His father knew. Most parents like to think they would. It’s in a person’s nature to believe in their child. But Craig Young knew.
He knew his son, Bryce, was bound for football brilliance. The way he threw. The way he ran. The way he could do both so naturally together. Even when Bryce was a foot shorter than many of the quarterbacks he was competing against, Craig knew everyone would eventually see his son for more than just his height and weight.
He knew before all the offers started rolling in en masse when Bryce was in 10th grade. Knew before Bryce scored 68 touchdowns last fall as a senior at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, winning national player of the year awards and becoming 247Sports‘ and Rivals‘ No. 2 player overall in the class of 2020. Knew before Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian convinced Bryce he could follow in the footsteps of Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama.
Craig knew. As he paced the sidelines every Friday night and watched every touchdown, he knew he was biased from a father’s hope, but he also knew he wasn’t wrong, that his son was destined for a stage befitting of his abilities rather than his size.
Few stages in football, if any, are brighter than the one Young is poised to take in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this fall.
And while Young is still not quite six feet tall, the questions asked about him now have nothing to do with his height. The questions now are about just how dominant he can be in the SEC—and how quickly.
“I would think that he’s got a shot to win the Heisman Trophy,” says Steve Wiltfong, the director of recruiting for 247Sports. “He’s going to have so many great players around him at Alabama, and if he’s the player that we think he’s going to be, I think you’re talking about a guy who is going to be invited to New York, maybe more than once.”
Young will attempt to do so without having participated in a single spring practice. He left his hometown of Pasadena, California, in January to enroll early at Alabama. The hope was to use the spring to put himself in a position to play and perhaps even start this fall, but Alabama’s spring was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young returned to his home with his playbook and 25 new pounds of muscle—the product of two months in the Alabama strength program.
Not seeing him in the spring only added to the mystery and excitement around him. And since Alabama does not allow freshmen to do interviews, he hasn’t been heard from, either.
But to his teammates and coaches—those who have watched him closely—there isn’t much to learn. They, like his father, have seen it. They know. And they say it’s only a matter of time before everyone else does too.
Kliff Kingsbury knew too. He didn’t care that Young was 5’7″ and 150 pounds. He saw enough at a Texas Tech camp to make him an offer as an eighth grader.
At the time, Kingsbury was still grooming quarterback Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech with his eyes on the future. When he saw Young throw in person, he offered him a scholarship on the spot. Father and son celebrated that night with a tomahawk steak, assuming the offers would start flying in.
But they didn’t, at least not initially. It took years before Young received another scholarship offer.
Craig says they kept hearing the same thing from recruiters, over and over. “They told us they loved the kid and that he was amazing. But they just were going to wait for him to grow.”
For decades, we were conditioned to believe a quarterback had to look and play a certain way. Anything below acceptable physical thresholds was considered a liability.
The deconstruction of this stigma was not done by one player. Drew Brees played a part, as did Russell Wilson. Both quarterbacks lacked the height normally demanded to be a franchise QB; both have since showcased how successful a sub-6-foot QB can be.
In recent years, however, the floodgates have opened. In consecutive seasons, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, two undersized quarterbacks, were taken with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Unsurprisingly, Kingsbury played a role in this. Having moved on to the NFL to coach the Cardinals, he didn’t care that Murray was 5’10”. Murray’s performance showed him everything he needed to see.
“If Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray don’t go No. 1 in the draft, I don’t think you see Bryce Young at the top of our recruiting rankings,” Wiltfong says. “There’s now a path for them.”
But this acceptance did not come easily. In the instance of Young, his father was regularly bombarded with questions about whether his son would ultimately change positions if he didn’t grow.
Photos courtesy of the Young family
At football camps in middle school, Young was routinely the smallest quarterback on the field. He was also usually the most talented, but coaches would still naturally gravitate to the bigger players.
“I don’t think it was as hard for him as it was for me,” Craig says. “It was very frustrating for me, because I could see the results. I tried to be as objective as I could, but that was hard after a while.”
Bruce Rollinson sounds like a football coach. His voice is warm but eternally gruff—the product of decades of practices and sideline interactions. Like warm concrete.
In more than 30 years as the head coach of Mater Dei, Rollinson has developed dozens upon dozens of Division I players. His success at quarterback, though, has been the driving force behind the success of his program.
Rollinson coached Colt Brennan, who in 2006 would go on to set a record for most touchdown passes in an FBS season that stood until Joe Burrow finally topped it last season. He coached Matt Barkley and Matt Leinart, both of whom stayed close to home to star at USC. And directly before Young, he coached 5-star JT Daniels, who began his career at USC and recently transferred to Georgia.
Still, on the day Young signed with Alabama, Rollinson didn’t hesitate to state just where his greatness stood.
“The greatest quarterback in school history,” he said to a packed gymnasium.
Logan Riely/Getty Images
Young began his high school career at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, where he played two seasons. After Daniels left early for college, Young joined Mater Dei.
While Young was labeled a dual-threat quarterback, Rollinson saw him as something different. Not just a quarterback who ran and could also throw, but an athlete capable of something different from anyone he had coached.
“Early on in his career, [the staff] met and just said: ‘Look, nobody coaches him. Whatever he does is right. Don’t tell him to step up in the pocket, slide right, slide left,'” Rollinson says. “Because whenever he gets out of the pocket, magic happens. You never want to take the creative ability away from a special player, and he had that ability.”
As a junior, Young led Mater Dei to a state championship. As a senior, he threw for 4,528 yards, 58 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He also rushed for 357 yards and scored 10 times.
“By his senior year, we were just pointing at him, giving him a formation and pointing,” Rollinson says. “Then he’d call the play he wanted from there. That puts you in a category of only a select few quarterbacks that we felt comfortable doing that with.”
In four years, Young accounted for 178 touchdowns and only 21 interceptions. He completed nearly 70 percent of his throws and threw for 13,250 yards. He beat some of the best teams around the country, including St. John Bosco (California), St. Frances Academy (Maryland) and IMG Academy (Florida).
“We gave the kid the keys to a Ferrari, and he easily took it to fifth and sixth gear,” says Mater Dei quarterbacks coach Taylor Kelly. “The things that you kind of see from Bryce are special, and there was never a moment too big for him. You just let him do his thing.”
Andrew Ivins / 247Sports
And he did it all with a calmness and certainty that didn’t waiver no matter the opponent or moment. Maybe you’d see a fist pump after a big play. But often, one wouldn’t know whether he had five touchdowns or none.
Away from the field, Young doesn’t obsess about his craft. He rarely talked about his recruitment with friends. Nor did they ever talk about his staggering numbers.
“We talk about God and family a lot,” says 3-star BYU recruit Kody Epps, who caught 28 of Young’s 58 touchdown passes last season. “What you see is what you get from him.
“He may seem a little quiet, but he’s a super genuine, caring person.”
Young was set to attend USC, committing in July 2018. The allure of playing for a program he grew up watching—a program with ties to the quarterbacks who came before him at his high school—was overpowering. So was the thought of playing 20 minutes from his home.
Alabama was one of the many programs that had offered him a scholarship following his breakout sophomore season. Young, however, was not initially that interested in playing for the Tide. Along with USC, Oklahoma and Washington were high on his list. For a while, UCLA was. But not Alabama.
That was until Tua Tagovailoa changed the way Alabama’s offense was viewed.
After entering the 2018 national championship game at halftime down 13-0 and ultimately being named the game’s offensive MVP, what Tagovailoa did alongside a host of gifted position players in his first season as starter, 2018, changed the perception of the Tide.
“If there is no Tua, then maybe we don’t consider Alabama,” Craig says. “When Tua came in, we saw how that offense could look. If Tua doesn’t do what he does, maybe Alabama isn’t as attractive.”
Alabama lost the championship to Clemson in January 2019 after being ranked No. 1 all through the 2018 season, but what Saban did directly after that helped in his case to Young as well. In mid-January, he rehired Steve Sarkisian to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
This, more than Saban or Tagovailoa, is largely why Young landed in Tuscaloosa.
“Sark was definitely a catalyst,” Craig says.
Sarkisian began recruiting Young immediately. USC already had him committed on paper, but after a 5-7 season in 2018, head coach Clay Helton’s job seemed at risk. The likely replacement suitors had already been established, but Sarkisian went after him anyway.
Photos courtesy of the Young family
The two had met years earlier when Young was in sixth grade and Sarkisian was the head coach at USC. In the time that followed, Sarkisian was fired by the Trojans following a pattern of university issues that stemmed from his reported alcohol consumption. He joined Alabama in 2016 as an offensive analyst before replacing Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator prior to that season’s national title game. He then spent time with the Atlanta Falcons before finding his way back to Alabama.
By September, he had convinced Young to make an official visit to Tuscaloosa to see the No. 2 team in the country and its superstar QB up close. Tagovailoa at the time seemed a sure thing to go No. 1 in the draft, with 13 touchdowns and leading a team that had scored 151 points in the first three games.
Young was convinced. A few days later, he decommitted from USC and pledged to join Sarkisian and the Tide.
Hours after Alabama’s spring practice was “postponed until further notice,” Young was on a flight back to California. The unknown surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic was enough for Craig to act quickly—in case travel was suspended. And although his son’s first official football practice was set to begin that afternoon, Bryce returned to Pasadena on the night of March 14.
He had been gone only two months, but Craig was floored by his son’s physical appearance. He left California in early January weighing 175 pounds. He returned tipping the scales at 200. The Alabama weight room was good to him.
In losing spring, Young lost an opportunity to make a strong early impression. It was here, in 2017, that Tagovailoa began to generate buzz—a buzz that lingered through the regular season and into the national title game.
“Bryce really felt that he was ready to perform, so that was definitely disappointing,” Craig says. “But his time there was still incredibly valuable. He was able to get bigger and stronger. We understand that missing spring doesn’t make things easier, but he’s not going in there conceding anything.”
Andrew Ivins / 247Sports
Like Tagovailoa, who arrived at Alabama when Jalen Hurts was cemented as the starter, Young joins Alabama with ample competition at the position. In filling in at QB last season after Tagovailoa’s injury, Mac Jones played exceptionally well. The junior-to-be threw 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Against Michigan and Auburn, Alabama’s final two games, Jones threw for a combined 662 yards and seven touchdowns.
He won’t be conceding anything, either.
Young is doing whatever he can to be as ready as possible for when the competition resumes. He wasn’t able to work with his coaches and wide receivers during the short spring stint in Alabama, but spending time at home wasn’t exactly a lost cause. He returned to STARS, the facility and staff he trained with since before high school.
Young also brought home valuable knowledge as to what Alabama was looking for from him. “He lost two weeks of practices, but that doesn’t mean he has to lose all those mental practices,” says STARS COO Chris Flores, who has worked closely with Young since middle school. “He had his playbook and his iPad, so we utilized all those resources we could to get him ready.”
And when he was able to get back on the field, who was he throwing to? Pittsburgh Steelers star JuJu Smith-Schuster and NFL free agent and 2015 No. 7 overall pick Kevin White.
It isn’t the first time Smith-Schuster and Young have worked together. Young has thrown to receivers like this—Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Paul Richardson, among the others—since middle school. Adjusting to the speed of his targets took time. But the practice of throwing to elite wideouts, something he will do at Alabama, became normal.
Over the course of March, April and into May, Flores tried to replicate for Young what his spring would have felt like. The workouts. The mental approach. The throwing sessions. The dissection of his playbook. Despite the uncertainty, the hope was to prepare him for whatever happens next.
“I know he’s ready to compete,” Flores says. “The moment he decided to go to Alabama, that competition started. It didn’t start after quarantine or at camp. To be honest, the moment he threw that first ball in sixth grade, it started there.”
For years, their morning ritual was the same. Craig would drop his son off at school on his way to work. “We were carpool buddies,” Craig says proudly. They would ease into their days and talk about the schedule.
And then in January, when Young left for Alabama, the routine changed. Craig was suddenly alone on his morning commute. The car rides were quiet. And those first few nights, he went to bed right after dinner.
“A mini-depression,” he says. His son’s absence was overwhelming.
Photo courtesy of the Young family
When his son came home, amid the madness of a pandemic and the sudden pause of his college career, Craig found comfort. They ate sushi, Bryce’s favorite food. They talked basketball, his first love. They laughed a lot, something that has always come naturally in their relationship.
“An unintended consequence was that we were able to spend extra time with our son,” Craig says. “I’ve taken a step back and just seen the maturity and growth from a teenager to a young man.”
Young returned to Alabama in early June. But his departure this time was different. Craig was ready.
It was not the spring they envisioned. But before the expectations reach irrational thresholds—before Young is expected to perform at a place where excellence is routine—it was an opportunity to catch his breath.
Craig isn’t sure what happens next. Not this time. He knows he will no longer be allowed to watch from the sidelines. Those days are behind him. But he is unsure what it will look like when his son sees the field.
Bryce’s confidence hasn’t waned. If anything, it’s grown as his body has finally caught up to the wealth of his abilities. And soon, as college football moves toward a return and Alabama’s fall practice nears, Young will try to make the best first impression possible.
He will almost certainly not be heard from before then. He and Alabama prefer it that way. But when he sees the field, so many will finally see what his father has known all along.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.