- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

Purdue quarterback Drew Brees has turned football's ultimate guessing game into an art form.

The senior slinger, who eschewed the NFL Draft in April for one more run at a Big Ten title and a Heisman Trophy, makes his most meaningful game-day decisions before the ball is ever snapped.

"I love the game within the game that goes on between the quarterback and the defense," said Brees, who most see as the primary threat to Michael Vick's Heisman campaign. "I guess most people would just call it reading the defense, but I'm more concerned with studying players and their habits than simply looking at [defensive] formations on film. The second I get behind center, I start looking for tells."

Hard-core gamblers, con men and interrogators have long been familiar with the concept of the "tell" the reflexive body language that can tell the acute observer something about a person's thoughts or intentions.

A poker-playing novice might regularly avoid making eye contact with his opponents when he's bluffing.

After hours of interrogating a suspect, police might notice that he leans back in his chair each time he seems to be lying, subconsciously giving himself an extra second or two to compose the fib.

And on the football field, defensive players often unconsciously give away their schemes to the perceptive Brees.

"A lot of guys are out there just trying to make sure they don't screw up their assignments. Most of them aren't thinking about the fact that you're watching their every move," said Brees, entering his third season as the Boilermakers' starter. "My first season, I was too focused on execution and remembering the routes and checks to pay any attention to things like that. But now that I'm totally familiar with our system, I spend most of my time looking over the defense.

"We see an awful lot of eight-man fronts. What they want you to do is guess blitz and audible into a quick-hitter that won't work when they drop back. Or they want you to guess that they're dropping off when they're really blitzing. Obviously, the whole trick is guessing right, and you can tip the odds in your favor if you can pick up on certain things."

Brees explains that linebackers are the toughest to read, because they are taught to key on the quarterback, and they are usually aware that he is studying them. But linemen and defensive backs can be easy pickings.

For instance, a defensive lineman's feet sometimes give him away. When a defensive lineman plans to bull-rush upfield, he usually has his weight on the balls of his feet. But if a lineman is stunting, he tends to keep his weight back on his heels, so he can quickly pull out after the snap and attack through another gap.

Safeties who crowd the line often give themselves away with their eyes. If they plan to blitz, they often stare directly at Brees. If they plan to fall back into coverage, they come to the line looking at their passing assignment, blatantly staring at a running back, tight end or receiver.

"My favorite is the corner-blitz," said Brees. "We run a lot of slants, and corners are taught to keep their inside hand up to jam the slant. But if they're coming on a blitz, that inside hand sometimes drops down because they want to pump it up on the snap to give them a quicker start. I see that low hand, and I check [to a fly route]. Instead of a blind-side sack, you get a shot at a big play."

In his two years as a starter, Brees has accounted for a bevy of big plays in coach Joe Tiller's pass-happy, spread offense, throwing for 8,124 yards (including bowl games) and 64 touchdowns.

He needs just 1,823 yards to surpass Mark Herrmann and become Purdue's all-time leading passer, an impressive accomplishment considering the school's list of pro products: Len Dawson (1954-56), Bob Griese (1964-66), Gary Danielson (1970-72), Herrmann (1977-80) and Jim Everett (1984-85).

This season, with all but one member of his offensive line returning and deep-threat Vinny Sutherland running routes, Brees is likely to threaten the 4,000-yard barrier again and become one of the top-10 passers in college history. That's not bad for a kid nobody wanted four years ago.

Despite the fact that Brees was named the Texas 5A (big schools) Player-of-the-Year after leading Austin Westlake High School to a 16-0 record and a state championship in 1996, most major-college recruiters thought the 6-foot-1, 218-pounder was too small to play quarterback in a top conference. The hometown 'Horns didn't even come calling, and only Purdue and Kentucky offered him scholarships.

What Tiller saw in the undersized youngster with average arm strength and quickness was a titanic ticker, a nimble mind and tremendous technique.

"I knew he would be a perfect fit for our system," said Tiller in a teleconference earlier this week. "He was just such an accurate thrower and such a competitive guy. Plus, he had the intelligence it takes to run our offense."

Brees didn't disappoint. Handed the controls to Tiller's complex scheme in 1998, Brees carried the Boilermakers to a 9-4 record and an upset of No. 4 Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl.

Purdue slumped to 7-5 last season, a suspect defense and inept ground game spelling losses against top-25 teams Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Georgia. But Brees still threw for 3,909 yards and 25 touchdowns en route to finishing fourth in the Heisman balloting behind Wisconsin tailback Ron Dayne, Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton and Vick.

With only Vick and Brees returning among last year's final four, the Purdue prodigy should once again be a strong candidate for the stiff-arming statue.

"The Heisman would be cool, but what I really want is a Big Ten championship," said Brees, who begins his senior assault on the record books tomorrow against Central Michigan. "I think we have a good shot at it this year, because we have a lot of guys coming back and some talented young blood."

Most important, the Boilermakers have a quarterback who loves nothing more than breaking down a defense one tell and one toss at a time.

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