Monday, January 24, 2022

How 15 years of preparation has Bryce Young ready to lead Alabama in the College Football Playoff

It’s in private that Bryce Young reveals himself. Oh, we’ve all seen the games and the accolades. But to begin to get a glimpse of Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, you have to go back to his native Southern California in the back seat of his parents’ car traveling the 50 miles from Pasadena to Irvine.

“I was a young kid,” Young said. “I didn’t know where Irvine was. I fell asleep in the car, and I’d wake up, and I was there.”

That was 15 years ago in 2006. Young was 5, working with a quarterback coach for the first time. Tim Arthurs still owns the Ohio high school record for completion percentage (72.5% in 1998).

Given her son’s age and what was at stake, Julie Young had an immediate proclamation for her husband Craig: “[She thoughts] I was nuts,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Where is all this money going?'”

We know the ultimate answer to that question now. Bryce Young is the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman. he has also proved comfortable playing in the long shadow cast by the first-time quarterback starters at Alabama.

Young is the ninth such first-time starter to play a full season since 2009. Five of them have won national championships in that initial season: Greg McElroy (2009), A.J. McCarron (2011), Jake Coker (2015), Jalen hurts (2017), Mac Jones (2020). Young technically already has a ring having backed up Jones last season.

It’s what you don’t see that has gotten Young and Alabama into the College Football Playoff again. It took an epiphany by his father, who would beg his son to get in the car and travel those 50 miles to do … what, exactly?

As refined as football may be, it’s next to impossible to project the talents of a 5-year-old. Craig Young tried.

“Julie was like, ‘Is sports going to be important in your relationship with your son? You’re going to have to do better because I think this is going to affect your relationship,” he recalled his wife saying. “I saw the potential in him. I didn’t want to mess it up. That led to being overbearing.”

That’s another example of The Process being a process. For everything we see and know about Bryce Young, a large part of his ascension has come away from prying eyes. While dad had to adjust, son always seemed to be the same.

“He’s always had the ability to stay calm in chaos and not perceive it as chaos,” Craig said.

Entering into the Cotton Bowl semifinal, Bryce has shown that he is an incredibly mobile quarterback who isn’t necessarily explosive as a runner (71 attempts for 31 yards in 13 games). His game is refined to the point it looks like Alabama could win a national title with Young merely playing pitch-and-catch with Biletnikoff Award finalist Jameson Williams.

Rather quietly, Young has crept within 179 yards of the Crimson Tide’s single-season passing record set last year by Mac Jones. A sign of what Alabama has become: That record has been broken five times since 2010.

Oh yeah, and Alabama became the sixth program to win back-to-back Heismans. Another indication of what Bama has become: Hardware is drawn to Crimson & White like Saban to the recruiting trail. Actually, there isn’t one without the other.

“That is one of the big reasons I went to Alabama,” Young said. “I knew I would never have to worry about individual accolades.”

But this Alabama quarterback definitely has a “weakness”. That trait has revealed itself in private, too. By his parents’ account, Young is ultra-competitive. While not out of the ordinary for an elite athlete, this one is pout-after-losing-at-Monopoly competitive.

“Board games, card games, bowling, miniature golf,” Julie added.

“It was so annoying,” Craig said. “He wins 90% of the time. When he lost, he didn’t want to talk.”

So how did that work when Alabama lost at Texas A&M as two-touchdown road favorite on Oct. 9? When the Tide were upset, their quarterback was understandably … upset. Alabama was beaten by a backup QB, Zach Calzada, who is currently in the transfer portal. It still boggles the mind.

“From high school on, he didn’t really lose a lot,” Craig said. “When he loses a game, we know we’re not going to talk to him. He’s going to handle it. He doesn’t want a bunch of hugs and attaboys. What we will do is tell him we love him, text him, and send him scripture. Then he’ll always respond back, which will always be the next day.”

That competitive edge always made Young play “up,” whether it be competing against older kids in Pop Warner ball, transferring to national high school power Mater Dei in Orange County or taking the Tide 97 yards in the final 95 seconds to force overtime at Auburn as a sophomore.

“I always kind of [thrive] around older people,” Young said. “It just became kind of natural. You try to push yourself, the best version of myself. You just try to surround yourself with people who challenge you.”

“There is a ceiling for a 5-year-old,” he said of starting training at a young age. “It was kind of just setting that tone and starting to work. It felt good chasing the best, going out of my way.”

Before Young was challenged by new Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, he knew it would be a challenge. How would the rising starter mesh with an NFL head coach and general manager coming “down” to college to be a coordinator again?

“I was doing this mad dash for research,” Young said. “What is he like? I was trying to call people who knew him. Being a head coach and general manager, he coached Tom Brady [with the Patriots]. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

O’Brien could have easily big-timed the first-time starter and wouldn’t have been blamed if he did. In addition to working with Brady, O’Brien drafted and developed Deshaun Watson. He basically kept Penn State football alive in his two years with the Nittany Lions following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

“When I first met him, the success he had, it was crazy how humble he was to work with me,” Young said. “He gives me so much say into what to do. His door is always open. We can talk about stuff off the field and on the field. He’s always open to change.

“If he loves a play and I don’t like, it he won’t call it. For someone who had such a rich coaching history, he could have easily come in and said, ‘You have no say. I’m calling plays. You have no choice. Just listen.'”

Since November, life has come at Young like an onrushing linebacker. At the beginning of November, Alabama was coming off a bye ranked third nationally behind Cincinnati and Georgia.

What followed transformed the player and his team. Three wins by a touchdown or less (LSU, Arkansas, Auburn) were sandwiched around the annual nonconference laugher (New Mexico State). The closeness of those SEC wins might have raised more questions than they answered until 1:35 seconds remained at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It was there at his own 3, needing a touchdown to tie the Tigers, when all that training, all that competitiveness came into play. Young drove his team 97 yards to tie the game with 24 seconds left. Bama eventually won in overtime. By that margin, the Tide kept their SEC and playoff hopes alive.

“I could tell by looking at everyone’s eyes. We all understood what was at stake,” Young said. “… Anyone in the past wasn’t going to help us in the future.”

That’s quite a statement in a program steeped in so much history. In that moment, Young put the team on his back. It was a bigger statement given Craig’s epiphany. Nurturing oversight replaced overbearing.

“Instead of saying, when he missed a throw, ‘What are you doing?’ it became more collaborative,” Craig said of his son’s younger days. “Being yelled at kind of went away. I started with a lot of positive stuff. There is no [other] quarterback I’d want to have on my team.”

It’s hard to believe Bryce Young received his first offer from Texas Tech at age 14. That one was from Kliff Kingsbury.

Give Kingsbury credit for having an eye for talent. By the time Young’s Class of 2020 signed, Patrick Mahomes — Texas Tech’s quarterback when Young was offered — had won a Super Bowl and become an NFL MVP. By that time, Kingsbury had matriculated to the NFL himself riding another Heisman winner in Kyler Murray.

The world is spread out before Young. Off the field, we got a glimpse at his potential when coach Nick Saban remarked last summer that his quarterback could earn $1 million in income from his name, image and likeness rights. While the high figure was questioned at the time, sources told CBS Sports that it was accurate.

Stanford coach David Shaw said what a lot of us were writing: “It’s obvious to me that Nick wanted to plant that and make sure people knew that. It’s a great way to recruit people to come to you.”

In another private moment, during a walk from Rockefeller Center in New York with the other Heisman candidates for a photoshoot earlier this month, Young was asked if his coach had indeed meant to recruit the next Bryce Young with the $1 million revelation.

“Coach Saban always knows what he’s doing,” Young said. “Coach is always right.”

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