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A LEAF AND A THORN

Ryan Leaf

Cougars' Quarterback Is an Emotional Leader With a Shotgun Arm

December 21, 1997|NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ryan Leaf is one of the few quarterbacks for whom third-and-20 is no big deal.

He is the only quarterback to lead Washington State (10-1) to the Rose Bowl since 1931. Leaf also led the school to its highest ranking ever, No. 8, while tearing up opposing defenses and the Pac-10 record book.

"Ryan Leaf is the best quarterback in America," said Coach Mike Price, who lured Leaf to the school by promising him a trip to the Rose Bowl.

The most gifted football player to come out from Great Falls, Mont., Leaf is an emotional leader with a shotgun arm and the strength to shed tacklers. He loves the spotlight and thrives under pressure.

In the final regular season game at Washington, with a Rose Bowl berth on the line, Leaf converted 13 of his first 17 third-down opportunities, several on long passes that broke the Huskies' spirit. He converted on third-and-27, third-and-17 and third-and-13.

After the game, Leaf rushed across the field to the Cougars section and spiked the football. He was then carried off the field on fans' shoulders, which was no small feat.

Leaf is listed at 6-foot-5, 238 pounds; opponents swear he's bigger.

"Other coaches say he's 250," said Lloyd Carr, coach of top-ranked Michigan, which faces the Cougars in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. "If you rush him, he takes one hand and knocks you down and steps up and throws the ball."

The third-rated quarterback in the nation, Leaf completed 210 of 375 passes for 3,637 yards, with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His TD passes and yardage are Pac-10 season records.

Leaf's season has NFL scouts drooling, and the junior has been projected as a No. 1 draft pick, ahead of Tennessee's Peyton Manning. Leaf has said he won't reveal whether he'll leave school early until after the Rose Bowl.

Leaf began the season by throwing for 381 yards and three touchdowns against UCLA and 355 yards against USC. Five touchdown passes against California tied a school record, and he threw for a career-high 447 yards in the Cougars' only loss of the season, at Arizona State.

But it was not enough to persuade Heisman voters to choose him over the winner, Michigan's Charles Woodson, and Manning.

Leaf downplayed his chances all season.

"I'm happy some people are looking into the Northwest a little bit," he said. "But it's easier to see Michigan or Tennessee on TV than to watch Washington State."

Even in its own state, Washington State is a backwater school, about 300 miles east of Seattle in Pullman (population 24,000). The Cougars sold out only one of their six home games in 37,000-seat Martin Stadium this season, with much of the state's football attention on Washington.

All of which rankles Leaf.

"Does anyone know if Washington can still win the national title?" he quipped after beating the Huskies.

Leaf admits he's emotional and considers that a key to his leadership. Leaf always talks to opposing players, teammates, coaches and officials.

In one recent sideline conversation with his coach, the quarterback said: "I'm hot today! Let me throw it, I'm hot!," Price recounted with a laugh.

"Our relationship is more of a partnership," the coach added. "I'm never concerned about the score."

That's because the Cougars can strike from anywhere. This season, Leaf has TD passes of 80, 78, 72, 66 and 57 yards, just to name some of the longer ones.

While verbal jabs come easily to Leaf, the broadcasting major tries to be diplomatic about opponents. He has nothing but praise for Michigan, with its top-ranked defense and outstanding defensive back Woodson.

"I only have time to think about Charles and what he's going to do to us, and what the extraordinary Michigan defense is going to throw at us," Leaf said.

Leaf became a starter late in his freshman year and then threw for 2,811 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore.

This year's team was a custom fit for him, featuring five top receivers and a running back, Michael Black, who rushed for 1,157 yards and 11 TDs. The receivers, who bill themselves as the Fab Five, are led by Chris Jackson (49 catches, 916 yards), Kevin McKenzie (46-793), Shawn McWashington (31-556), Shawn Tims (30-410) and Nian Taylor (21-524).

A veteran line has given Leaf time to throw, and his scrambling and strength keep him out of trouble much of the time.

Despite all his accomplishments, Leaf contended Woodson and Manning were more worthy of the Heisman.

"I want to ride on their coattails and go to New York and meet them," Leaf said. He was provided that opportunity at the recent Heisman presentation.

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