THE CROUCH FILE
BORN: Nov.16, 1978
SIZE: 6'1", 195 pounds
KEY 2000 STATS: 1,101 yards passing, 971 rushing, 31 total TDs
He's already had more 100-yard rushing games than Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost combined. He's a Heisman frontrunner for the second year in a row. He's shown grit aplenty in tight situations. (Spit on by Notre Dame fans last year, he retaliated by scoring the winning touchdown in OT.) He's a class act, a truly nice guy who can't say no to anyone. But as of now, he's also the best Nebraska QB never to have won a championship. Will that still be true come January?
Cornhuskers quarterback coach Turner Gill swears Crouch is the fastest QB he's ever coached at NU. Faster than Tommie Frazier, faster than Scott Frost, faster than Bobby Newcombe? "After two steps, he's faster
than any of them." Okay, so he's fast. How dangerous does that make him on the option? "Crouch forces you to change how you'd normally defense an option," says one rival defensive coordinator. "We sold out up front, because we didn't want our safeties in
the open field with him. Keep everyone up and hit him hard on every option, whether
he has the ball or not."
So how come Nebraska, with the fastest QB ever to roam the Great Plains, called the option less often last year? Because I-back Dan Alexander wasn't a reliable option on the option. "Dan struggled catching pitches," says Crouch, "and we didn't get outside as much as we should have." Knowing this, opponents teed off on Crouch, all but certain he would keep the ball. Some option. With Dahrran Diedrick at I-back this year, expect a return of the true option. Promises Gill: "Eric won't be our only threat outside."
Other Heisman-candidate QBs will pass for more yards, but none will do so with a metal anchor holding his passing shoulder together. After a second shoulder surgery -- this time to repair a cartilage tear -- Crouch says he's ten pounds lighter, but finally pain-free: "There were times last year I couldn't lift my arm above my head. The day after surgery, I could move it fine." He'll need to. Last year his completion rate dropped to 48%. "People say he's a below-average passer," says Gill. "They're probably correct -- now. We're going to give him more chances."
MAN OF THE HOUSE
Wonder why Crouch's footwork is so good? "He used to practice it in the kitchen," says his mom, Susan Sanchez, who raised Eric and his brother, Kyle, on her own in Omaha. Crouch spent plenty of time in that kitchen. From age 6, when his father and mother split up, Eric shouldered a grown-up's load, cleaning the house before his mother came home from work, watching after Kyle and -- later -- getting the evening meal on the table. "I think all the responsibility I had as a kid prepared me for everything now," he says.
Tagged by some skeptics as a QB who could play only with a lead, Crouch proved them wrong last season by rallying Nebraska to a comeback win over Colorado. He moved the Huskers 47 yards in 44 seconds, completing 3 of 4 passes, to set up Josh Brown's game-winning field goal. For someone who grew up idolizing John Elway, the comeback was sweet, says Crouch: "It was about time."
Oregon's Joey Harrington has a $250K New York City billboard hyping his Heisman campaign. Indiana's Antwaan Randle El has a multimedia blitz in progress. And Crouch has ... a Web site: "It's great those schools do those things, but that's just not us. Just being at Nebraska means I'll get plenty of exposure." No kidding. With Nebraska playing at home against Notre Dame, K-State and Oklahoma, he'll get more national TV time than those other guys combined. And, Crouch promises, we'll see a much better QB than last year's model.
This article appears in the August 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.