COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : STARDOM, With a Catch : UCLA’s J.J. Stokes Could Be in the NFL Now--but He Is Back to Fuel the Bruin Offense
It was just another scene in that 1993 hit film, “Catcher in the Rose Bowl: The Life and All-American Times of J.J. Stokes,” but Jey Phillips wasn’t enjoying his role as the fall guy.
He got up off the grass and stood for a moment with his mouth open, disbelieving, angry and frustrated beyond belief. It’s like that when perfection isn’t good enough, and Phillips had played perfect defense against Stokes, who had caught a 36-yard touchdown pass anyway, leaping for the ball and falling into the end zone for a 14-0 UCLA lead over Arizona.
“That’s just it,” Arizona safety Tony Bouie said. “You can play perfect defense and it might not stop him. A quarterback can throw the ball high, out of the reach of everybody else, to where he can just jump to it. Unless you have a defensive back with some crazy vertical jump, that creates a scary thing.”
It’s one of the things that separates Stokes from the rest of football’s wide receivers. He is 6 feet 5. Find a 6-foot-5 defensive back.
“He’s a special guy,” said Bouie, who became acquainted in visits to San Diego with Arizona quarterback Dan White, who had thrown to Stokes at Point Loma High. “He’s not just tall, he’s extremely athletic. He has good speed, good size, extreme height and can catch the ball.”
Said UCLA offensive coordinator Bob Toledo: “Boy, is he a special guy. He’s a big-play guy, and you want to get the ball in the hands of big-play guys.”
“Special,” said Norm Anderson, who coaches UCLA receivers. “He’s got a little Mike Sherrard in him. He’s got some of the smoothness of Jojo Townsell, some of the ‘catchability’ of Cormac Carney. But nobody’s had the package like he has. There hasn’t been anyone like that I’ve ever been around in 18 years of coaching. He’s so physical, so smooth and strong and powerful.”
Right, said quarterback Wayne Cook.
“I think he’s the best football player in the country.”
But at school, he is simply J.J., hanging out in the student union, playing video games with teammates between interviews. Today, it’s ESPN. And a magazine. And a couple of newspapers. And local television. Tomorrow, it’s more of the same, demands on his time and attention. The same questions. The same answers, given in a pleasant voice.
Yes, he knows no receiver has ever won the Heisman Trophy without doing more. Desmond Howard and Ragib Ismael returned kicks too.
It’s trying, and it can get old. So can the demands.
“I don’t let it get to me,” he said. “I still have my own time. I make time for myself.”
He could have avoided it all by taking seven figures from the NFL, which would have made him a first-round pick in a draft hard up for quality wide receivers.
Stokes still takes grief from nonbelievers, who can’t understand why somebody who wants a Mercedes-Benz convertible to replace his heirloom ’65 Mustang isn’t making money for catching a football.
Well, the car was handed down from father to son to brother to brother, and he still wants to alternate it with the Mercedes when the time comes. And he likes school. A strong senior season and the money will be there, he says. No, he couldn’t make it to Switzerland this summer to see his brother, the chef.
“They raised the rates $500 or so,” he says. “I couldn’t afford it.”
Next summer he can fly first class and check on his Swiss bank account.
This summer he has dealt with fame, without the fortune. He was No. 7 in the Heisman balloting last year. Nos. 1-6 are making money for playing games now.
When it was written that Stokes said, “I’m not coming back to UCLA for a Heisman Trophy. I really don’t care about the Heisman,” Marc Dellins, the school’s sports information director, had near apoplexy.
“You can’t print what I thought,” said Dellins, a man on a quest to get Stokes the trophy.
The tools are posters, postcards, telephone calls and availability for interviews. There are two pages in the media guide, headed 1994 Heisman Trophy candidate. The guide’s cover features a finger-tip catch, presumably for a touchdown, and inset pictures of Stokes on campus, Stokes playing with a boy at the UCLA Medical Center.
There is Stokes as part of the season-ticket brochure. His own page in the weekly statistics and notes report.
He is easier now with the Heisman talk.
“I think it’s good,” he said. “They’re trying to help me, and all I can do is go along with it. It’s all just publicity . . . and it’s my job to go out and work and play my best to give myself a chance.”
The defenses will have something to say about that. After a season in which Stokes caught 82 passes for 1,181 yards and 17 touchdowns, there will be no place to hide him on a football field. There will also be extraordinary efforts to see that defensive backs get some help in dealing with Stokes.
There will be double- and even triple-teams, inside-outside coverage, above, below. He might as well wear a target in place of the No. 18.
“I don’t think anybody can cover me one on one,” Stokes says in what is probably an honest assessment and perhaps a challenge.
There will also be opportunities for Kevin Jordan, no slouch as a receiver with 45 catches as a sophomore, and Mike Nguyen, who caught passes in every game. Toledo winks and says Stokes will still be the leading receiver.
Coach Terry Donahue is more cautious. He went through this before, a decade ago.
“It would be hard for him to duplicate last season,” he said of Stokes. “People are so much in awe of him, it’s like a gunslinger. People will try to out-gun him.
“It was like when we had Mike Sherrard here. It got real difficult to get him the ball. I’m hoping we can prevent that with J.J. Stokes.”
Sherrard led the Bruins in receiving as a sophomore, then again as a junior. Karl Dorrell was the leader when Sherrard was injured and sat out some games during his senior season. It didn’t keep him from being a first-round NFL draft choice.
As new offensive coordinator, Toledo is under pressure to make sure that Stokes isn’t eclipsed by a Karl Dorrell.
“Look, I put pressure on myself to get him the ball,” Toledo said. “I want to design plays to get him the ball. He’s a big-play guy, but there are going to be some people who are going to take him away. We just can’t force it to him. My job is to win games and be productive offensively, so if it means we have to throw it to somebody else, we’ll just have to do it.”
Cook’s plan is clear. Fifteen of his 18 touchdown passes last season went to Stokes.
“If he’s single-covered, I’m going to look for him first,” Cook said. “If he’s double-covered, I’m going to come off him. I do that with our other receivers too, but you want to get the big guy the ball because you never know what will happen when he gets it.”
What frequently happens is big yardage and points. Another statistic, courtesy of the UCLA Heisman Bureau: Stokes gained 430 yards after his catches last season, about 90 of them to complete a 95-yard touchdown play against Washington that started the Heisman ball rolling.
But coaches get nervous at the mention of numbers, as though if Stokes catches 81 passes this season, it’s a down year.
“We’re not trying to put a certain number of catches or a certain number of touchdowns on him,” Anderson said. “He caught 80-something passes last year. To ask him to catch 100-something passes to have a good year, I don’t know if that’s realistic because he’s going to draw so much attention.”
And even Stokes has diminished expectations.
“If I catch 40 passes, that’s OK because I’m still going to get 10-15 touchdowns,” he said. “That’s the key. When I get the ball, they’re not going to keep me out of the end zone.”
He caught touchdown passes in nine of UCLA’s 12 games last season. The Bruins lost the three in which he was shut out, plus the California season opener in an 8-4 season.
That makes it easier for Toledo to answer the question: What if, after the first three games, UCLA is 3-0 and Stokes has only three receptions?
“I’m going to be a happy man,” Toledo said. “And Stokes is going to be on the sideline with me, eating a snow cone. He’s probably not going to be happy, and I’m probably going to get letters.”
He agrees that the scenario is fantasy. UCLA will not be 3-0 if Stokes has only three catches.
Donahue makes his plans clear.
“We’re going to take advantage of J.J. Stokes,” he said. “And, at least in the early going, we’re going to ride the arm of Wayne Cook.”
And the Heisman?
“I just have to figure if I play my game, and it comes, it comes,” Stokes said. “But, maybe if I go out and play my game and maybe do some things in a game they don’t expect, maybe I’ll have a chance.”
A look at some of the receiving records held by UCLA senior J.J. Stokes:
PACIFIC 10 CONFERENCE
MOST TOUCHDOWNS, GAME
No. Player Game (Season) 4 J.J. Stokes UCLA vs. Wash. (1993) 4 Robb Thomas Ore. St. vs. Akron (1987) 4 Reggie Bynum Ore. St. vs. Idaho (1985) 4 Jojo Townsell UCLA vs. LB State (1982) 4 Ken Margerum Stan. vs. Ore. St. (1980)
MOST TOUCHDOWNS, SEASON
No. Player School (Season) 17 J.J. Stokes UCLA (1993) 17 Mario Bailey Washington (1991)
Receptions, game--14 (vs. Wisconsin, 1994 Rose Bowl)
Receptions, season--82 (1993)
Receiving yards, game--263 (vs. USC, 1992)
Receiving yards, season--1,181 (1993)
Touchdown receptions, season--17 (1993)
Touchdown receptions, career--24
Longest reception--95 yards (vs. Washington, 1993)
Games with at least 10 receptions--3
Games with at least 160 receiving yards--4
Games with at least three touchdown receptions--4