LINCOLN, Neb. -- Just 2 1/2 years ago, Eric Crouch was thinking about quitting football. Good thing for Nebraska he didn't.
The senior quarterback has gone from being a disgruntled backup to open the 1999 season to Nebraska's first Heisman Trophy finalist in six years.
"It was definitely the best decision," Crouch said. "I've been put in a position to do a lot of things that a normal person doesn't get to do."
With the speed of a wide receiver and the agility and moves of the most slippery of backs, Crouch has established himself the last three seasons as a prototypical option quarterback.
Crouch's 7,915 yards of total offense during his college career are a school record, and his 59 rushing touchdowns are the most by a Division I-A quarterback. This season he has rushed for 1,115 yards and passed for 1,510 more, making him the 13th player to eclipse 1,000 yards in both categories.
"Eric Crouch is the best athlete in college football today," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said. "You ask anybody that's played against him and they will tell you the same thing: They'd rather play against anybody else in the country than Eric Crouch."
Solich nearly didn't have Crouch to praise this fall.
In eight games as a freshman, five of them starts, Crouch was thrown into the offense because starting quarterback Bobby Newcombe was injured. Crouch admits he was overwhelmed, but he learned from it and expected to challenge Newcombe the following season.
After some heated competition in August, Solich gave the job to Newcombe, frustrating Crouch to the point he drove home to Omaha to gather his thoughts. After speaking with Solich, who drove to Omaha to assure Crouch he would still have a prominent role in the Cornhuskers' offense, Crouch decided to keep playing.
It might be one of Solich's best moves in four years as coach.
"He's been a catalyst to this program the last three seasons," Solich said. "His energy, his athleticism all has helped his teammates play at a higher level."
Solich's original plan to start Newcombe and rotate in Crouch lasted only two games. After Newcombe failed to get the offense moving as effectively as Crouch, Newcombe moved to wingback and Crouch took over at QB, where he has started every Nebraska game since.
"After looking back on things, I'm really glad that I'm playing the game. I've enjoyed myself and I've learned a lot," Crouch said.
Nebraska went 12-1 in 1999, losing only to Texas. Crouch led the team in rushing that season with 971 yards and 20 rushing touchdowns. He also passed for 1,269 yards with an ailing shoulder that needed surgery that winter.
The following fall, Crouch was expected to be among the Heisman contenders as the leader of the top-ranked Huskers, but his shoulder hurt through most of the season. Crouch quickly dropped from Heisman consideration with poor performances against Oklahoma and Kansas State, the only two games the Huskers lost.
Crouch had surgery on his throwing shoulder again last winter. This time, he insisted he had taken his rehab more slowly and expected to be healthy throughout the season. The prediction held up and Crouch has completed 105 of 189 passes with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The passing numbers aren't stellar, but combined with his running ability, Crouch is one of the biggest offensive threats in the game.
He set a school record with 360 total yards Nov. 23 against Colorado, a performance that also might have hurt Crouch. Despite his 162 yards rushing and 198 yards passing, Nebraska lost 62-36.
"I had the best game of my career," Crouch said. "But I can't really say that because your best game, you want to think of a victory. That's the hard part about it."
Nebraska hasn't had a Heisman finalist since Tommie Frazier, who finished second to Eddie George in 1995. No Cornhusker has won it since Mike Rozier in 1983.
Crouch has said all along that he'd rather win a national championship than the Heisman. After the Colorado loss, it looked as if he would walk away without either. But after a string of upsets, he could have both.
"You leave a legacy behind no matter what happens. I haven't been concerned with that at all," Crouch said. "Without a team like Nebraska, I don't know where I'd be. I'm not going to be out there thinking, 'This is my show.' I always have given the credit to my teammates and this program."
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