|Thursday, October 26
Updated: October 27, 12:46 PM ET
Heupel on biggest stage of his life
By Wayne Drehs
NORMAN, Okla. -- It wasn't that long ago that Josh Heupel was like any other football-crazed kid, standing in his back yard, mud caked on his pants, team down by a touchdown, needing to march his unit around the bushes and past the flag pole to win the national championship.
A few slants, an out, and a post pattern or two later, and little Heupel would be the hero, leaping across the burnt South Dakota grass, throwing his arms in the air and screaming in celebration.
He was undefeated in those imaginary one-man contests.
Saturday, against No. 1 Nebraska, the soft-spoken, religious 22-year-old will get his shot for heroics in reality.
"I don't know anybody who loses in those games," he said. "There has to be something wrong if you do."
Heupel's career has played out like a dream. As quickly as he's splashed onto the college football scene, he'll be gone after this year, already a senior. A coach's son, Heupel was not heavily recruited in high school, so he ended up going to Weber State, where he played in four games in two years. He transferred to Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, in 1998, becoming a JUCO All-American.
That performance earned him a ticket to Oklahoma, where he would play in rookie coach Bob Stoops' spread offense.
Eighteen games later, Heupel is the bearer of 21 school and Big 12 passing records. He has thrown for at least 300 yards 12 times. In all 18 games he has a touchdown pass and a 50-percent completion rate.
More important, the Sooners -- who hadn't had a winning season since 1993 -- are the third-ranked team in the country, No. 2 in the BCS rankings.
And much of the credit goes to the South Dakota backyard dreamer who arrived in Norman an unknown quantity. Even prior to this year, at the Big 12 Media Day in August, Oklahoma sports information director Mike Prusinski said a couple Big 12 writers asked him who the OU quarterback was going to be. And Heupel was at those meetings, listed on everyone's interview schedule.
"I couldn't believe it," Prusinski said. "It was then that I knew we had to get his name out there."
Heupel has taken care of that with or without Prusinski's help. His stellar play in victories against Texas (63-14) and then-No. 2 Kansas State (41-31) have put his name on all the Heisman watch lists.
And when you pull Heupel aside and ask him about this newfound life as a celebrity, the chase for the Heisman, or even the improvements in his play, he's a coach's dream, offering little more than the "no I in team" mantra.
"It's not anything I do in particular," Heupel said of his humility. "I'm the same quarterback that I was at Weber State and at Snow. It's just that God has blessed me with some great teammates."
If Heupel wins the Heisman, the Downtown Athletic Club could be in for a treat -- trying to get this kid to talk about himself is like hunting for an extra ticket to Saturday's Nebraska game. It doesn't happen.
"I don't worry about expectations or the Heisman or any of that stuff," he said. "I'm concerned more with playing the best I can for the guys that I stand next to in the huddle or the locker room. That's who I have to answer to. It's easier that way."
Sound like the words spoken from a captain? That's because he is. In fact, after transferring from Snow, Heupel impressed his new teammates so much that he was elected a captain just a few weeks after his arrival.
"He's one of smartest QBs I've ever been around," said senior safety J.T. Thatcher, who goes against Heupel each day in practice. "He knows his reads and the defenses you are in. He knows where the receiver is going to be, where the ball needs to be. He's our leader."
His leadership skills hardly end off the field. Heupel is notorious in these parts for his impressive work ethic, desire for perfection and the endless hours he spends in the video room, studying film after film after film.
In his 16 years of coaching, Stoops said he has never seen anyone put forth a greater effort.
"At times, you have to hold him back a bit," Stoops said. "If you allowed him to, he'd be up there watching tape all day. He just loves football. So you have to watch him, chase him off the field once in a while. Get him back to the locker room so he can get on with the rest of his evening."
Yet it's those extra minutes that help Heupel stand apart from the rest. He isn't overly gifted physically, with a rifle arm or pinpoint accuracy. He doesn't have nearly the mobility of Saturday's counterpart, Eric Crouch, so Heupel uses his head.
With the textbook antidote for Oklahoma's wide-open offense the blitz, his ability to read the defense, find the holes and dump the ball to an open teammate -- all in a matter of about three seconds -- is the key.
As is withstanding all the blows from oversized defensive lineman who don't always slow up after Heupel has let the ball go.
"If you are a throwing quarterback, getting hit in the mouth is part of the game," Heupel said. "They want to bring the heat on you and play the game of 'Can you throw the ball before we get to you?' It's a personal challenge against yourself, and I like it.
"There's nothing better than being able to complete a ball under all that pressure and then picking yourself off the ground and doing it again."
Heupel had a strong junior season, completing 62-percent of his passes for more than 3,400 yards, but he physically began to fall apart toward the end of the year. All those hits began to take their toll. So this offseason, quarterbacks coach Chuck Long set forth the goal of slimming Heupel down.
A few less pounds, combined with improved mechanics, would make Heupel more elusive, cutting down on sacks as well as rushed interceptions. Heupel threw 16 picks last year. This year, he has only four interceptions and has completed his past 83 passes without a turnover.
"A lot of QBs think you need to gain weight to absorb hits but actually the opposite is true -- you need to slim down in order to get away from hits," Long said. "He dropped from about 217 to 210, which is a lot better for him.
"And we worked on his mechanics, his footwork specifically. Good footwork leads to better accuracy and that's obviously panned out."
Long, who finished second to Bo Jackson in the closest Heisman race ever back in 1985, says he sees slight reflections of himself in Heupel. In addition to both being cerebral-type quarterbacks who run wide-open offenses, Long said they are both perfectionists.
"Even after he leaves practice, you know he goes home and studies this more every day on his own," Long said. "It's always running through is head."
All his success has made Heupel, a person who has little time for TV, radio or newspapers, a celebrity of sorts on campus. Though he doesn't realize it through the media, he feels it with the eyes that stare at him as he crosses a Norman intersection and the letters he receives in the mail, including one last week from the Downtown Athletic Club. It asked him to keep the Saturday of Dec. 9 open, in case he might be needed for a little trophy presentation in New York.
Though he smiled when the letter arrived, he said it hasn't crossed his mind since.
"My family gets a chance to enjoy all that," he said. "My uncle was talking to me the other day and said, 'I want to read you an article.' I was like, 'C'mon, you know better than that.'
"If you relish past success, you are setting yourself up for future failure."
And that's not how this dream, the one that began in a back yard in South Dakota, is supposed to end.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.