Sebastian Tretola and a History of Linemen Throwing Touchdown Passes

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On October 25, 2014, it’s fair to say Sebastian Tretola made history.

In one of the SEC’s most meme-able moments of 2014, the Razorbacks’ 350-pound offensive tackle threw a 6-yard touchdown to a long snapper/wide receiver to blow open a game against Alabama-Birmingham. National acclaim followed. With tongue just slightly in cheek, Tretola said of his shining moment: “I got out there and did what I needed to do. I made a play, and made a great one … I don’t think any other play is up there with it.”

That quote’s from the SEC’s best Heisman plug video of the year, courtesy of the Arkansas athletic department. But the time spent crafting this mocku-masterpiece might have prevented the UA folks from finding out if Tretola actually was the first lineman in major college history to pass for a touchdown.

Here’s your answer: In modern history, yes he is.

A nice, OCD-y stroll down Data Verification Lane says so. Since 2000, there have been 776 games in which a player has completed a single pass which counted for a touchdown. As you can imagine, a majority of the passers who completed only one pass throughout an entire game are non-quarterbacks. Picking through the rest of the players – wide receivers, running backs, tight ends – I confirmed Tretola was the only full-time lineman to meet this criteria.

In 2011, a former defensive lineman from Colorado State threw a touchdown pass against No. 5 Boise State. Crockett Gillmore, a 6’6″, 260-pound tight end who’d converted from defensive end only five months before, threw a 27-yard touchdown off a lateral in a 63-13 loss.

Two other notable unique passers came in the form of converted defensive backs. In 2003, San Diego State’s Hubert Caliste threw a 25-yard TD pass on his first collegiate play as wide receiver. Three years later, Miami’s Lavon Ponder threw a 37-yard TD pass against North Carolina on the only offensive snap of what would be a four-year career.

Has a lineman ever thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL?

Not in modern times. Nor has a lineman even completed an attempt. There have been two such stabs, btw:

1) Down by three points near mid-field, Indianapolis center Jeff Saturday was involved in some last-second Colts trick-play shenaniganery in 2004. It didn’t work; Saturday’s pass attempt was illegal and Jacksonville won.

2) In 1980, Tampa Bay tackle Charley Hannah also failed to even get off a legitimate attempt. At the end of a close game against Minnesota, the Tampa Bay QB was trying to avoid a pass rush when he “dumped a pass to tackle Charley Hannah, who threw the ball to the ground when he saw an official waving his arms. Vikings end Randy Holloway picked up the ball and ran it into the end zone for an apparent touchdown,” according to the St. Petersburg Evening Independent as cited in Wikipedia. The officials needed several minutes to sort out the situation, and eventually penalized Tampa Bay 14 yards for an illegal forward pass.”

It’s almost certain no other lineman in recent major college or NFL history has been able to wreak the Category 5 devastation Tretola hath wrought on defenses with right arm alone. “I think the [480] QB rating tells it all,” he said on his Heisman commercial. “I’m flawless in my technique. What I do is impeccable. I work to be the greatest and I think I’ve achieved that.”

No doubt, Tretola – you are an uncommon man. And so are your teammates, who tonight become the first team in college football history to play five consecutive opponents which are ranked in the Top 10. The opponent: Mississippi State, on the road. Sure, they’re undefeated and ranked No. 1 but the task really isn’t all that daunting relative to the rest of Arkansas’ schedule. Any conference win at this stage, after 16 straight losses, would #BeUncommon enough.

PS:So, what about before the modern era?

Well, in the early through mid 1900s, there was a lot more fluidity between positions. Guy went both ways on defense and offense and linemen occasionally passed the ball as well. Of course, the big boys of that era were nowhere near the size of Tretola but just as now they could still be huge compared to other positions.

One such player, the 6’0″, 260 pound Howard “Cub” Buck, completed a touchdown pass for the Green Bay Packers in 1924. One of the best known examples of an olden-times lineman TD thrower at the college level comes courtesy of California’s Brick Muller. Today, the Brick Muller Award goes to the Golden Bears’  most valuable defensive lineman. At about 200 pounds, Muller was a noted beast along the line but he became most famous for throwing possibly the longest pass of the early football era. Muller was sometimes used as a passer who surprised defenses with the long, low spirals he could manage with the rounded football that was much less aerodynamic than the modern one.

Muller’s signature play came early in the 1921 Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Here’s how it’s described on one California sports history blog:

“QB Charley Erb called for the ‘dead man’s play,’ a favorite trick play of Andy Smith’s that required some advance preparation. It called for Archie Nisbet to fake an injury and hobble around with his teammates after the previous down. The Cal backs stood hands on hips as Nisbet edged closer to where the football sat. In a flash he bent down and lateraled it to Pesky Sprott [ed. Gotta love these 1920s name, right?], and the play was on. Ohio State reacted quickly to Sprott’s run around end, but then the halfback stopped and lateraled across the field to Muller. Cal’s end was now well behind the line of scrimmage, at about his own 45 yard line.

“… What he did became headline news in newspapers across the country the next day. Rather than run, he heaved the ball higher and farther than anyone had ever seen a man throw a football. Ohio State had committed no deep defenders, and the Buckeyes watched in awe as Muller’s pass traveled over their heads to fellow end Brodie Stephens, who caught it on the goal line and walked in for a 14-0 Cal lead. Muller was credited with a 53 yard pass, though witnesses claimed the ball actually traveled 70 yards in the air on the diagonal.. It was such an unexpected feat that Ripley’s Believe it Or Not featured it in one of their popular newspaper serials.”

How often did linemen throw for TDs in the 1920s? Football historian Andrew McKillop of helped  here: “I don’t have the college football stats, but the NFL closely mimicked the college game in the 1920s,” he told me. “So I took a random season (1924) and found out that lineman threw three of the 66 TDs (5%) thrown that year. The three lineman TD passes all came from different teams, too. That tells me it was a widely used option if not all that common.”

PSS: On the Arkansas prep level, perhaps the most impressive lineman-quarterback conversion came thanks to former Greenwood High School coach Ronnie Peacock. In 1995, he converted 6’1″, 230 pound center Aaron Gamble, who’d spent the first two years of his high school career as a center, into a quarterback. Peacock’s spread offense was then considered highly innovative and was at the time record-setting.

In 1994, “with Travis McDaniel (who would play on Arkansas’s 1999 SEC champion baseball team) at quarterback, Greenwood made the playoffs. McDaniel threw for 2,376 yards and 26 TD (the passing yardage was a state record at the time),” long-time Arkansas sportswriter Walter Woodie tells me.

“Peacock said he thought Gamble could play quarterback because of ability to snap to McDaniel in the Shotgun,” Robert Yates wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1995. “He was one of our best linemen last year,” Peacock told Yates. “He is the kind of person who will do anything to help out the team. I’m sure any lineman’s dream would be to be a quarterback, to throw and run touchdowns. I’m sure he was happy to do it.”

Gamble would pass for 2148 and 26 TD, which that season was the most yardage in Class AAA (now Class 5A). Greenwood finished 7-3 and laid the stage for the next year’s QB, Brooks Coatney, to lead Greenwood to a state title. Coatney’s young cousin, who almost certainly was in the stadium during some of these record-setting passing performances, was future Razorback named Tyler Wilson.
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