GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The fifth-largest crowd in the history of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was howling. With the fourth quarter about to begin and Florida storming back into the game against No. 1-ranked Alabama, 90,887 fans sang along to the Tom Petty anthem, “I Won’t Back Down.”
The usually disciplined Crimson Tide were showing atypical nerve against the 11th-ranked Gators, clinging to a five-point lead but committing far too many penalties. The offensive line had a bad case of the jitters. A receiver dropped a wide-open touchdown pass.
In the middle of the chaos, a sophomore quarterback making his first career start on the road projected calm. Bryce Young took the field to begin the fourth quarter and delivered a strike to receiver JoJo Earle — an 18-yard gain for a first down — that quieted the crowd. A few minutes later, on third down with the Florida pass rush surrounding him, Young escaped, juked a defender and tossed a nifty shovel pass to tight end Cameron Latu to move the chains yet again. Crucial time came off the clock, and an easy field goal extended the lead to eight.
When the Swamp was finally quiet, after Alabama held off Florida 31-29, Young smiled. For maybe the first time all afternoon, he showed a little emotion, waving his arms at the small contingent of Tide fans on his way to the visitors’ locker room.
Speaking to reporters later, Young was back to his normal self — soft-spoken and borderline serene. He called it a “crazy atmosphere” and said how “super proud” he was of the offense. In pitch-perfect coach speak, he called a bizarre late clock malfunction an “external factor” they had to manage and “just another piece of adversity we had to overcome.” His own coach, Nick Saban, then praised him for doing “a really good job” amid the tumult.
“I think he was very composed,” Saban said of his quarterback, who had three touchdowns and no interceptions, keeping the game from an upset.
It’s still early in his career, but Young’s sense of composure has people around the sport abuzz. One coach gushed to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg about a play in the season-opener against Miami when Young threw the ball into the stands rather than take a sack. An NFL scout took one look and said, “That young kid is going to be freaking unbelievable.”
Young tied a school record with 10 touchdown passes in his first three games, and he’s yet to throw an interception. While Saban said he plays like a veteran, that uncommon poise isn’t an accident. It’s part of the plan.
What appears to be innate, Young’s father said, is actually a result of his upbringing and the adversity he had to go through.
IT STARTED WITH Young’s father doing all the wrong things.
Craig Young, a mental health therapist in Southern California, knew better. But coaching his son’s Pop Warner team, he couldn’t help himself. When things went wrong, he got angry. And to avoid the appearance that he was playing favorites with his son, he went too far in the other direction.
He was overbearing and overly critical, he said. And his son’s performance suffered.
“I treated him worse,” Craig Young said. “And that’s not fair.”
Thankfully for both father and son, mom eventually intervened. One day, Julie Young pulled her husband aside and told him to knock it off.
From then on, during Bryce’s formative middle school years, his relationship with his father on the football field changed and became more collaborative. More supportive than demanding, Craig leaned on his background in mental health. Instead of voicing his disapproval, he started asking questions like, “Why did you make that throw?” and “What were you seeing?”
The two began embracing concepts such as positive self-talk, which can reduce anxiety in competition, and visualization, which can help prepare athletes for adverse situations. Before every game, Bryce developed a routine. He’d listen to music, pray and visualize his performance.
That might explain why he always seems to be a step ahead of the defense.
Bruce Rollinson, the longtime coach at Southern California powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, remembers a youth camp for seventh graders — the same camp future pro quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Matt Leinart attended. There were 25 potential QBs on the field one summer, but Rollinson remembers most of them being “daddy-driven.”
“Then you get a kid like Bryce. We saw him and went, ‘Whoa, look at this guy,'” Rollinson recalled.
Bryce was skinny and not quite 6-feet tall, but he had a live arm. And more important than that, Rollinson saw someone who knew where he was going with the football. He had that rare combination of a quick release, accuracy and touch that coaches dream about.
The way he carried himself exuded confidence. He had that “it factor,” Rollinson said.
When Bryce got to Mater Dei his sophomore year, Rollinson saw what he was able to do scrambling and making throws on the run, and decided to tweak the offense. One day, he witnessed his offensive line coach tell Bryce to step up in the pocket and slide with the protection. Then the running backs coach chimed in: “You’ve got to get the back!”
It was all wrong. So after practice, Rollinson gathered the coaches.
“Let’s establish something here, fellas: I don’t want anyone talking to Bryce Young,” he told them. “No, I don’t know where the hell he’s going half the time. We have it protected up, but if he doesn’t like the way it smells, he tornadoes out.
“But,” he said, “Whenever he gets out of the pocket, magic happens.”
What people don’t understand, Rollinson said, is how Bryce can manipulate and bait the pass rush. Eventually, Rollinson gave him carte blanche to run the offense. The staff would simply signal in formations and let Bryce call whatever play he wanted.
The result was a Mater Dei state championship in 2018 and 178 total touchdowns during Bryce’s high school career.
He originally committed to USC during his junior season and stayed committed for more than a year. But then former Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian was hired by Alabama as offensive coordinator. Then the losses at USC started piling up and things began to look unstable. As all of this was happening, Alabama kept on winning, and the offense changed, thanks to the combination of Sarkisian and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Bryce fell in love with Tuscaloosa. But one of the things that impressed the Youngs the most during their visit was the holistic approach Saban had developed there. Multiple staff members are dedicated to player development. Alabama’s new sports science center houses a behavioral health department which is able to provide access to a sports psychologist, clinical psychologist and an on-site psychiatrist.
Craig noticed how “ahead of the curve [Saban] was on sports psychology,” he said. There wasn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, coaching was tailored to the individual, which is no coincidence since Alabama conducts personality tests on players to better understand the right buttons to push.
“Coach Saban sees that if they’re healthy mentally then that will correlate to their play on the field,” Craig said.
Young eventually committed and signed with Alabama, creating a pairing of coach and quarterback that works on multiple levels, whether it was their shared embrace of sports psychology or their preferred style of play.
Above all things, Saban wants a quarterback who can manage the offense. While the term “game-manager” has become taboo in recent years for signifying a QB who is reluctant to take chances, if you strip away the flash, that’s exactly what Bryce is. He’s a playmaker in the style of a point guard on the basketball court — someone who looks to distribute the ball first, rather than make plays for himself.
If you want to better understand Bryce’s ability to keep his eyes up and find his receivers while avoiding the pass rush, start with his background in hoops. It’s no different than dribbling through traffic and keeping your eyes peeled for the open man.
Then go back to Pop Warner when Craig was busy making every mistake in the book as Bryce’s coach. Craig laughed, recalling how bad those lines were early on before Bryce got to high school.
“We did not have a good line,” he said. “Never. So when he was figuring out how to play football, he had to figure out a way to make the right read, worry about my dad yelling at me, not get hit and throw. And it wasn’t always pretty.”
YOUNG’S FIRST SEASON at Alabama veered from the plan.
For the first time in his football life, things didn’t just fall into place when Young arrived in Tuscaloosa. COVID-19 robbed Alabama of spring practice and a chance for Young to show the coaches what he was capable of. Then fall practice came and Mac Jones suddenly transformed from a lifetime backup to a quarterback who couldn’t miss.
Jones won the job, led Alabama to a national championship and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Young played sparingly. Because the SEC didn’t play any non-conference games due to COVID, he wasn’t able to get the number of snaps he normally would have against lesser Group of 5 and FCS opponents.
It was tough taking a back seat, but Craig said his son dealt with it as best he could. He became a “sponge,” he said, studying the offense and learning all he could from Jones, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the New England Patriots.
Young approached the offseason wanting to get better and prepare to hit the ground running as the starter. He attended the two-day QB retreat in California hosted by longtime quarterback coach Steve Clarkson. If not for weather-related issues, he would have attended the prestigious Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana as well.
It’s a mindset that Young’s personal quarterback coach, Taylor Kelly, can trace back to football fields in California. Training at 3DQB’s headquarters, Kelly said that Young would watch the work that NFL quarterbacks like the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan would put in every day to improve as a passer. He would often study clips of Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback he patterns his game after the most.
“In the film room,” Kelly said, “he’s unbelievable. You can teach something on the board or show it on film, and he’s going to go out on the field and apply it. His ability to retain knowledge and use it is awesome.”
It became abundantly clear to reporters and fans alike during the course of the offseason that Young had won over the coaching staff. Saban, who always waits until the week of the season-opener to name a new starting quarterback, did little to hide the fact that Young would be replacing Jones as the starter. He trusted him enough to let him speak to the media before the news was official — another first during Saban’s time at Alabama.
That faith was rewarded when Young set Alabama records for touchdown passes and passing yards in his debut against Miami. As others noticed his poise as a first-time starting quarterback, Young said that came from a simple concept: “Confidence is a product of preparation.”
Asked how he performs so well under pressure, Saban cited Young’s feel for the pocket, his quick feet and quick release.
“And then, you know, he’s a very bright guy, so he really understands how the other team is trying to pressure and tries to protect himself,” Saban said.
While Young wasn’t flawless against Florida on Saturday, leading an offense that went three-and-out on three consecutive drives at one point, he never turned the ball over. Saban credited him with making good decisions and controlling both the tempo of the game and the clock, keeping the Florida offense off the field.
“He managed the game really well,” Saban said, “[and] made some really, really good decisions for the most part.”
Time will tell whether Young can keep up his current pace. Maybe he’ll finally stumble in two weeks at home against Ole Miss. Or maybe it will be later, on the road at Texas A&M or Auburn.
Kelly, for his part, said, “I’ve never seen him rattled.”
It comes from preparation.
“I don’t see a deer in the headlights,” he said. “I don’t see any second-guessing himself. That’s a trait he’s always had.”