PASSING MARKS : All Perez Needed Was a Chance; Now, Watch Out

Times Staff Writer

Mike Perez is this year's accidental tourist, a guy who's getting where he wants to go for all the wrong reasons.

Let's put it this way: If you wanted to be one of the country's top college passers, would you sign on as a second-string quarterback on a junior college option team?

Kids, don't try this at home. The road to the National Football League, which Perez is finally on, does not begin with a pitch-out offense at Taft Community College. Or shouldn't.

Yet, here's Perez, averaging 311 yards passing at San Jose State and contending for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s total offense record and lighting up the scouts' eyes everywhere, to demonstrate that even the game plan from hell can be overcome.

All it takes is luck and the kind of arm that, in reference to rifle and cannon, exaggerates the power of military weaponry. In combination, luck and physical ability can take a willing young man anywhere he wants to go.

Here's where that combination has taken Mike Perez, so far: Going into Saturday's game at Cal State Long Beach, Perez has accounted for 5,914 yards in total offense--his passing yardage, minus sacks, more or less.

Since he will have had just two seasons at San Jose State, he cannot approach those career passing records that West Coast throwers keep setting. Last weekend, for instance, San Diego State's Todd Santos broke Kevin Sweeney's year-old NCAA record set at Fresno State. But game in, game out--like 311 yards every game--he can set a different NCAA mark. He needs just 187 yards in total offense this week in the Spartans' final regular-season game to break the record for yards per game, something he should do by halftime. He has thrown for more than 400 in two of his last three games, warming up at the prospect.

There was never any reason to expect that Perez would put a twinkle in the NFL scouts' eyes at San Jose State. Moreover, there was never any reason to expect Perez to be at San Jose State.

"It's a matter of circumstance and luck," said Coach Claude Gilbert, referring equally to Perez and himself.

Since Perez joined San Jose State, the Spartans have gone from 2-8-1 to 10-2 and 9-1 and two straight Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. titles. It's hard to say who benefited most from his appearance, Perez or the Spartans.

Yet, had Perez not come aboard, there still would have been a football team. You cannot say the same of the quarterback with any equal assurance. Likely he would have finally disappeared altogether in one of those cracks he kept slipping through.

The fact that he didn't is explained by his simple self-confidence: "I never really gave up on myself. I always thought, no matter where I was, that if I could just get the chance to play, to show somebody . . . "

The guy who led the country in total offense last year, really his first, almost didn't get a chance to show anybody anything. Back in Denver, he quarterbacked a running team in high school. This did not bring recruiters banging on his door. The one who did bang, Colorado's, entered and looked around and politely excused himself. Colorado withdrew its offer.

So Perez did what any quarterback would do. He scrambled. Knowing that Taft, hard by Bakersfield, was something of an incubator for major college talent, he enrolled there. Kind of tentatively.

Then he withdrew, leaving campus after two weeks. He returned to Colorado and almost tried to walk on there. But thinking he might get buried there, he returned to Taft. His mother might have had something to do with that.

"They hadn't known I had left," he said, correctly assessing all past and future impact he would have there.

Looking back, it is easy to see that Taft was absolutely the one, dead-certain, wrong place for a strong-armed, slow-footed quarterback. His talents might have been evident, but they weren't suitable.

"I wasn't on a passing team," he said. "And I wasn't fast enough to run the option."

But going there wasn't necessarily a bad decision, it was just no decision. He had had zero alternatives.

But he did have some luck. The coach there, Al Baldock, knew Perez might be useful somewhere and he thought he knew just the place. He called an old colleague, from when they were both at San Diego State, and placed him with Gilbert.

End of story? Cue the orchestra? Hold it. Perez went from purgatory in the flatlands to one on the bay.

"He's an NFL can't-misser, but at the time, we didn't know what we had," Gilbert says now. "We red-shirted him and he was just kind of there that year."

Gilbert, struggling through that 2-8-1 season, might not have given him another thought.

Perez, meanwhile, was ready to chuck it all. In fact, he had once more returned to Mom in Denver. She shooed him right back out and he crept back into summer camp two weeks late. His potential was such that nobody had particularly missed him.

But Perez, still confident, learned what he had to that redshirt year. On game days, he sat in the press box and called out the coverages to an assistant coach, simulating game experience as best he could. Having to recognize just two coverages in his junior college days had hardly prepared him for life in the pass-happy PCAA. As they say, college is a learning experience.

Nobody knew what he had learned, exactly. Going into his junior year, he was simply a guy contending with Tony Locy for the job.

"They were very close in fall practice, both doing very well," Gilbert remembered. "Then in the second scrimmage, Tony hurt his shoulder. Mike was our quarterback and finally he knew it."

Perez, in his first start, completed 20 of 38 passes for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns. Both Perez and San Jose State were on their way.

Gilbert's system, with some emphasis on the drop-back pass, suited Perez wonderfully, just as Perez's talents suited the system.

"I just blossomed," said Perez. "I came here just wanting to play. Maybe I'd be happy to throw for 1,500 yards. I guess I got that quicker than I had thought."

He led the nation with 330 yards in total offense a game. He got that 1,500 real quick.

This over-year success grew semi-legendary in the process, and not just for his yardage. Perez showed a tendency to rally a team, as he did in that memorable duel with Fresno State last year.

San Jose trailed Kevin Sweeney's team, 41-31, with 1 minute 15 seconds to play. Perez threw a five-yard touchdown pass and then, after a recovered onside kick--sometimes that stupid play works--he completed a 26-yarder with 18 seconds left and a guy hanging onto his leg for the victory.

This year, he has engineered comeback victories over Cal and Fresno State. In the 29-34 victory over Cal, he threw for 378 yards, his last pass a 36-yarder with 6 seconds left to set up the winning field goal. Against Fresno State, he put together a 46-yard drive with 2:53 left.

Still, the play he is most famous for has little to do with passing or comeback victories. So far as we know, he remains the only quarterback ever penalized for roughing the rusher. This penalty was really an unsportsmanlike conduct call but has been dressed up by the school's publicity department.

In an "oh-that" kind of delivery, Perez recalled: "It was against Washington State and I thought the guy hit me kind of late. Thought it was flagrant. I didn't understand why the ref didn't call it."

So he exacted his own swift justice and clipped the offending opponent upside the head. "Hard enough," he said, "that the referee noticed."

Together, this has assured Perez a modest Heisman Trophy campaign, the theme being "One Tough Quarterback," with the 6-2 Perez scowling from the folder. The folks at San Jose State have given him his shot, although nobody ever really believed in it.

"We did our best to promote him, though we realized his chances are nil," said Gilbert. "But he deserved the attention."

Perez himself didn't take it too seriously. He enjoyed the preseason magazines that touted him as a candidate. "On the other hand, I haven't seen my name mentioned lately," he said, laughing.

Gilbert figures that Perez will be rewarded in other ways. "He's destined to be a superstar in the NFL," he said.

Any coach might say that of his player but Spartan alumni Bill Walsh, genius in residence with the San Francisco 49ers, has also heralded Perez as a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

One of the two should know something. Perez may do better than some Heisman winning quarterbacks--Gary Beban, Terry Baker and Steve Spurrier--as far as that goes.

In any event, Perez has gone far, considering that he came from nowhere. "He could have gone somewhere else and had a great career," Gilbert said. "But that's probably a long shot. We might have had a different quarterback and still had a good year. But that might be a long shot, too."

A little bit of luck and circumstance rescued both Perez and San Jose State, in other words, and neither has been the same since.

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