Former Marshall star quarterback Chad Pennington isn’t one to say, “I told you so.” When it comes to current Thundering Herd QB Byron Leftwich, however, Pennington does just that.
“I told people three years ago that Byron would make people forget about me,” Pennington said. “I told them he’d break my records. I never had any doubt about him. I’m not a bandwagon jumper. I knew all along that Byron would be this good.”
Thanks in great part to the strong-armed Leftwich and his talented corps of receivers, Marshall figures to have a chance to post its best season in school history. With preseason publications ranking the Herd anywhere from 11th (Playboy) to 14th (The Sporting News) to 19th (Sports Illustrated), the 2002 Marshall squad has a springboard the 1999 team did not.
Pennington’s team began the year ranked no higher
Pennington, now with the New York Jets, remembers well the pressure to perform in 1999 when fans expected the Herd to follow 1998’s 12-1 mark with an undefeated season. Pennington recalled the non-stop attention he got on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. He remembers the long lines of people seeking autographs outside the MU locker room – after mere practices. The atmosphere was even more of a circus after games.
Pennington offered advice to Leftwich, which isn’t uncommon, as they frequently talk via the telephone.
“Byron just needs to be Marshall’s quarterback and not worry about any of that other stuff,” Pennington said. “He needs to be who he is and not be concerned with all of the other hype. If he can do that, and I know that he will, everything will work out great for him and the team.”
The hype isn’t easy to ignore. It’s plastered in full color across newsstands throughout the nation. Leftwich graces the cover of the Northeast edition of Street & Smith’s, maybe the industry’s most-respected pre-season publication. Athlon ranks Marshall 23rd and has Leftwich as a third-team All-American. The Sporting News, athletics equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, has Marshall ranked 14th in the nation and raves about Leftwich. Lindy’s and Phil Steele’s College Football Preview follow suit, ranking Marshall in the top 25 and praising Leftwich as the main reason for the Herd’s lofty expectations.
“All of that is good for our program,” MU coach Bobby Pruett said. “But you remember November. Let’s see where we’re ranked at the end of the season. That’s what means more.”
That ranking could mean millions of dollars to Leftwich. Noted NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper of ESPN ranks Leftwich as the No. 1 player available in the 2003 draft. No. 1 Pennington was the 18th overall selection and the first quarterback taken in the 2000 draft. That earned him a contract worth about $23 million. Leftwich, as the potential top pick, stands to dwarf that figure.
“I can’t think about that,” Leftwich said. “My mind is on this season. I’m Marshall’s quarterback. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Some figured Leftwich would be gone by now. Kiper rated Leftwich the fourth-best quarterback available if he had entered the 2002 draft.
“I heard a lot of that stuff, but I never intended to turn pro last year,” Leftwich said. “It was an easy decision to come back. I have more I want to accomplish. I know that there are still things I can do to get better. Everybody tried to make it a tough decision for me, but it wasn’t.”
The presence of a tremendously talented corps of teammates made returning attractive. Junior wide receiver Darius Watts, Leftwich’s favorite target, is a pre-season All-American, as is left tackle Steve Sciullo, who protects Leftwich’s blind side when the talented QB drops back to pass. Also back is Outland Trophy candidate Nate McPeek at right tackle and wideouts Josh Davis and Denero Marriott, each of whom would be the No. 1 receiver on any other team in the Mid-American Conference.
Leftwich knows this season can be special. The nation knows that Leftwich can be equally as impressive. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound senior caught the country’s attention in last year’s 64-61 victory over East Carolina in the GMAC Bowl. Leftwich threw for 576 yards in that game, bookending a season of strong performances. Leftwich began the season with a 300-yard passing effort against No. 1 ranked Florida.
Leftwich, heralded by many as the premier quarterback in the nation, right there with Florida’s Rex Grossman and Miami’s Ken Dorsey, has pro scouts drooling over his potential. No wonder. He’s massive, hard to bring down and can throw a football 72 yards. Few, if any, in college football can rival Leftwich’s arm strength. Intelligent, Leftwich often changed the call at the line of scrimmage, adjusting to the defense. He’s accurate, completing 314 of 470 passes (66.8 percent) last season, with 38 going for touchdowns and just eight being intercepted.
“You kind of catch yourself watching Byron,” Akron coach Lee Owens said. “He’s an amazing quarterback. We did everything we could do to stop him last year and he adjusted every time. We’d think we’d be in a defense that could at least slow him down and he’d change the call and make something happen. That’s what’s so impressive about him.”
Leftwich has a full grasp of Marshall’s tradition at his position. The eighth straight Marshall quarterback to earn all-conference honors, he figures to join Carl Fodor (St. Louis), Eric Kresser (Cincinnati) and Pennington as former Herd passers to play in the NFL.
Pruett said Leftwich is the best quarterback he’s ever been around. That’s not bad, considering Pruett also coached Pennington and Kresser at Marshall, along with Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel at Florida. Pruett figures if Wuerffel can win the Heisman, so can Leftwich. There’s no doubt the possibility of him being a finalist for college football’s highest individual award exists. Marshall has proven that, sending Pennington to the Heisman ceremony in 1999, two years after another Herd star, Randy Moss, made it there, as well. Marshall even has its own web site devoted to promoting Leftwich – www.leftwichqb.com.
Few recruited Leftwich out of Washington, D.C.’s H.D. Woodson High School. Oklahoma State and Pittsburgh showed some interest. Delaware State showed more. Marshall, however, recruited the strong-armed youngster harder than anyone. Herd coaches saw potential that other recruiters missed.
“We knew he’d have to register that arm at the state line,” MU assistant Mark Gale said. “He had a gun for an arm.”
Yes, but could he handle the rigors of Marshall’s intricate offense,
a multiple-receiver attack that relies on the quarterback to adjust on
the fly. If not, MU coaches speculated that Leftwich might make a solid
tight end or defensive end. There was a time when fans would have liked
to have seen Leftwich catching passes rather than throwing them. When
Pennington was hurt in the 1998 MAC championship game with Toledo, Leftwich
came in for one series and promptly threw an interception on a pass he
admits was horribly thrown. “I’ve come a long way since then,”
Leftwich said, flashing a Magic Johnson-like smile. “I’ve
had to work hard.”
“He’s a winner,” said former Marshall offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, now offensive coordinator at the University of Florida. “I don’t want to compare Byron and Rex Grossman (the Gators quarterback and front runner for this year’s Heisman Trophy award), but it’s an honor to get to coach both of them. I will say that.”
Leftwich is a winner. The Herd has gone 19-7 with him at quarterback,
winning two bowls and one conference title. He helped Marshall to a No.
21 final ranking in the 2001 coach’s poll.
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