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Quarterback County : Area's Alumni Signal-Callers Excel at Hitting Their Marks

O.C. AIR: Quarterbacks from Orange County control the skies in the Pac 10. First in a series

August 28, 1994|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Namath played second fiddle to this former Orange County star in 1964.

Neither Joe Willie, Gale Sayers nor Dick Butkus could pry the Heisman Trophy away from him.

Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte, the former Mater Dei standout who earned Southern Section Major Division player of the year honors in 1960, won college football's most coveted award that year.

Thirty years later, Stanford's Steve Stenstrom and USC's Rob Johnson--both from El Toro High--are two of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season. At a recent photo shoot, the former teammates played a friendly tug-of-war with the prized trophy.

Call them the dueling Chargers from Quarterback County.

"It's really exciting to see," said Johnson's father, Bob, who coached both players at El Toro. "I don't know how much better it can get."

And Stenstrom and Johnson aren't the only Orange County alumni who are enjoying success on the collegiate level. Former Mater Dei quarterback Danny O'Neil returns for Oregon after passing for 3,224 yards and 22 touchdowns

last season.

California's Pat Barnes, former Trabuco Hills quarterback, and Stanford's Tim Carey, of Los Alamitos, are waiting in the wings for their shots at stardom. In addition, four high school quarterbacks from the county's Class of 1994 earned football scholarships to Division I-A schools.

"We develop more quarterbacks here," Los Alamitos Coach John Barnes said of the Southland. "I don't think anyone in the country does the stuff like we do here--the year-round training, practicing and teaching the quarterbacks."

Historically, the county has always produced top quarterbacks, from Mater Dei's Huarte, who played for five professional teams from 1966-75, to San Clemente's Bill Kenney, who was with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1979-88, to current Arizona Cardinal quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who played at Servite.

And it doesn't appear many things have changed or will change over the years.

Said Stanford Coach Bill Walsh: "We will always have a style of football on the West Coast that's conducive to the quarterback and his success."

NATURE OR NURTURE?

So what's more important, a big quarterback who can throw the ball nine miles or a smart quarterback who knows how to exploit defenses?

"Sometimes a 6-foot-4 quarterback can be too tall," Stanford assistant coach Terry Shea said. "I would just as soon find the 6-2 athletic quarterback. But you recruit for your system, and it's usually a two-to-three-year process before someone is ready to contribute."

Bob Johnson, who guided El Toro to three Southern Section championships, said the bottom line is that the talent needs to be there first before coaches can begin to cultivate it.

"You can't take a kid with a football, go outside and throw and practice all the time and say, 'You're going to be good,' " Johnson said. "Although I think the high school level coaching in Orange County is the best I've seen, you better have the product there first."

Said John Barnes: "There's some coaches that really know how to throw the football in Southern California, and they're teaching the quarterbacks. I played quarterback in college (at Nevada) and the defense I was seeing wasn't half of what the kids see now."

Because of the mild weather in California, quarterbacks can develop more quickly with year-round training.

"Twenty years ago, it used to be that you could be a great passer and throw 40 interceptions," Barnes said. "Now, you could be a pretty good passer but make completion after completion because you know where the weaknesses in the defenses are."

Bob Johnson said a perfect example was Mike Good, the Division II player of the year who led Los Alamitos to its third consecutive section title last season.

"There's a kid who had a tremendous work ethic and benefited from the system he was in," Johnson said.

Added John Barnes: "There were so many times when we would call a play and my assistant in the press box would phone down to me and say, 'Coach, what's Mike doing checking off like that?' I'd say, 'I don't know, but I'll bet he's doing the right thing.'

"A prime example of that is we're facing a fourth and 10 against Downey Warren in the playoffs, and Mike starts checking off. He throws for a touchdown and we're thinking, 'Man, the fans think we're smart now.' But we had no idea what he was going to do. All we know is that we taught him the right thing."

HISTORY LESSON

The list of top quarterbacks who have played in the county is mind-boggling.

Here is just a sample, with some of their exploits:

--Huarte led Notre Dame to a 9-1 record and passed for 2,062 yards his Heisman Trophy season. He was drafted by but never played a down for the New York Jets, who also selected Namath from Alabama the same year. He played 11 seasons of pro ball, with stops in the AFL, NFL and World Football League.

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