A TERRIBLE MISTAKE HAS been made.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer has intercepted a pass thrown by junior quarterback Vince Young during a summer workout for Texas players, and instead of casually flipping the ball back to the offense, Palmer has turned upfield, palming the ball at arm's length and whooping as if he had just clinched the Big 12 title. It is an oppressive summer night in Austin, and players are wearing only shorts and T-shirts, sweating rivers. No pads. No helmets. Ordinarily, no contact. But Palmer is weaving through teammates who are already huddling for the next play, and the 6' 5", 230-pound Young is sprinting toward him. Young turns and drops his shoulder into Palmer's chest, the sound of the hit like a butcher slapping a side of beef. Palmer lands on his back, his feet flipping skyward.
Younger players stare in wonder. Older ones nod knowingly. "That's Vince," says junior cornerback Aaron Ross. "Just doesn't let up."
So now Palmer knows. "I'm comin'," says Young. "I'm always comin'."
Not only comin', but also carrying Texas on his broad back to its first consensus national championship since 1969. In less than three full seasons as the Longhorns' starter, Young has passed for 6,040 yards, rushed for another 3,127 and accounted for 81 touchdowns. Numbers don't illustrate that Young has also been the most kinetic quarterbacking presence in college football since Michael Vick ran wild at Virginia Tech, and one of its most dominant leaders since Tommie Frazier led Nebraska to consecutive national titles in 1994 and '95.
Young set the tone for the 2005 season when he beat Ohio State on Sept. 10 with a game-winning 24-yard pass to Limas Sweed and finished the year leading the nation in passing efficiency. This was one year after his sophomore coming-out party, in which he rescued three games and salvaged countless plays with his athleticism, leading Texas to an 11-1 record and a 38-37 Rose Bowl win over Michigan in the Longhorns' first BCS bowl appearance. "He has unique abilities," says Texas coach Mack Brown, "and great heart." With Young under center, plays are never dead, games are never over.
Oklahoma State knows. Two days before Halloween the Cowboys had Texas down 28-9 late in the first half. Young started the second half by bolting 80 yards from scrimmage, and before the night was finished, Texas had scored 38 straight points and won going away 47-28. That was an encore to November 2004, when the Cowboys humiliated Texas in front of its home crowd in Austin, running up a 35-7 lead with 1:21 left in the first half. But before the next 25 minutes had ticked off the game clock, Young had led the Longhorns to 49 consecutive points, putting his Vin-sane signature on the victory by slaloming 42 yards for a touchdown on a broken play with 6:57 still to go. "I should have called timeout," he says now, watching the tape and noting that tailback Cedric Benson was lined up on the wrong side. "But I didn't, so I just tried to make a play." Young closed the 56-35 win with a school-record 12 consecutive pass completions.
Kansas knows. One week after the Oklahoma State comeback in '04, Texas appeared to be dead and buried again. The Jayhawks led 23-20 with a little more than a minute to play and had the Longhorns in a fourth-and-18 hole at the Texas 45. Then Young scrambled out of a collapsing pocket, darted right, made Kansas linebacker Nick Reid miss terribly in the open field and ran out-of-bounds after a 22-yard gain. Five snaps later he hit Tony Jeffery with a 21-yard touchdown pass to win the game. (No such drama against the Jayhawks this year; Young passed for four touchdowns in a 66-14 romp.)
Michigan knows best of all. In the Rose Bowl that truly launched Texas into 2005, Young rushed for 192 yards and four touchdowns, and passed for 180 yards and another score. He brought Texas back from a 31-21 deficit in the last 10 minutes, starting with a 10-yard touchdown scramble after escaping Michigan defensive tackle Patrick Massey, who had spun him 360 degrees in the pocket. "How in the world ...?" intoned ABC announcer Keith Jackson after Young crossed the goal line.
Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, a senior at Texas when Young redshirted, watched the Rose Bowl on TV, enraptured by the play of his former understudy. "I knew he had ability, but he's doing things nobody else in college football can do," says Simms.