Five days after the Rose Bowl game, Wisconsin quarterback Darrell Bevell will celebrate his 24th birthday, making him probably the oldest sophomore quarterback in college football.
He is two years older than Drew Bledsoe, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, and two months older than Rick Mirer, the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback.
“It doesn’t bother me, being called the oldest sophomore or stuff like that,” Bevell said during a lull in the Badgers’ practice for Saturday’s game against UCLA. “It gets people talking about me. That’s nice.”
People are also talking about Bevell because of the way he has progressed this season in leading Wisconsin to a 9-1-1 record and into the Rose Bowl for the first time in 31 years. After struggling as a freshman, Bevell blossomed into the Big Ten’s most efficient passing machine and the Badgers’ first all-Big Ten quarterback since the last one who put Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl--Ron VanderKelen in 1962.
He’s not flashy, but he set school records this season with a conference-high 19 touchdowns and a pass-efficiency mark of 161.1, third best nationally behind Trent Dilfer of Fresno State and Dave Barr of California.
“Nothing in his development surprises me,” said Coach Barry Alvarez, who recruited the 6-foot-2, 200-pound player with the Johnny Unitas-style crew cut without seeing him play or watching him on film.
“Every week, every game, he just seems to get better, more polished and more confident,” Alvarez said.
There are good reasons for Bevell being where he is at such an advanced age.
He spent a year at Northern Arizona University after finishing high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., then fulfilled a two-year Mormon mission before resuming his collegiate career at Wisconsin in the spring of 1992.
Those same reasons account for why he is at Wisconsin and not back at Northern Arizona, or perhaps a Mormon-oriented school in Utah.
Bevell, coached by his father, Jim, at Scottsdale’s Chaparral High, was an all-city quarterback in his sophomore and junior years. In the first two games of his senior year, he passed for 500 yards and five touchdowns before breaking a finger on his passing hand and missing the remainder of the season.
“I’ve still got a plastic knuckle to remind me of that,” Bevell said, demonstrating how he can’t straighten out the broken finger.
College scouts, who had Bevell in their sights during his junior season, forgot about him after the injury. Only Brad Childress, offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, kept in contact, and his interest caused Bevell to enroll at NAU, where he was a redshirt quarterback--participating in practices but not playing in the Lumberjacks’ games.
“He was kind of a mousy kid, skinny and that sort of thing,” Childress said, “but I knew he had good work ethics, being the coach’s son, and he had a good throwing arm. And you know, skinny kids grow up, too.”
Childress moved to Utah for the 1990 season and offered Bevell a scholarship to move with him and become the Utes’ starting quarterback.
Instead, Bevell opted to fulfill his obligation to the Mormon mission. His brother, Brock, had gone to Paraguay on such a mission, and Darrell expected an assignment to a similarly distant place.
He drew Cleveland.
“It wasn’t as exotic, but it took the same commitment,” Bevell said. “You go where the church sends you. There were over 200 in my mission. We had a strict regimen that didn’t permit me time to even throw a football. I think I saw maybe parts of three games on TV.”
Six days a week, Bevell rose at 6:30, studied alone for an hour, then studied another hour with a partner and then went out on the streets to “talk with people and let them know what were our beliefs.”
Again, only Childress remembered the once-promising quarterback from Arizona, but in the interim he had moved to Wisconsin as offensive coordinator for Alvarez.
“Coach Childress tried to contact me in my second year in Cleveland,” Bevell said, “but my father wouldn’t let him talk to me because he figured it might distract from my mission. When I got out, I had several options. I could have returned to Northern Arizona or gone to Utah, where Coach Childress had left a good report on me.
“But Wisconsin was short on quarterbacks, and coach Childress contacted me about going to Madison. I was impressed with what I saw and heard. I also knew Coach (Bill) Callahan. He’d been at Northern Arizona, too.”
With only one experienced quarterback, Jay Macias of Montebello--the lone Californian on the roster--returning in 1992, Childress and Callahan convinced Alvarez to offer Bevell a scholarship, sight unseen.
“We needed someone right away who could give the program some stability,” Childress said. “I knew he was out of shape and hadn’t played, but I figured he had the intangibles it took to make a solid quarterback.”
Because Bevell had been on a religious mission, the NCAA waived the five-year rule so he will be eligible to play football a total of four years.
“The NCAA (eligibility) clock stops if a player is in the service, on a mission or in jail,” Childress said. “Bevell opted for Wisconsin because he liked the challenge to play Big Ten football--immediately.”
Said Bevell: “The chance to play right away was important to me. Perhaps (it was) because I was older, but more because I hadn’t played for so long and I was anxious to get out and see what I could do.”
Despite being away from competitive football for nearly three years, since the start of his senior year in high school, Bevell became the starting quarterback in the second game and has started every game since.
“The difference between last season and this for Bevell has been like day and night,” Alvarez said. “But it didn’t surprise me. It was what I expected. I had talked with (basketball Coach) Rick Majerus at Utah and he told me that you can always notice great improvement between the first and second years with Mormon players who have been on a mission.
“It’s just the way it happened with Darrell. He put on 25 pounds, doubled his strength, had a much stronger passing arm and more self-confidence.”
Bevell wasted no time once the 1993 season started. He threw for five touchdowns against Nevada in a 35-17 opening victory, then broke VanderKelen’s 31-year-old single-game record with 423 passing yards in a losing cause against Minnesota. VanderKelen’s record of 401 had come against USC in the dramatic 1963 Rose Bowl game when he brought the Badgers from a 42-14 deficit to 42-37 at the end.
Against Northwestern, Bevell completed 14 consecutive passes in the first half and finished with 17 of 18 for a Big Ten single-game record of 94.4%. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh set the old record of 92.3% in 1985.
Saturday, five days from his 24th birthday, Bevell will put his skills on the line against a UCLA defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in turnovers. The Bruins have recovered 21 fumbles and intercepted 18 passes.
“Like coach said, we haven’t faced anyone like UCLA this year,” Bevell said. “I would say they combine the athleticism of the Ohio State linebackers with a defensive look that is like Minnesota’s. I don’t think we’ve seen defensive backs as fast or quick as the Bruins.”
Bevell needs six completions and 36 yards to surpass Wisconsin’s single-season passing records.
He will have his own rooting section for his effort--seven brothers and sisters, his parents and an uncle--plus his wife, Tammy, and her six brothers and sisters, a sister-in-law and her parents.
“Winning would sure make a nice birthday present, wouldn’t it?” he said with a confident smile.