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Quarterback County : Area’s Alumni Signal-Callers Excel at Hitting Their Marks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Namath played second fiddle to this former Orange County star in 1964.

Neither Joe Willie, Gale Sayers nor Dick Butkus could pry the Heisman Trophy away from him.

Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte, the former Mater Dei standout who earned Southern Section Major Division player of the year honors in 1960, won college football’s most coveted award that year.

Thirty years later, Stanford’s Steve Stenstrom and USC’s Rob Johnson--both from El Toro High--are two of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season. At a recent photo shoot, the former teammates played a friendly tug-of-war with the prized trophy.

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Call them the dueling Chargers from Quarterback County.

“It’s really exciting to see,” said Johnson’s father, Bob, who coached both players at El Toro. “I don’t know how much better it can get.”

And Stenstrom and Johnson aren’t the only Orange County alumni who are enjoying success on the collegiate level. Former Mater Dei quarterback Danny O’Neil returns for Oregon after passing for 3,224 yards and 22 touchdowns

last season.

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California’s Pat Barnes, former Trabuco Hills quarterback, and Stanford’s Tim Carey, of Los Alamitos, are waiting in the wings for their shots at stardom. In addition, four high school quarterbacks from the county’s Class of 1994 earned football scholarships to Division I-A schools.

“We develop more quarterbacks here,” Los Alamitos Coach John Barnes said of the Southland. “I don’t think anyone in the country does the stuff like we do here--the year-round training, practicing and teaching the quarterbacks.”

Historically, the county has always produced top quarterbacks, from Mater Dei’s Huarte, who played for five professional teams from 1966-75, to San Clemente’s Bill Kenney, who was with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1979-88, to current Arizona Cardinal quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who played at Servite.

And it doesn’t appear many things have changed or will change over the years.

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Said Stanford Coach Bill Walsh: “We will always have a style of football on the West Coast that’s conducive to the quarterback and his success.”

NATURE OR NURTURE?

So what’s more important, a big quarterback who can throw the ball nine miles or a smart quarterback who knows how to exploit defenses?

“Sometimes a 6-foot-4 quarterback can be too tall,” Stanford assistant coach Terry Shea said. “I would just as soon find the 6-2 athletic quarterback. But you recruit for your system, and it’s usually a two-to-three-year process before someone is ready to contribute.”

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Bob Johnson, who guided El Toro to three Southern Section championships, said the bottom line is that the talent needs to be there first before coaches can begin to cultivate it.

“You can’t take a kid with a football, go outside and throw and practice all the time and say, ‘You’re going to be good,’ ” Johnson said. “Although I think the high school level coaching in Orange County is the best I’ve seen, you better have the product there first.”

Said John Barnes: “There’s some coaches that really know how to throw the football in Southern California, and they’re teaching the quarterbacks. I played quarterback in college (at Nevada) and the defense I was seeing wasn’t half of what the kids see now.”

Because of the mild weather in California, quarterbacks can develop more quickly with year-round training.

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“Twenty years ago, it used to be that you could be a great passer and throw 40 interceptions,” Barnes said. “Now, you could be a pretty good passer but make completion after completion because you know where the weaknesses in the defenses are.”

Bob Johnson said a perfect example was Mike Good, the Division II player of the year who led Los Alamitos to its third consecutive section title last season.

“There’s a kid who had a tremendous work ethic and benefited from the system he was in,” Johnson said.

Added John Barnes: “There were so many times when we would call a play and my assistant in the press box would phone down to me and say, ‘Coach, what’s Mike doing checking off like that?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll bet he’s doing the right thing.’

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“A prime example of that is we’re facing a fourth and 10 against Downey Warren in the playoffs, and Mike starts checking off. He throws for a touchdown and we’re thinking, ‘Man, the fans think we’re smart now.’ But we had no idea what he was going to do. All we know is that we taught him the right thing.”

HISTORY LESSON

The list of top quarterbacks who have played in the county is mind-boggling.

Here is just a sample, with some of their exploits:

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--Huarte led Notre Dame to a 9-1 record and passed for 2,062 yards his Heisman Trophy season. He was drafted by but never played a down for the New York Jets, who also selected Namath from Alabama the same year. He played 11 seasons of pro ball, with stops in the AFL, NFL and World Football League.

--Kenney, from Northern Colorado, played professionally for Kansas City, where he passed for 17,277 yards, second in club history to Len Dawson. In fact, Kenney trails only Dawson in most club passing categories, but he holds the Chiefs’ records for single-season yardage (4,348) and completions (346).

--Frank Seurer, who played at Edison High and Kansas, also played for the Kansas City Chiefs and the L.A. Express of the USFL. In 1979, Seurer passed for 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns to help Edison win the Big Five championship.

--Beuerlein was a four-year starter at Notre Dame before moving up to the NFL. He played with the Raiders, then was traded to the Dallas Cowboys, where he earned a world championship ring in 1992 serving as Troy Aikman’s backup.

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--Bobby Acosta of Western was the 1972 Major Division player of the year and earned a scholarship to UCLA. Jim Karsatos of Sunny Hills played at Ohio State from 1982-1985 and briefly in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. J.T. Snow, the California Angel first baseman, and Todd Gragnano were the trailblazers for Carey, Good and future quarterbacks at Los Alamitos.

--The most recent heyday of county quarterbacks came in the late 1980s.

In the South Coast League, Rob Johnson’s brother, Bret, earned 1987 Southern Conference player of the year honors before moving on to play for UCLA as a freshman. His rivals included Todd Marinovich of Capistrano Valley, who would play for USC and the Raiders, and Troy Kopp of Mission Viejo, who played at Pacific.

“Bret was the best playmaker of any high school quarterback I’ve seen,” John Barnes said.

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Rob Johnson followed Bret at El Toro, but only after spending a season as Stenstrom’s favorite receiver.

“That time in the South Coast League, man, it almost got me fired,” Irvine Coach Terry Henigan said. “I know we have some good coaches down here, but Bob Johnson wasn’t that good. By golly, that was a fluke. Seeing Bret, Marinovich, Stenstrom, Kopp, and Rob among others, all in the same league in that brief period of time? Wow.”

THE FUTURE

While Stenstrom and Johnson are in the spotlight now, two of the Pacific 10’s potential stars are patiently playing reserve roles in Northern California.

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Pat Barnes passed for 6,182 yards during his career (1990-93) at Trabuco Hills, fourth-best in Orange County history. He is currently second on Cal’s depth chart behind Dave Barr, who is considered an NFL prospect.

Carey led the Griffins to a 14-14 tie with Esperanza in the 1992 Division II title game, his second championship in as many seasons. But after red-shirting last season at Stanford, Carey is battling for the second--string spot.

“He’s handling it great,” John Barnes said. “He’s competing hard for the job, but he’s not getting discouraged and he’s going to stick it out at Stanford.”

Other former county quarterbacks holding clipboards this fall include four players from the Class of ’94--Scott Bertoni (Fountain Valley) at Nevada, Brandon Brennan (Western) at Fresno State, Mike Phelps (Irvine) at Oregon and Scott Covington (Dana Hills) at Miami.

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Coach Dennis Erickson of Miami coveted Covington for his size (6-4, 180) and arm strength, despite Dana Hills’ 1-9 record last season. Mike Phelps (6-5, 210) didn’t complete a varsity pass before his senior year, but led Irvine to a third consecutive section title last season.

Quarterback Justin Vedder of Laguna Hills also earned a scholarship to Boston University, and Good earned one to Northern Arizona. Both schools are Division I-AA.

Good’s statistics were comparable to Carey’s, passing for 2,969 yards and 35 touchdowns last season while Carey passed for 3,397 yards and 35 touchdowns in 1992. Although Good and Vedder put up good numbers, they were lacking in one important number: height.

So while Stanford, UCLA, USC and every major school in the country recruited Carey (6-4), Good (6-0) and Vedder (6-1) received few offers.

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“Mike (Good) had an outstanding season and he’s worked extremely hard to get where he’s at,” Bob Johnson said. “He couldn’t be happier with his situation going to Northern Arizona, and I’m happy for him. But every quarterback has his own level.

“Besides the work ethic and being able to throw the ball year-round, you need to have the talent to reach the next level.

“Those guys who make it in college, you’re talking about real athletes. There aren’t many of them, and it runs in cycles. Because of the talent level, I don’t think you’ll see as many quarterbacks sign with Division I schools this season because there were so many last season.”

While the talent pool may change, the coaching, which is among the best anywhere, remains a constant. Expect Quarterback County to continue to flourish.

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Times staff writer Mike Reilley contributed to this story.

The Series

Today: Three quarterbacks who played high school football in Orange County will be starters in the Pac-10 this season; two more will be key backups. A look at the area’s quarterback-rich tradition.

Monday: Steve Stenstrom, El Toro and Stanford.

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Tuesday: Rob Johnson, El Toro and USC.

Wednesday: Danny O’Neil, Mater Dei and Oregon.

Thursday: Tim Carey, Los Alamitos and Stanford; and Pat Barnes, Trabuco Hills and Cal.


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