Fresno's Find : Dilfer Was Barely Recruited Out of High School, but Some Say He Is Now Better Than Torretta

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trent Dilfer was so lightly regarded as a high school quarterback, the few schools that recruited him told him they would probably make him a tight end or a linebacker.

But where others saw only a skilled athlete who could blend into a team, Rich Olson, Fresno State's former offensive coordinator, saw the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Dilfer as a leader.

Olson uncovered Dilfer at Aptos High in the coastal community of the same name in Santa Cruz County.

"I felt like I had a diamond in the rough," he said.

He was right.

Dilfer, a sophomore who will lead Fresno State against USC in the Freedom Bowl Tuesday night at Anaheim Stadium, is the top player on a team that leads the nation in scoring and is second in total offense.

After passing for 2,836 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 regular season, Dilfer joined former Brigham Young All-Americans Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer as the only quarterbacks to be named to the All-Western Athletic Conference team as sophomores.

San Diego State Coach Al Luginbill said before a game against Miami and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta that Dilfer was the best quarterback the Aztecs would face this season, "bar none."

Luginbill's comment caused quite a stir among the top-ranked Hurricanes, but Olson, who coaches quarterbacks and wide receivers at Miami after eight seasons at Fresno State, indicated that the statement wasn't that outlandish.

"There's no substitute for experience," Olson said. "But I think (Dilfer's) physical attributes are much better, as far as his athletic ability, his height. He's a lot taller, he's a lot faster. He's a lot more mobile than Gino. Trent makes more plays on his athletic ability than Gino might.

"Potentially, I think he's got a chance to be the best quarterback in the country."

Almost nobody could have predicted that three years ago.

"He was in an option offense--he might have thrown 10 or 12 passes a game--but it was enough to see that he had an excellent throwing motion and he had the ability to make big plays," Olson said.

Olson discovered Dilfer after Fresno State Coach Jim Sweeney, looking for a replacement for four-year starter Mark Barsotti, told Olson to comb the country.

Olson's search led him to Aptos, about 10 miles south of Santa Cruz, and to Dilfer, who was raised by two former athletes.

Dilfer's stepfather, Frank Lynch, played football and rugby and was captain of the track team at Cal during the mid-1960s.

His mother, Marcie, had been a gymnast.

"He was immersed in sports," said his mother, who ran a gymnastics club in Aptos for several years and still teaches physical education at Soquel High. "He's just been surrounded by sports since the time he could walk."

Lynch was a football coach at Aptos High and Cabrillo College.

"I grew up around football," Dilfer said. "When Frank was coaching, I was the ballboy."

Dilfer, though, was more successful in basketball and golf than in football. He was the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League player of the year in both sports.

In football, he was a second-team all-league quarterback.

Dilfer simply wasn't showcased in a run-oriented offense.

"We wouldn't have won if we had dropped back and thrown the ball," said Dilfer, who completed 70 of 147 passes for 1,126 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games as a senior. "We didn't have good enough receivers and we didn't have a good enough line, so (Coach Jamie Townsend) put in an offense where we could win.

"And I wouldn't change that."

Still, Dilfer was frustrated when college recruiters showed so little interest in him as a quarterback.

Although Fresno is only about a 2 1/2-hour drive southeast from Aptos, Dilfer wouldn't have been able to locate it without a map.

"I always thought it was to the north," he said, laughing.

Still, after making recruiting visits to Santa Clara and Fresno State, he made an oral commitment to Olson and the Bulldogs.

"The people are so great here," he said. "The community is really behind Fresno State. It's a great environment to grow and to be a better person and a productive member of society."

Also, Fresno State was among the few schools that recruited him as a quarterback. Colorado State, Oregon, Utah and Utah State, among others, wanted to use him elsewhere.

What made him think he could be a major college quarterback?

"I just knew I could," Dilfer said. "I have tremendous confidence in my athletic ability. Anything I've been taught how to do, I've been able to do it well. It was just a matter of teaching me."

After redshirting a year, Dilfer started in four games as a second-year freshman, came off the bench in five others and completed 63.3% of his 109 passes for 832 yards and two touchdowns, with three interceptions.

Last spring, as the Bulldogs prepared for their first season in the WAC after moving from the Big West Conference, Sweeney said: "The success of Fresno State University is tied to Trent Dilfer's productivity.

"He has more raw ability than any kid we've ever had here."

Said Terry Shea, offensive coordinator at Cal when Dilfer was at Aptos and now the offensive coordinator at Stanford: "My God, that isn't the same guy, is it?"

Unfazed by the pressure--"He has a Schwarzkopf personality when the game starts," Sweeney told the Santa Cruz Sentinel--Dilfer helped the Bulldogs win a share of the WAC championship, leading an offense that averaged 40.5 points and 482.6 yards.

He was ninth in the nation in passing efficiency, 10th in total offense, inspiring comments from opposing coaches that sometimes amused him.

"I'm not even close to being as good a quarterback as Torretta, I'll tell you that right now," he said. "And I don't think anybody with a clue would think so."

Dilfer, who has criticized himself for being too emotional at times, was impressed by the poise of Washington State's All-Pacific 10 quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, who led the Cougars to a 39-37 victory over Fresno State in September.

"All of us Division I quarterbacks can throw the ball pretty much the same," Dilfer said. "What makes the difference is how we are under pressure, how well we make decisions, how quickly we make decisions and how poised we are.

"I just saw him and said, 'Wow, that's where I need to be.' "

Some say he's close.

Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN draft analyst, told the Fresno Bee that Dilfer will be among the top three quarterbacks selected if he makes himself available for the NFL draft after next season.

Sweeney said: "Dilfer, I think, is as good as any quarterback on the coast and, with experience, will become a great quarterback."

Shea can't believe the transformation in Dilfer.

"I didn't think he could make it as a Division I quarterback," Shea said. "I was wrong."

He wasn't alone.

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