A football thoroughbred

November 06, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Tim Couch does not walk on water, but he has performed a minor miracle: He has folks in Kentucky talking about something other than hoops and horses.

Kentucky was the first member of the Southeastern Conference to play football, but it has usually been an athletic afterthought, the occasional diversion to Rupp Arena romps and the thoroughbred sales at Keeneland.

Until Couch, the Wildcats' junior quarterback, came along.

A schoolboy legend in tiny Hyden in the southeast corner of the state, Couch was under enormous pressure to stay home and rescue Kentucky football. Every seat at Commonwealth Stadium has been filled this fall, because the Wildcats (5-3) are so much fun.

More to the point, fans understand that they had better catch Couch's act while they can.

The player who wears No. 2 could be chosen No. 1 in the NFL draft next April, if, as anticipated, he leaves college early.

"As a little kid, you dream of playing in the NFL," Couch said after practice one day last week. "It's always been a dream of mine. I know that dream can become a reality at the end of the year if I want it to. On the other hand, I'm having a great time here in college."

This is only Couch's third year on campus, and some NFL scouts might question his experience and maturity. Couch is 21, and that's how many starts he has needed to barge his way into the Kentucky, SEC and NCAA record books.

On Oct. 3, Couch set conference records with 47 completions and 67 attempts at Arkansas. Against Georgia on Oct. 24, he elevated his career completion percentage to .661, an NCAA record.

Both of those games against nationally ranked opponents were narrow losses, which put to rest Kentucky's quest for its first major bowl since 1952, when Babe Parilli was its star quarterback. Asked if not reaching the Wildcats' collective goals would influence his decision to leave or stay, Couch answered no.

Couch, 6 feet 5 and 225 pounds, said he won't make a decision on the NFL until after this season. In the meantime, he monitors the progress of Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and San Diego's Ryan Leaf, the quarterbacks chosen 1-2 in last April's draft.

"The thing I learned from watching the draft last year, with Peyton and Ryan, is that you're going to struggle no matter when you come out," Couch said. "Ryan has showed me that if you come out early, you're going to struggle. Peyton stayed for his fourth year, and he struggled, too."

Cleveland returns to the NFL next fall as an expansion franchise and has the first pick in the 1999 draft. Couch could be first player in the rest of the Browns' life.

"Where will I go in the draft? Which city will I be in?" Couch said when asked about the factors he'll weigh in deciding whether to make an early exit. "Do they have a passing offense? The Browns are an expansion team, but they've got a very storied history. It would be a great honor to play for them and play in that city.

"It's cold, but it can get cold where I come from come playoff time. I'm an old country guy. I'm used to the cold."

Couch is also accustomed to life in a fishbowl. He was profiled by Sports Illustrated when he was a high school senior, about to crack the national prep passing records. He has been a local hero for so long, NFL stardom might be a break for him.

"It's going to be an adjustment, but it was a big adjustment coming from Hyden to Lexington," Couch said. "It was kind of a culture shock. I had a biology class my freshman year -- there was something like 350 people in a lecture hall. You could put my whole hometown in there."

As a freshman, Couch was also unsettled by football. Starting in the seventh grade, he had gotten extraordinary tutoring in how to read a defense and throw a football, but there was too much option for his taste in the multiple attack Kentucky coach Bill Curry ran in 1996.

As a freshman, Couch got two starts and threw 84 passes in seven games. The prevailing opinion was that Curry had won the bidding for a Rembrandt, then hung it in the garage. Couch was ready to transfer to Ohio State or Tennessee after his freshman year, until Curry was fired after his seventh straight non-winning season and replaced by Hal Mumme.

Mumme had a reputation as a passing-game guru at Division II Valdosta (Ga.) State. He told Couch to loosen up his arm, and the results were stunning. Couch threw for 3,884 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, when the Wildcats were sixth in the nation in total offense, a year after being 109th.

"First game last year against Louisville, our second drive, Tim threw a corner route for a touchdown and the whole stadium went crazy," Mumme said. "You had the feeling right there that he was the guy who could lead the team."

Kentucky has closed the gap on the elite programs in the SEC, but landmark wins haven't come as quickly as the praise for Couch.

After a 51-35 loss to Florida at the "Swamp" in Gainesville, the Gators had good things to say about Couch, who went 40-for-61 for 404 yards.

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