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January 12, 2015

Able to Give Every Detail

In '66, Bruce Yawn was on the receiving
end of a rarity in UGA football lore,
and is able to give every detail of it.
"I assure you that any lineman in all of college football..." Bruce Yawn started telling me last week, "...would be able to give you every detail of it."

Yawn, a three-year lettering lineman at Georgia who started at left guard for the Bulldogs' 1968 SEC championship team, chimed in on an observation I made that there seemingly was a phenomena of sorts during the last one to two months of the college football season of linemen catching passes. 

In mid-November, a "fat guy" at Mercer was on the receiving end of a touchdown, bowled over some teammates, and then did a cartwheel. In bowl games on consecutive daysthe Cotton Bowl and Cactus Bowla 390-pounder from Baylor followed by an Oklahoma State defensive lineman caught passes on lineman-eligible pass plays. And, in helping them defeat LSU a couple of months ago, Alabama ran a pass play involving a lineman which I still don't quite fully understand

Notably, the lineman pass play, whether by design or accident (that is, off a deflection), has a small place in UGA football historyvery small, and having last occurred long ago. 

From what I discovered, the first Georgia lineman to catch a pass during the modern era was center Phil Ashe for a 2-yard gain during the 1960 campaign. For nearly all of the next half-dozen seasons, at least one Bulldog "Big Ugly" annually made a receptionabout half of which were off deflections, the rest designedly on lineman-eligible pass plays.

The longest-gaining reception by a Georgia lineman came in 1964, when first-year Bulldog coach Vince Dooley pulled the trickery against his alma mater, Auburn. Trailing by two touchdowns, QB Lynn Hughes threw to tackle George Patton on a lineman-eligible pass. Patton raced for 40 yards until tackled near the Tigers' goal line, setting up what would be the Bulldogs' lone touchdown of an eventual 14-7 loss.

Although Patton's reception was close, the only lineman in Georgia history to actually score a touchdown receiving was left guard Don Hayes against Mississippi State in the 1966 season opener. Hayes, who lined up as a guard-eligible receiver with Georgia trailing in the first quarter, caught a wide-open 4-yard touchdown from QB Kirby Moore on 3rd and goal. The score would be the difference in a 20-17 victory for Georgia, and remains the last time a Bulldog lineman caught an intentional pass attempt.

Less than a month after Hayes' catch, an undefeated Georgia team was playing Miami on a Friday night in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldog offense, which would generate less than 100 total yards of offense for the entire game, was struggling, so Moore was benched for the much-heralded sophomore signal-caller Rick Arrington. Trailing 7-6, Georgia had reached inside the Hurricanes' 20-yard line, and then, as Yawn described, "it" happened: a lineman catching a passthis time, of the deflected variety.

Against Auburn in '64, George Patton rumbles
for the longest lineman-eligible pass play in
UGA football history. 
"Arrington dropped back to pass, the pass was deflected, I looked up and saw the ball in the air and the goal line in front of me," recalled Yawn, who owned the acclaimed Snooky's Restaurant in Statesboro before its closing a few years ago.  "As I grabbed the ball, I had the vision of scoring the winning touchdown. I took two steps and was dropped for a three-yard loss."

Alas, Georgia lost to Miami that night, 7-6, in what would be the Bulldogs' lone defeat of the season.

"Every time the stats were printed that year, I received a great deal of ribbing from my fellow offensive linemen," Yawn said.

It was in 1966—the only season where Georgia completed more than one pass to a lineman—when Alabama's "Bear" Bryant ran a successful tackle-eligible pass play to help defeat Ole Miss for the second consecutive year. Bryant, who reportedly "loved" the deceptive play and "used it with great effect, especially against the Rebels," was phoned two days following the game by Ole Miss head coach John Vaught, a long-time friend of Bryant's. 

"He was mad, about to throw a fit," Bryant said of Vaught at the time. "John started a campaign to get the tackle-eligible banned from football." Vaught joined the NCAA Football Rules Committee in 1966 and, two years later, when the committee was about to adjourn, Vaught reportedly lodged a chair under the doorknob of the meeting room and declared that no one was leaving until something was done about "that damn tackle-eligible pass."

Essentially, a college lineman can catch a pass under today's rules; however, five men on an offensive line must wear jersey numbers 50 to 79, while it is ruled players wearing numbers 50 to 79 are not eligible to catch a forward pass (unlike before the late 1960s). Therefore, in order for a lineman to be eligible he can a) change jersey numbers during the game as was the case of the Baylor lineman; b) be a defensive lineman wearing numbers other than 50 to 79 as was the case of the Oklahoma State lineman; or c) catch a backward lateral pass as was the case of Mercer's "fat boy."

Still, despite ways to get around the no-passing-to-linemen rule, it has been nearly a half-century since a Georgia lineman caught a pass intentionally thrown his way. Even receptions made off deflections have been rare, occurring just once since Yawn's memorable 3-yard loss in 1966. A deflection against Auburn was caught by guard Kim Stephens for an 11-yard gain in 1987, or more than 27 years ago, justifying that a receptionwhether intentionally thrown or not, and no matter the number of yards gainedmade by a Georgia lineman should be a dream come true, of sorts, for that Bulldog player. 

"Fifty years later, I am able to tell my nine grandchildren that I am in the record books for UGA football," Yawn added. And, I'm sure the former Bulldog lineman is able give them every detail of it.

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