFL. Senior Lee Suggs returned from injury to subside concerns on his surgically repaired knee. He carried the ball 24 times for 153 yards and two touchdowns.

Suggs looked pensive hitting the hole at times, and the Marshall defense, which was clearly overmatched despite using 10-man fronts, made him look better than he really performed. Suggs, however, made cuts and broke tackles, proving that his knee was able to withstand the burden of a hard-nosed rushing attack. Suggs is a strong runner with terrific vision who doesn’t fumble the football.

The ball carrying duties no longer belong entirely to Suggs. Sophomore Kevin Jones evenly split the rushing attempts with Suggs right down the middle on Thursday. Jones was able to out gain his teammate by 18 yards. He is explosive with the ball in his hands and can score from anywhere on the field, doing so three times against the Herd.

Jones’ performance, when compared with Suggs, highlights exactly what sets him apart from his teammate. At 6’0,” 211, Jones has very impressive speed to go along with his decent size. Jones was also good enough to roll up 160 rushing yards last November against Miami, the eventual National Champions.

The paths of Suggs or Jones may cross again soon with that of Leftwich. While starting quarterback is probably the only position the Texans ignore in the first round next spring, don’t assume that Leftwich won’t somehow figure into Houston’s plans. Should the Texans sit atop the draft, it is not difficult to fathom a situation where general manager Charley Casserly trades down next spring to allow another team desperate for a young quarterback to select Leftwich.

And whom might Texans fans welcome along with the extra picks? Despite Casserly’s draft history of bypassing a running back in the first round, both Suggs and Jones, in 2003 and 2004 respectively, will make appealing options for a team starved for a running game.

Someone once told Keith Weiland that he is to college football what Sancho Panza once was to the knight-errant who employed him. Whatever the hell that means. Keith spent his time in English class getting by on CliffsNotes.