BYU Football’s 50 Greatest Players Of All-Time: Nos. 1-10
PROVO, Utah – The final installment of the 50 greatest BYU football players is here. These 10 players featured in this article are the best to ever do it at BYU.
10. Jason Buck
Years played: 1985-1986
Buck grew up a small-town kid in Idaho and eventually went on to win the Outland Trophy at BYU. A Ricks College transfer where he set a junior college record for most sacks in a season with 25, Buck signed with BYU over a strong push from the Texas Longhorns. At 6’6″, 270 pounds, Buck was an unblockable force along BYU’s defensive line. In Buck’s first game as a Cougar, he racked up nine tackles in a nationally televised game against Boston College in the Kickoff Classic.
For his career, Buck went on to pile up 140 tackles and had 24 sacks in just two seasons at BYU. In 1986, Val Hale and the BYU marketing department created the “One Buck” campaign to promote Buck for national awards. It worked. Buck was a Consensus All-American and the winner of the Outland Trophy for best interior linemen in college football.
9. John Beck
Years played: 2003-2006
Very few have come through BYU that had as much passion to play for the Cougars in their lives as John Beck. Beck grew up as a kid in Mesa, Arizona, listening to BYU football games on the radio with his dad, Wendell. He dressed up as a BYU quarterback for Halloween’s, he wanted to be a BYU QB. He did just that and he helped lead BYU out of some of the toughest seasons the program has ever dealt with both on and off the field. Beck suffered through some growing pains in his true freshman season in 2003 but then started to find his groove in 2004 with Austin Collie and Todd Watkins as targets to throw to.
Beck passed for 10,157 yards and threw 74 touchdowns in his career and he led BYU to one of the best seasons in the past two decades of the program in 2006. The Cougars went 11-2 that season and finished with a Top 25 ranking. That season was highlighted by two games, the win at nationally-ranked TCU where Beck’s timing on his throws was uncanny and then his game-winning throw at the end of regulation to defeat Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
8. Max Hall
Years played: 2007-2009
When you are the winningest quarterback at a place that still prides itself as “Quarterback U.,” that’s a big accomplishment. An Arizona State transfer, Max Hall posted a 32-7 record as a starter in his three years as the signal-caller at BYU. Hall was used to filling the big shoes left behind from John Beck. He did it at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Arizona, and he did it at BYU as well. Hall beat out guys like Cade Cooper and Jason Beck in the 2007 quarterback battle in the spring of that year before leading the Cougars to a Mountain West Conference title in his first year.
Hall had big wins in his career. The biggest one was against No. 3 Oklahoma to open up the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Hall walked off the field at the half and screamed, “we’re going to win this game!” A brazen quarterback who had no problems speaking his mind, Hall is the last quarterback for BYU to post a victory over Utah. He went 2-1 in his career against the Utes.
7. Dennis Pitta
Years played: 2004, 2007-2009
Gary Crowton will never be viewed as one of the greatest coaches in BYU history, but the man had an incredible eye for talent. Crowton discovered Dennis Pitta when he was doing some recruiting in California. Pitta, who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only had recruiting interest from Ivy League schools, and those programs didn’t offer scholarships.
Crowton offered Pitta a preferred walk-on spot at BYU, and the rest is history. During his career at BYU, Pitta established himself as the greatest tight end in school history. Pitta was the best tight end in college football in 2009, but the Mackey Award voters opted to give the award to Aaron Hernandez from Florida instead. Pitta piled up 2,901 receiving yards on 221 receptions in his four years with the Cougars.
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6. Austin Collie
Years played: 2004, 2007-2008
Had it not been for Collie’s older brother, Zac, we probably never see Austin Collie at BYU. Collie was likely headed towards signing with Stanford or Arizona State until Zac told Austin to give BYU a look on an official visit. Austin then signed with the Cougars and he began his path towards becoming the greatest wide receiver in BYU history. Collie’s work ethic was a staple during his BYU career and it was a rare day -if ever- that he was dropping a pass in practices or a game. A sure-handed receiver who could pop off for a big play at any moment.
Collie’s breakout game was his first one as a Cougar where he hauled in a touchdown grab against Notre Dame on ESPN. In 2008, Collie was dominant and one of the best receivers in college football that season. With Max Hall tossing him the rock, Collie had 1,538 receiving yards in his junior season. After 2008, Collie declared for the NFL Draft. In total, Collie had 3,255 receiving yards and had 30 touchdown grabs.
5. Luke Staley
Years played: 1999-2001
BYU has had many great running backs come through the program. But in one game, if everything’s on the line, a healthy Luke Staley is the best to ever do it. Gary Crowton’s offense in 2001 was catered perfectly to the skill sets of quarterback Brandon Doman and Staley.
Staley, an Oregon Player of the Year in 1998, turned down Nebraska when they were a college football power to sign with BYU. Staley had a nose for the endzone scoring 10 touchdowns in his true freshman season in 1999. Injuries took Staley away from a lot of games, but when healthy he was hard for any defense to stop. Staley’s junior season was magical rushing for 1,582 yards and scoring 24 touchdowns on 8.1 yards per carry. Those numbers earned Staley the Doak Walker Award given to the best running back in college football. Staley only appeared in 11 games that season. Two years ago, Staley’s jersey was retired for his historic career.
4. Marc Wilson
Years played: 1975-1979
When Gifford Nielsen went down with a season-ending knee injury in 1977, there was a concern that BYU’s hopes of a big season that year would go down as Nielsen did. Marc Wilson stepped in and threw seven touchdown passes in his first start on the road against Colorado State. Now, the following week against Wyoming he did go on to throw six interceptions, but the Cougars still came away with the win. Wilson’s best season was his senior year in 1979, where he fended off Jim McMahon to win the starting job.
He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind USC’s Charles White (winner) and Oklahoma’s Billy Sims. Wilson threw for 3,724 yards in his final season and led BYU to an 11-1 season. The lone blemish was in the Holiday Bowl against Lee Corso’s Indiana squad that pulled the upset on BYU. Wilson’s biggest wins were against Texas A&M in Houston and San Diego State in 1979. Wilson’s jersey is retired at BYU and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame back in 1996.
3. Steve Young
Years played: 1980-1983
From eighth string quarterback to Hall of Famer. Things weren’t glamorous for Steve Young at quarterback like it was for previous QBs at BYU’s quarterback factory. Because he was a lefty, then BYU offensive coordinator Doug Scovil said he wouldn’t have a left-hander be his quarterback. Young was likely headed towards playing safety until Ted Tollner went to LaVell saying Young needed to remain at quarterback. It was a great move as Young not only was an excellent passer, he was a great running quarterback as well.
Young passed for 7,496 yards in his career and also ran for 1,095. Young was college football’s version of Fran Tarkenton with his dual-threat abilities at quarterback. Young’s 1983 team is one of the best in BYU football history with how potent they were on offense. One of the best wins from that season was the Cougars win over defending Pac-10 champion UCLA in the Rose Bowl. On that day, the Cougars simply loved L.A. Young’s No. 8 jersey is retired at BYU and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
2. Ty Detmer
Years played: 1987-1991
Detmer is the only player in BYU football history to win the Heisman Trophy. He did it in 1990, his junior season at BYU. Forecasters on September 8th, 1990, posted a rare hurricane watch over Provo, Utah. The defending National Champion Miami Hurricanes were coming to town and Detmer led BYU to the greatest win in program history taking down No. 1 Miami 28-21 when the Canes were truly The Real U. Detmer beat out Raghib Ismail from Notre Dame and Eric Bieniemy from Colorado to win the 1990 Heisman.
If you include bowl game statistics, Detmer threw for 16,066 passing yards in his four years at BYU. During Detmer’s recruitment, LaVell Edwards was told amazing things about this possible next great BYU QB to come from the state of Texas. LaVell thought he was going to see the next John Elway but he instead thought it was Pee-Wee Herman because of Detmer’s stature at under 6-feet as a high school kid. Detmer’s jersey was retired at BYU and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame back in 2012.
1. Jim McMahon
Years played: 1977-1981
The Quarterback Factory at BYU was humming along and then Jim McMahon took it over sending the factory into overdrive. McMahon was as decorated and as accomplished of a quarterback that you could have when his playing days were over at BYU. McMahon set 75 NCAA records upon completion of eligibility at BYU in 1981. McMahon was a small town quarterback out of Roy High School and had his recruitment down to BYU and UNLV. McMahon was planning on playing for the Rebels, but ultimately his dad intervened and told him that he needed to go to a bigger school.
During McMahon’s seasons as the starting quarterback, BYU became a program that was in the national conversation and his play laid the groundwork for the 1984 National Championship and Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy. McMahon passed for 10,113 yards and 89 touchdowns in his career. McMahon had his jersey retired at BYU in 2014 after he returned to school to complete his degree. McMahon led BYU to their first bowl victory in program history in 1980 over the Pony Express of SMU led by Craig James and Eric Dickerson. McMahon’s career led him to be the No. 5 overall draft pick in the 1982 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears. McMahon is considered by many to be the best pure passer and player to ever wear the blue and white and he is getting that honor here on KSL Sports.
Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.