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Bruins Sized Up by Hancock Foe : UCLA: At 5 feet 9, Illinois quarterback Jason Verduzco of Antioch, Calif., doesn't get much respect--until he begins passing.

December 25, 1991|MAL FLORENCE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Verduzco is the sixth California native in the last decade to become a starting quarterback for Illinois.

But unlike some of his prominent predecessors, such as David Wilson, Tony Eason and Jack Trudeau, Verduzco wasn't besieged with scholarship offers from major schools.

"I wasn't one of the top recruits coming out of California," Verduzco said. "Some smaller schools recruited me, but the Pac-10 schools wouldn't touch me. They just flat out said, 'You're not tall enough to play quarterback.' "

Verduzco is only 5 feet 9, which is acceptable size for, perhaps, a running back. Nonetheless, the junior from Antioch, Calif., who will oppose UCLA Tuesday in the John Hancock Bowl at El Paso, has flourished in the Big Ten.

Verduzco is the conference leader in total offense, averaging 252.8 yards. And he ranks third among Illinois' passing leaders with 477 completions for 5,564 yards and 32 touchdowns.

He completed 61.5% of his passes last fall for 2,825 yards and 15 touchdowns, throwing 11 interceptions.

With a productive day against UCLA, he could become the first Illini quarterback since Trudeau in 1985 to exceed 3,000 yards passing in a season.

Moreover, if he averages 243 passing yards for the rest of his career, he will become the school's passing leader, breaking Trudeau's record of 8,723 yards.

Verduzco doesn't regard himself as an overachiever, nor does he believe his size is a detriment.

"I hope I've made my point clear, that it doesn't matter how tall you are," he said. "It shows that the physical stereotype that people like me can't play is a bunch of bull."

Mike White, the former Illinois coach and now the quarterback coach of the Raiders, recruited Verduzco with the help of two graduate assistants.

White didn't have an opportunity to coach Verduzco, though, leaving Illinois after the 1987 season.

"Jason intrigued me because of his quick feet and accuracy," White said. "That's what you look for in a good quarterback. He also had good anticipation."

Lou Tepper, who recently became Illinois' coach when John Mackovic accepted the Texas job, isn't sure he would have offered Verduzco a scholarship on first sight. But Tepper, Illinois' former defensive coordinator, would offer him one now.

"There are very few quarterbacks who can see over linemen today," Tepper said. "He feels he throws through windows and open spaces, and not over people."

Tepper said the most impressive thing about Verduzco is his arm strength.

"It doesn't seem to fit his body," Tepper said. "And he's such a competitor. He spends more time in film study than perhaps any player at any position that I've been around in 24 years."

Verduzco's competitive nature was forged as a wrestler in high school. He was the California state champion as a senior in the 165-pound division.

"I've been wrestling since I was 6 years old, and it has helped my mental preparation going into a football game," Verduzco said. "In wrestling, you get yourself prepared 45 minutes before a match. I apply the same mind-set to football."

What Verduzco wasn't prepared for--and still isn't--are the cold winters in the Midwest.

"It has taken a lot of getting used to, being from California," he said. "I came home for Thanksgiving and played golf every day. You can't do that (in Illinois)."

Illinois has a 6-5 record, having lost its last two regular-season games, to Michigan and Michigan State.

"The record doesn't indicate at all what kind of team we are," Verduzco said. "A couple of games were there for our taking, and we beat ourselves one way or another, without taking credit away from the other teams."

He said a 20-0 defeat by Rose Bowl-bound Michigan was particularly frustrating.

"We played hard and had a lot of opportunities to make the score closer," Verduzco said.

The Illini also lost to Northwestern in a driving rainstorm, 17-11, and beat Wisconsin in freezing weather, 22-6.

So, if the weather turns nasty in El Paso, as it can at this time of the year, then Illinois should have an advantage over UCLA, a warm-weather team.

"Not necessarily," Verduzco said. "We haven't played very well in bad weather."

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