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Alabama's Bryce Young has punched above his weight (and height) all the way to the Heisman doorstep

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Before he landed a flurry of high-profile endorsements, dragged Alabama back to the College Football Playoff and emerged as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, Bryce Young once fought a perception battle that now seems unimaginable.

He had to prove that he wasn’t too small to be an elite quarterback.

At the national quarterback camps he attended as a preteen, Young was typically the shortest participant. The oversized T-shirts handed out to every camper would often hang down to his knees. Because of Young's slight stature, camp organizers often assumed he couldn’t throw as well as his taller, stronger peers. They’d place him in the secondary “B” group of quarterbacks instead of inviting him to compete against the camp’s top tier.

“He would have to light up that group and then inevitably a counselor would say, ‘You don’t belong here,’” Craig Young, Bryce’s father, told Yahoo Sports. “It was always fun to watch. At every camp, it would play out like clockwork.”

Even after Bryce Young began his high school career by wresting playing time from a decorated senior quarterback, college coaches didn’t immediately line up outside his front door to hand out scholarship offers. Many chose to play it slow to see how the 5-foot-9 high school freshman would develop and if he’d grow any taller.

Only a few years later, no one is asking anymore if Young is big enough. Not after he produced maybe the greatest season by any quarterback in Alabama football history.

Alabama QB Bryce Young reacts after passing for a touchdown at the end of the second half against the Auburn Tigers on Nov. 27. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Alabama QB Bryce Young reacts after passing for a touchdown at the end of the second half against the Auburn Tigers on Nov. 27. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Young, generously listed at 6-feet, 194 pounds, showcased an unusual combination of arm strength, accuracy and improvisation as a sophomore, completing 68% of his passes and throwing for 43 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was at his best last Saturday when he picked apart top-ranked Georgia’s previously impenetrable defense, clinching Alabama’s place in the College Football Playoff and boosting his own Heisman candidacy.

“You look at him and he’s pedestrian,” said Taylor Kelly, Young's quarterback coach at 3DQB and at Santa Ana (California) Mater Dei High School. “You wouldn’t look twice at him on the street. But when he puts the pads on and steps in between the white lines, the kid is special. He’s not 6-3, 220 pounds, but he makes up for it with his athleticism, his ability to escape the pocket and all the different throws he can make.”

Bryce Young's ascension

Young might be carrying the football for Alabama instead of throwing it this season were it not for a serendipitous early fork in the road. When an even speedier 6-year-old than Young joined the youth team his dad coached, Craig gave his son a choice: compete for the starting quarterback job or remain at running back as the backup.

“He’s been a quarterback ever since,” Craig said with a laugh.

The new position fit Bryce Young right away like a favorite pair of jeans. While he was always small for a quarterback, his arm strength was undeniable and he had a knack for escaping the pocket and improvising whenever a play was about to break down.

To help their son maximize his physical gifts and learn the nuances of the quarterback position, Craig and Julie Young spent thousands of dollars a year on sessions with private coaches and on speed and strength training. Though both Youngs work, Craig as a mental health therapist and Julie in education, Craig admits those annual expenses kept him “driving Hondas and Toyotas instead of BMWs or Mercedes.”

Among the most influential coaches to mentor Young was a hard-working, charismatic Mexican-American man whose own quarterbacking career ended after high school. When he was introduced to the Youngs in 2013, Danny Hernandez had recently quit his job managing the records department of a Los Angeles-area law firm to throw himself into the crowded world of private quarterback training.

The leap of faith that Craig took by hitching his son’s development to an unproven coach turned out to be life-altering for both sides. They ascended together as Hernandez helped Bryce Young improve his timing and tighten his throwing mechanics, and Young bolstered Hernandez’s credibility as he made a name for himself.

“You can never tell my story without bringing up Bryce Young, and I love that,” Hernandez told Yahoo Sports. “We kind of came up together as total underdogs.”

Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young looks to throw during a game against JSerra Catholic HS at Santa Ana Stadium on Nov. 1, 2019. (Aubrey Lao /Getty Images)
Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young looks to throw during a game against JSerra Catholic HS at Santa Ana Stadium on Nov. 1, 2019. (Aubrey Lao /Getty Images)

It’s no accident that Young's unique quarterbacking style often reminded observers of basketball in cleats. For most of his childhood, he devoted as much time to refining his point guard skills as he did to playing quarterback.

Mike Teller, Young's former basketball trainer and 14-and-under AAU coach, described him as a gifted passer, capable scorer and exceptional leader. Teller admits Bryce “wouldn’t have gone to Duke or Kentucky or anything,” but contends that “he definitely would have been a Division I basketball recruit.”

When Craig warned Teller that Bryce intended to give up hoops after eighth grade to focus solely on football, the basketball coach initially begged the Youngs to reconsider. Teller now pokes fun at himself as he recalls having a hard time believing that Young could be that much better of a quarterback than he was a point guard.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got a bunch of guys who dream of being where he was as a basketball prospect,'” Teller said. “How is he just going to walk away from it?”

To Teller’s relief, Bryce Young's playmaking and court vision as a point guard didn’t go to waste. He just repurposed those skills as weapons in his quarterbacking arsenal. Young's knack for head faking or changing pace to make a blitzing linebacker grasp at air is a remnant of his basketball career. So is his unique ability to keep his eyes downfield after escaping the pocket and to find open receivers under duress instead of looking to run.

Not long after Young gave up basketball for good, Teller accepted an invitation from the Youngs to attend one of his former point guard’s football games. It only took a drive or two before Teller wrapped an arm around Craig on the sideline and admitted, “All right, I see it man. Football is his sport.”

Slowly, Young's legion of believers was growing. And soon it would include an influential college football coach.

How Bryce Young ended up at Alabama

In spring 2016, when Young was still in eighth grade, Hernandez made a video interspersing the quarterback’s game highlights with clips from a recent workout. Every college football coach in Hernandez’s phone received a copy. Then-Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury was the only one to respond with genuine interest.

“How many offers does this kid have?” Kingsbury asked.

“Hopefully you’re the first,” Hernandez answered.

Kingsbury had the foresight not to be dissuaded by Young's 5-foot-7, 150-pound frame. He saw enough in Young to invite him to a Texas Tech camp that June and then to offer a scholarship on the spot.

That first offer was validation for the Youngs. Someone else saw the same potential that they did in their son. Craig Young drove his son to the best steakhouse in Lubbock to celebrate by sharing a tomahawk steak. Five-plus years and countless achievements later, that day remains one of Craig’s most cherished memories.

“If no other school wanted him, he had a place to play,” Craig said.

You might think that Kingsbury’s interest in Bryce Young unleashed a deluge of other offers, but other coaches remained hesitant to go all-in on a sub-6-foot quarterback. A full year elapsed before another major scholarship offer arrived, an eternity in an era when colleges are identifying their top quarterback recruiting target earlier and earlier.

“Everyone would say that his film looks great but they wanted to wait and see how he grows and if he’s going to get any bigger,” Craig Young recalled. “It was very frustrating. He’d dominate a camp and people would be like, ‘Good job,’ and keep it moving. Then there would be some kid turning the ball over left and right but because he was big and strong, that would be the kid people were focusing on.”

Alabama Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young (9) rushes the ball during the SEC title game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Dec. 04. (Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young (9) rushes the ball during the SEC title game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Dec. 4. (Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Whereas Craig had to fight the urge to fire off an angry text after each snub, Bryce Young coped by focusing on what he could control. He exceeded expectations during a turbulent freshman season at Cathedral High, the Los Angeles all-boys Catholic school where Hernandez served as quarterback coach.

Even though Cathedral returned an accomplished fourth-year starting quarterback who would walk on at Arizona the following season, Bryce Young was too competitive to accept the backup job without a fight. He challenged himself to outperform his older counterpart in practice and force his way onto the field.

In the end, the incoming freshman displayed so much promise that Cathedral settled on a 50-50 split, Andrew Tovar quarterbacking the team in the first and third quarters and Young relieving him in the second and fourth. Cathedral didn’t lose until the second round of the playoffs that season yet the awkward quarterbacking arrangement led to rifts behind the scenes.

“Oftentimes we didn’t feel embraced by the other parents,” Craig Young said. “I understood that Bryce was taking playing time from an established starter who played incredibly well, but Bryce also did everything he could to put himself in position to compete. I had never taught him to concede and we weren’t there to wait.”

Thankfully for the Youngs, Bryce wouldn’t have to wait much longer for his dreams to come true. USC, Georgia, Oklahoma and Oregon each offered in June 2017. Alabama followed suit after Young threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore.

Suddenly, a kid who for so long had gone overlooked was now the most coveted quarterback in his class.

'He called 80% of the plays'

In 2018, after Young's 41-touchdown, three-interception sophomore season at Cathedral, his family grew tired of skeptics questioning if he could put up those same video game numbers against stronger opponents.

As a result, Young transferred to Santa Ana Mater Dei, a perennial high school football powerhouse that plays in Southern California’s toughest league and top playoff division.

“Our philosophy was to put him against the best competition,” Craig said. “That way his accomplishments could not be minimized.”

What Mater Dei quarterbacks coach Taylor Kelly focused on with Bryce Young was helping him identify defensive coverages and blitzes. If he could figure out where pressure would come from at the line of scrimmage, then he could call an audible or change Mater Dei’s protection scheme to compensate.

That was Young's biggest jump from his sophomore year, according to Kelly. Then, Kelly said, “He really mastered it his senior year.

“That’s when the game really slowed down for him. He knew exactly what the defense was going to do. He knew exactly where to send the offensive line. And he called 80% of the plays. He had the freedom to check to whatever he wanted to.”

As a senior, Young threw for more than 4,500 yards and tallied 58 touchdown passes to six interceptions. It was a season that solidified that no stage was too big for him and hinted that he’d one day do big things at Alabama.

In many ways, having to overcome early questions about his size has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not only did it make his climb from undersized recruit to Heisman finalist more satisfying, it also sharpened his work ethic, boosted his self confidence and strengthened his resolve.

There’s a reason that Young still painstakingly prepared for Alabama games this season as if he were a fringe player, not someone who has thrown for 43 touchdowns and four interceptions. And there’s a reason he remains unfailingly humble instead of letting his newfound fame or wealth go to his head.

Because no amount of award-list mentions, endorsement money or autograph requests alters how Young views himself. To the most dynamic quarterback in college football, he’ll always be the underdog.

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