Eric Crouch wanted to be a Denver Bronco growing up, because his idol was quarterback John Elway. He watched more pro football than college as a kid, because his own games were on Saturday, so he never really got a chance to watch college football.
After Crouch arrived at high school, he eventually took over the quarterback duties at Millard North High School in Omaha, Neb., at the end of his sophomore year.
“Fred Petito (head coach) looked for the best athlete to play there, and he would work the system around the quarterback. I loved the offense; it was tough to defend because it was hard to prepare for it,” Crouch said. “It was an option-based offense; we did your basic two-way option, triple-read option, misdirection option, speed option, just about every option possible. We put in a lot of time to learn the offense.”
Crouch put in the time and was named the USA Today Nebraska Player of the Year and a Parade All-American.
Because he was an athletic option quarterback, most colleges recruited Crouch as an athlete. But he was a quarterback, and in the end only one team stood out to him.
“It came down to three schools; Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State,” Crouch remembered. “I decided to make my decision before my senior year of high school. So I decided to take some unofficial visits and go to each school’s summer camps. That way I could evaluate them and get to see their campuses and meet the coaches.
“Coach (Tom) Osborne was the only coach that visited with me and my family. The other head coaches from the other schools did not do that. I think they kind of gave up because I was from Nebraska and thought I was going to there. But Walt Harris, who was the quarterback coach from Ohio State, said that Head Coach (John) Cooper offered me. He said Coach Cooper never offered anybody a scholarship at their summer camp before. That was a way to make me feel special and showed that they really wanted me. But the only problem was they couldn’t really tell me I could play quarterback. They recruited me as an athlete with the intent to see where I would fit best in their system. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. That was the same way at Notre Dame. Lou Holtz was the head coach and they offered me at their summer camp, but they wanted me as an athlete and see where I would fit in.
“Nebraska was the only school that told me up front they were recruiting me solely as a quarterback. So, just based on the offensive system I ran at Millard North with the option experience, it just made sense for me to go to Nebraska. And being recruited by them in 1995 and ’96, there was no better program in the ‘90s than Nebraska’s.”
An interesting side note: Osborne and Holtz retired after Crouch’s redshirt year and Cooper was fired that same year. “So I would have had a new head coach no matter where I went to,” Crouch laughed.
He committed to Nebraska the summer before his senior year. With the pressure off going into his senior season, he didn’t have to deal with the recruiting process and could just focus on football and being a quarterback.
Crouch and fellow recruit Bobby Newcombe were the two quarterbacks in NU’s 1997 recruiting class. While Newcombe switched to receiver and helped contribute to the Huskers’ ’97 national championship, Crouch redshirted.
“I wanted to play and felt I had the talent to play, but a redshirt year allowed me to get fully healthy, stronger and learn the system a little more,” Crouch said. “I had a couple of surgeries on both my legs. I had a right ankle surgery and left nerve entrapment behind my knee that needed to get taken care of. Both were successful surgeries and didn’t have any lingering effects the rest of my career.”
After the ’97 season, Osborne announced his retirement and Frank Solich was promoted to the head coaching job. This didn’t affect Crouch, as he was concentrating on getting on the field at quarterback.
“It wasn’t big deal having Frank Solich as the new head coach,” Crouch stated. “It was sad to see such a Nebraska icon and coach leave the team in Tom Osborne, but he made sure he put somebody in the position that knew the program and the system and would do a great job. I think most of the team felt comfortable with Frank Solich becoming the head coach. I felt like I didn’t miss a beat at all with Coach Solich and got along well with him.”
That wasn’t the case when it came to Crouch and Newcombe. According to Crouch, the quarterback battle was very heated.
“I tried to make it friendly on my side,” Crouch explained. “But Bobby was kind of a quiet guy and was hard to read.”
Crouch and Newcombe were very similar players. Both had great speed, running ability, could make people miss in space, and could both throw the ball.
“Bobby probably could throw the ball better than I did,” Crouch said. “But he threw the ball more in high school than me.”
Newcombe won the quarterback job at the beginning of the 1998 and 1999 seasons, but due to injuries and Crouch’s success, he eventually moved to wingback and Crouch got the nod.
“I guess I had that secret ingredient that everybody plays a little bit better when you are in there. The team rallied behind me. It’s not like they didn’t play to their potential when Bobby was in, but it seemed to motivate the team with a little more energy when I went in the game. Bobby didn’t have as much experience, and that caused him to lose the starting job because he made a few mistakes and wasn’t quite comfortable with the offense. Bobby started, we struggled, they put me in and we ended up blowing the other team out.”
Some of the credit for Crouch’s progression at quarterback has to go to quarterback coach Turner Gill. Some consider Gill as the greatest Husker quarterback of all-time, so Crouch learned from the best.
“Coach Gill never really got rattled. He was even-keeled all the time. I almost feel like I started to play my game like he did. He was such as good coach, and always built you up and got you ready for the game. He ended up being more of a friend in the end than a coach,” Crouch said.