Heupel, Applewhite took different roads to Dallas

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ One is a college-football vagabond, rising from the junior college ranks to become the shining hope of a team desperate to regain national prominence.

The other made a name for himself early in Division I football and shared Big 12 offensive player of the year honors last season _ only to find himself mired in a battle for his team's starting job.

Oklahoma's Josh Heupel and Major Applewhite of Texas took separate paths to college quarterback stardom and find themselves in decidedly different positions this season.

But on Saturday their destiny is shared: a game between No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 11 Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas that for the first time in years has national implications.

Last year it was Applewhite who was the OU-Texas hero, throwing three touchdowns to rally the 23rd-ranked Longhorns from a 17-0 first-quarter deficit en route to a 38-28 win over the unranked Sooners.

Both Heupel and Applewhite have been impressive this year. Heupel, a senior, has thrown eight TDs and is averaging 311 yards per game in leading Oklahoma to its first 4-0 start since 1993. Applewhite, a junior, has thrown for nine scores _ three of them in a 42-7 breakout win against Oklahoma State last week.

But after off-season knee surgery Applewhite has been sharing time at quarterback with sophomore Chris Simms, who was the starter in the Oklahoma State game before being pulled early on. Despite Simms' ineffectiveness in that game, Texas coach Mack Brown still won't name a starter for Saturday, though signs point to Applewhite.

``We think Major is back on track and all Chris needs is experience and at some point we think Chris Simms will be as good as anybody in the country also,'' Brown said this week, hinting perhaps at Applewhite regaining the job permanently.

Heupel's job couldn't be safer. Just a few weeks after coming to Oklahoma before the 1999 season from Snow Junior College in Utah, he was named a team captain. Last year, he set more than a dozen school and conference passing records in leading the Sooners to their first winning record in six seasons.

Soft-spoken and dedicated, Heupel inspires confidence in a team that hasn't had much reason for it in the past decade.

``I think the reason people trust him so much is because it shows in his hard work and dedication how much the game means to him,'' running back Seth Littrell said. ``Not only does it show he's a leader but it gives the players confidence in what he does.''

Not one to makes speeches or bang lockers before a game, Heupel is described by other Sooners not just as a leader but as a genuine example.

``A lot of times, he doesn't really have to say much,'' receiver Damian Mackey said. ``You can just look at him and see how he's leading himself and it's a great way for you to follow in his path.''

To opposing coaches, Heupel's image isn't so cozy.

``He scares you to death when you're playing against him,'' Brown said.

``Unless you can get some pressure on Josh Heupel, he'll break a national passing record against you. He's that good.''

Then there's Applewhite. While being able to lead a football team might be expected from a guy whose first name is a military rank, the Louisiana-bred quarterback admits he is still working on his leadership style.

``It's a tough position,'' Applewhite said. ``You want to be a leader but you don't want to be on a soapbox talking down to them (teammates).''

Applewhite, who himself rose to the starting job after injuries to the quarterbacks in front of him, now finds himself challenged by Simms after suffering his own injury in a loss to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

Brown said both Applewhite and Simms, son of former NFL quarterback Phil Simms, are naturals for the position.

``They're both great leaders, they both have great ability and I think at this stage _ and I said it in preseason _ I think they're two of the best quarterbacks in the country.''

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he sees similarities in Heupel and Applewhite.

``Both are accurate. Both take a hit, both keep playing. There's a lot of comparisons and I see the same things in Simms,'' Stoops said.

But after Saturday, there will be big differences between Heupel and Applewhite. One will have his team off to a 2-0 conference start after winning the biggest OU-Texas game since No. 1 Texas and No. 3 Oklahoma played to a 15-15 tie in 1984.

The other may very well go on to have success this season, but not without a Cotton Bowl-sized hole in those accomplishments.

Heupel, the losing quarterback in last year's OU-Texas game, realizes the importance of Saturday's contest.

``The whole atmosphere is something special. The noise level inside the stadium _ that on one side of the stadium you can hear on the other side you can't,'' Heupel said, alluding to how seating for Sooner and Longhorn fans is divided in the stadium.

Then Heupel's rational side took over.

``But I don't think anybody's going to get lost in the emotion of the game. Once you step between the white lines it's all the same,'' he said.