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Stanford QB Tanner McKee eyes second win over a hometown team when he faces UCLA

Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee (18) against Vanderbilt
Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee (18) against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
(Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

He heard the whispers it might sabotage his football career. At the very least it would leave him out of shape, maybe force him to lose his edge if not the desire to become a top college quarterback.

The cynicism nudged Elder Tanner McKee out of his bunk bed each morning in the seaside town in southern Brazil, providing a purpose beyond spreading the message of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The missionary who grew up in Corona and starred at Centennial High would curl a makeshift bar with cement slabs on each end, adding resistance bands he slipped underneath his feet. He would throw a football to his companion on the mission, a kid on the streets — anyone he could find, really. He would walk for miles and miles while sharing the Gospel, possibly the one part of the mission that served a dual purpose for someone who always remembered his eventual destination.

UCLA linebacker Mitchell Agude’s relentless effort on the football field is inspired by a catastrophic accident, volunteer work in Nigeria and his mother’s unwavering voice.

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“I know in his mind, he’s never doubted one day that he was going to be able to come back and be as good as he had always dreamed of being,” said Tanner’s father, Jeremie, “but there were a lot of other people who didn’t think that was possible.”

Everyone, it seems, is a believer now in the Stanford sophomore.

USC was awed by the lifelong Trojans fan who beat his beloved team on its home field earlier this month, throwing for two touchdowns in his first college start.

Vanderbilt was similarly impressed the next week after the 6-foot-6, 225-pound McKee threw for two more touchdowns and ran for one while leading his team to a second consecutive victory.

UCLA is next in line to find out what the 21-year-old can do when the No. 24 Bruins (2-1) face the Cardinal (2-1) on Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium in his home debut.

It will be McKee’s third consecutive start, much to the disappointment of those who wish it was his fourth. David Shaw went with Jack West during Stanford’s season-opening thud against Kansas State before the coach replaced his struggling quarterback with McKee, who threw for the team’s only touchdown.

The UCLA defense’s soft pass coverage helped Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener rally his team for a win over the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

“At the end of the game,” Shaw said, “you really saw that confidence grow and him settle in and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I got this, I can do this’ and that was a big tipping point to us to make the decision” to go with McKee.

Mastering Stanford’s complex pro-style offense might have seemed like a snap of the fingers compared with what he had to learn on his two-year mission.

He arrived in Brazil not knowing any Portuguese. That meant lots of nodding no matter what was said, especially when it involved the mission companion who spoke no English. McKee would tell people he played American football — no, not futbol — and some would Google him and get excited about meeting a potential NFL player.

His only football besides those informal throwing sessions came with the Curitiba Crocodiles, a local semi-pro team. McKee attended a practice and took a few snaps.

“I wasn’t live, I wasn’t suited up or anything,” McKee said, “but they had their play card and ran their plays, so that was a lot of fun.”

It was largely a solitary existence. For the first 16 months, before the rules were slightly relaxed, McKee could email his parents once a week and FaceTime them only on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

A loss to Fresno State has no impact on UCLA’s Pac-12 championship aspirations, but it raised fresh questions about whether the Bruins’ revival is real.

The timing of the mission was coordinated with Shaw. The coach, who had a history of Mormon players in his program, told the McKees it would benefit Tanner to complete his mission before his arrival on campus, allowing him build on his growth as a player without interruption.

It took him about 1 1/2 months to rebuild stamina and arm strength upon his return from Brazil before the 2020 season. He appeared briefly in a game against Oregon during the pandemic-shortened season before battling West to become the successor to NFL-bound quarterback Davis Mills.

Given the way McKee has flourished, it could remain a one-man show.

“There’s a reason why he was a top-five quarterback coming out of high school — size, athleticism, strong arm, quick release, leadership, accuracy,” Shaw said of the player who has completed 71.4% of his passes this season for 570 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. “He’s got all the tools and what we’re seeing now is him really getting a grasp of playing college football.”

Jeremie McKee estimated that Tanner had been to the Coliseum about 25 to 30 times as a fan before taking the field and beating the home team. He told his father he knew every Trojans defensive starter because he had either played with them or against them while growing up in the Inland Empire.

No. 24 UCLA is pushing to bounce back from a sobering last-minute home loss to Fresno State when the Bruins visit Stanford.

After the game, Matt Logan, McKee’s high school coach who had made the drive to watch his former pupil in person, texted him congratulations, telling him he looked phenomenal.

McKee has giddily discussed the Stanford offense with his father in recent weeks, telling him there’s always an advantage to be had once he identifies the defensive front and calls out the adjustments. McKee scouted UCLA on the flight home from the Vanderbilt game, watching Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener engineer a gutsy comeback while navigating a hip injury in addition to an attacking defense.

“They love to bring a lot of pressure and so once we get that protected up,” McKee said of the Bruins, “we feel like we can really make a dent in their defense throwing the ball.”

Just as football never left his mind while he was abroad, his missionary work has remained in his thoughts upon his return. A gigantic Brazilian flag adorns the wall in his dorm room and he’s taking advanced Portuguese classes after having tested out of the language at Stanford because of his proficiency.

Shaw told his quarterback to share the lessons of his travels with teammates who have mostly gone straight from home to college.

“I think that’s what you get from Tanner, a gleaning of being out there in life, real-life experiences, some gravity to when he talks,” Shaw said, “and I’m excited for where he is and I’m excited for where he can be both in and outside of football.”

Lose his edge? Not Tanner McKee. He only became a dual threat.


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