Saturday, June 20th, 2020

Big Shoes to Fill

Matthew Sherry

Editor

Big Shoes to Fill

Matthew Sherry NFL

“You can usually pick up in five minutes if a guy has got it. I watched him make one throw – he had a guy draped on him and delivered it 40 yards, on a line, into 30mph winds, with no arc, right into the bucket. I remember thinking, ‘People don’t know how hard that throw is’.”

Kevin Kolb knows a thing or two about quarterbacking. He spent seven years in the NFL and might very well have played longer, with more success, were it not for concussion issues that brought about his early retirement. As such, when he saw the teenage quarterback from his former high school make an ‘NFL throw’, he quickly came to realise what those around Stephenville High School already knew.

Greg Winder, the school’s offensive coordinator, remembers another occasion in 2014, when current Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury – then at Texas Tech – was standing by the end zone and left gasping during a recruiting visit. “He threw this touchdown,” the coach recounts to Gridiron. “It was the real deal – quick release, drilled it and Kingsbury’s near the end zone. His mouth was just like, ‘Oh wow’. I knew then he was special.”

‘He’ was Jarrett Stidham, the latest jewel in the crown for a small Texas town that confirms many of the stereotypes propagated by Friday Night Lights. “It was crazy, nuts,” adds Winder. “Especially when he started being recruited. We’d do our workout and those coaches would be in there watching him throw. He didn’t seem to be nervous at all. He’s a natural.”

A multi-team battle for the five-star all-everything kid’s services was eventually won by Baylor and head coach Art Briles, with Stidham flipping his commitment from Kingsbury’s Red Raiders late in the process. He arrived in Waco as the centrepiece of the next phase in the Bears’ development, ready – hot on the heels of Robert Griffin III’s legendary run under Briles – to catapult an emerging programme truly towards college football’s elite.

The sky, it seemed, was the limit.

Stidham’s moment arrived in the eighth game of his true-freshman year. His first start was at the controls of a 7-0 squad on the road at Kansas State, with the pressure enhanced by replacing Seth Russell – who had ranked among the nation’s best passers across the campaign’s opening weeks. With Baylor sitting at No. 6 in the opening College Football Playoff standings, the pressure was significant. His response? Completing 23-of-33 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns, with zero interceptions.

The 19-year-old, suffering from a back complaint, was outgunned by future first overall pick Baker Mayfield the following week as Baylor went down 44-34 in a thriller versus Oklahoma, but responded by setting the stage for victory over No. 6 Oklahoma State. He threw for 258 yards to leave the Bears 24-14 ahead at halftime, yet was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury that prematurely ended his campaign. Overall, Stidham completed 72-of-109 throws for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions. With he and Russell set to return to compete for the starting job in 2016, the future appeared bright.

And then the bombshell dropped. In May 2016, Baylor fired Briles amid an investigation into numerous assault incidents and allegations – both sexual and physical in nature – that involved members of the Bears’ football programme.

The aftershock saw many players depart the scandal-engulfed school, including Stidham. With NCAA rules at that stage not permitting him to immediately transfer and play, he was enrolled at McLennan Community College. They didn’t have a football programme, meaning Stidham, remarkably, spent three days each week running the scout team offense for local high school, Midway.

Jeff Hulme, the school’s head coach, says: “He was throwing the football around like a laser and everybody’s looking around going, ‘Man, who’s this new guy?’. Everybody thought he was a move-in, a new kid coming in. We had a good quarterback on our team, so it was like, ‘Oh boy, there’s gonna be good competition’, but everybody sort of figured out, on their own, what Jarrett was doing. I didn’t tell the team at all. I didn’t say what he was doing. I just said, ‘Hey, this guy is gonna work out with us a little bit’, and just left it at that, so it was really good. And Jarrett came out there and was so humble, didn’t make it about him, and did a great job for us.

“He ran the scout team against our varsity defense, which was fun for them because of the player he was. And Jarrett was able to stay sharp. He was able to throw the ball with some competition, with people rushing him. It’s one thing to go out to a workout facility, or even your backyard, and throw the football around but, if you’ve got guys rushing you, you’ve got linebackers blitzing, secondary guys trying to keep you from getting the ball in there, it makes you a little bit better. No matter what level you are – high school, middle school, college or whatever – if you’re going against somebody else, that’s gonna make you better and that’s what Jarrett was looking for.”

Although only there for a few months, Stidham made a significant impression on Hulme. “For him to reach out to a local high school like ours and just come out there and stay sharp and get some competition, I thought he handled it beautifully. He was very mature about it for a freshman in college. He was only 19-20 years old.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be around several of them. Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, I coached him in high school; the guy that’s gonna be the starting quarterback for Oklahoma next year, Tanner Mordecai, I got to coach him in high school; and then I got to spend two or three weeks with Jarrett here at our practice field. Those guys that end up starting at big Division One programmes and in the NFL all have very similar traits, in the sense of their leadership qualities, their work ethic, their maturity, how they handle tough situations – whether it’s at practice or like what Jarrett went through – or whatever. They all have that similar trait, all the quarterbacks do, and Jarrett is no different. The way he handled what happened at Baylor speaks very highly of him.”

***

For Stidham, the adversity was a continuation of his life’s story.

“Jarrett had some rough spots,” says Jim Nagy, a former NFL scout who is now in charge of the Senior Bowl, “and not just with football. There’s been some personal things in his background that he’s had to deal with that not many kids have, and that’s what’s made him so mature.”

In multiple conversations with some of those who’ve been around Stidham, there is an allusion to difficulties experienced in his childhood. The details are sketchy and he himself is understandably private. What we do know is that, at the age of 18, he moved in with a local family who became his legal guardians. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, he said the Copelands were ‘as much family to me as anybody else’.

Whatever brought about that decision, it helped – according to many – Stidham become mature beyond his years. Which is why he could leave the Baylor fiasco behind him and quickly assimilate at another major programme, Auburn, on arrival in 2017. He won the starting job immediately and played a key role for an Auburn team that very nearly enjoyed a season for the ages.

The Tigers overcame both Georgia and Alabama during the regular season and entered an SEC Championship Game rematch versus the former ranked No. 2 in the nation. But playing three games against their biggest rivals during a four-week stretch took its toll as the Bulldogs triumphed 28-7, setting up the ultimate frustration: Auburn missed out on the College Football Playoff despite having beaten both teams who would contest the National Championship Game.

For Stidham’s career, at least, the arrow was firmly pointing up. “I really did think, going into Jarrett’s senior year, that he had a chance to be a first round pick,” adds Nagy. “If you look back to that sophomore year, he beats Alabama, he beats Georgia. I was at the Georgia game when he beat a really good team. So, he did win some big games, he played in a lot of big environments, and he grew from it.”

Then, in a familiar tale, Stidham hit something of a road block. His final year at Auburn wasn’t bad – 18 touchdowns and five picks compared to 18 and six the previous year – but he didn’t make the anticipated leap either. In fact, Stidham’s yards dipped from 3,158 to 2,794 and his completion percentage fell from 66.5 to 60.7. Worse yet, he often looked incredibly skittish in the pocket as Auburn slumped to an 8-5 record.

Yet, as ever, it pays to dig beyond the bare numbers. In reality, Stidham was hamstrung by playing behind – in the words of one scout – ‘the worst offensive line in major college football’, while the Tigers’ wider offensive issues were summed up by head coach Gus Malzhan retaking playcalling duties for their bowl game versus Purdue. The result? Stidham completed 15-of-21 passes for 373 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions versus a strong Purdue team who had derailed Ohio State’s CFP chances that season.

Nagy adds: “They set an all-time bowl record in the first half and scored 56 points – in one half! I think that’s probably what Jarrett would have done all season, obviously not to that extreme, but I think that, often, it would have looked a lot different if Gus would have been calling the plays. I’ve had people try to shoot that down and say, ‘Well, that was Purdue’, but my comeback to that is that’s the same Purdue defense that made Dwayne Haskins look like an undraftable player after Ohio State lost down the road to them that same year.”

But, while Haskins heard his name called with the 15th overall pick, Stidham had to wait until 133. He would be a New England Patriot but his route to the top job was seemingly blocked indefinitely by the greatest quarterback of all time. And then, after his first campaign, you know what happened. Brady is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and all eyes suddenly rest on Stidham.

***

In the analysis of his prospects as New England’s potential starter next season, many have focused on Stidham’s third regular-season pass: a pick-six to New York Jets safety Jamal Adams. Yet, just as Brady’s last throw as a Patriot ending in that result won’t cloud any judgement of his abilities, nor should it with Stidham.

The true idea of his future can be gleaned from many other clues in his rookie campaign. Beginning with a spectacular preseason performance that persuaded Bill Belichick to release Brian Hoyer on cutdown day and immediately make Stidham the backup. The move – something the head coach resisted in Jimmy Garoppolo’s first campaign – illustrated the feelings inside New England’s walls. “He looked really good in the preseason,” says Nagy. “Okay, the preseason’s the preseason, but it was nice that he was able to sit that year and didn’t have that pressure of playing right away.”

Especially behind Brady. “I think last year in New England was great for him,” adds Nagy. “He got to spend a year with Tom Brady and go through an offseason with Brian Hoyer, two guys that have played in that system and, collectively, played 30-plus years in the NFL. So he was groomed the right way. You couldn’t have a better crash course in the NFL as a rookie than playing under Brady.”

Sitting alongside Brady in meetings is one thing; becoming the guy tasked with the impossible – replacing the GOAT – is quite another. “Like any quarterback, if Jarrett is the guy to start next year, there’s gonna be some bumps in the road,” concedes Nagy. “That’s just normal. Go back and look at even the great ones. I mean, Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions [in his first year]; Troy Aikman was 1-15 his rookie year. It’s a really big job, a really hard job, so there’s gonna be some rocky points, but I think they know what they have in terms of the talent and, at some point, [they’ve got to put him in]. No guy is just completely ready to take over a football team and go 13-3 or 14-2 unless they have incredible pieces around him, kind of like [Ben] Roethlisberger did in his rookie year with Pittsburgh – but that was just a phenomenal football team they had that year.”

Nagy is well-versed in the Patriot Way, having spent multiple years under Belichick as a scout during the early part of their dynasty. As such, when he vocalises the belief that Belichick’s view of Stidham might, ultimately, have hastened Brady’s departure and made the Patriots second guess the idea of handing their legendary passer a two-year deal, it’s worth taking note. “You would have thought it played a part,” he says.

The reason for Nagy’s belief is two-fold: deep understanding of Belichick’s system, unwavering confidence in a player forged by multiple difficult experiences and, in the scout’s estimation, ready for the toughest task in football. “I’ve talked to Jarrett and everything that happened has got him to this point in his life,” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons, not just with quarterbacks, but any player coming out, that you try to gauge what adversity they’ve gone through in life and how they’ve been able to handle it. Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a really big job. But I think Jarrett’s totally equipped to be that guy. Jarrett is such a mature guy. He’s a married guy. So I know that he [spent] that year just talking to the guys in New England, really applying himself and letting Tom take him under his wing and learning from him.

“As for the physical side, people are talking this year about ‘natural’ with Jordan Love. I said last year that Jarrett looks like he came out of the womb throwing a football. I mean, it’s so effortless for him. He really is an elite thrower, an absolute elite thrower.”

Nagy concludes: “Jarrett Stidham is the future of that position in New England.”



This article first appeared in inaugural issue of Gridiron Weekly – our new, interactive, pay-what-you-can-afford digital magazine. For further information or to buy either individual editions or subscriptions for Gridiron Magazine, click HERE

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