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From FCS to the NFL? The path of Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo

Photo: Sandy King/EIU Sports Information

Eastern Illinois senior quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has impressed NFL scouts with his quick release.

CHARLESTON, Ill. -- It was late in the first quarter of Eastern Illinois' Nov. 2 game against Tennessee Tech, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was locked in. Facing a fourth-and-14 from the Golden Eagles' 29-yard line, Garoppolo received the snap in shotgun. He took a step back, looked off a defensive back and rifled a pass between three others. Touchdown.

"That's easy money for us," said Panthers redshirt junior wide receiver Erik Lora, who trotted into the end zone after corralling Garoppolo's pass at the two-yard line.

Up in the press box, a prominent NFL executive looked on, with a scout from a division rival seated beside him. This wasn't the first time an NFL personnel evaluator had attended an Eastern Illinois game this season. According to Rich Moser, the school's associate athletic director for media and public relations, representatives from all 32 NFL teams -- including two general managers -- have visited campus.

"Does Jimmy have any more records to break today?" Greg Lautzenheiser, EIU's assistant sports information director, asked to anyone within earshot.

The question was appropriate. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Garoppolo leads the FCS in passing yards (3,843) and passing touchdowns (40) and is one of only two active NCAA players with at least 100 career touchdown passes. (He has 105; Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has 113). He owns school records for completions, touchdown passes and total offense, respectively, and has emerged as one of the favorites to win the Walter Payton Award, the honor given annually to the most outstanding offensive player in the FCS.

Records and gaudy statistics, however, don't explain why NFL scouts are clamoring to watch Eastern Illinois' senior signal-caller. To understand the fascination surrounding Garoppolo's next-level potential, it's essential to understand how he got here, and how his path resembles that of another former Panthers quarterback.

*****

Roy Wittke didn't believe what he was hearing.

The Eastern Illinois assistant was recruiting a quarterback in the greater Chicago area in the fall of 2009, and he needed some advice. He called Jeff Christensen, a former EIU and NFL quarterback and the founder of Throw It Deep, a quarterback and receiver training academy in Lockport, Ill., to inquire about a local prospect.

Christensen told Wittke that he was familiar with the quarterback Wittke was recruiting -- he just wasn't sure it was the right quarterback. Instead, Christensen said, Wittke should focus on a kid named Garoppolo.

Wittke had planned to spend a night scouting his quarterback target for an entire game. He agreed to do that for just one half, then to watch the second half of a game at nearby Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High, where Garoppolo starred.

"Roy, if you see this kid throw, it's Tony Romo 101," Christensen told Wittke.

Romo's name immediately grabbed Wittke's attention. After all, it was Wittke who recruited Romo, now a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, to Eastern Illinois out of Burlington, Wis., more than a decade ago. Now in his 19th season on EIU's staff, Wittke also reached out to Christensen during Romo's recruitment. So when it came to evaluating quarterbacks, Wittke knew he could trust Christensen.

"I'm in the parking lot leaving," Christensen recalled Wittke saying after watching the second half of Garoppolo's game. "That's my guy. There's no comparison."

According to Wittke, Garoppolo stood out for the same reason Romo once stood out. He delivered the ball quickly, with very little "wasted movement."

"Jimmy just flat-out has a very quick release," Wittke said. "It's a short stroke, and he gets the ball out of his hand."

Garoppolo hasn't always had an efficient throwing motion. He didn't even begin formal quarterback training until his sophomore year of high school. When Garoppolo's mother, Denise, first allowed her son to try out football -- "Wait until sixth grade," Denise would say, according to Jimmy -- he played linebacker, tight end and running back. In seventh and eighth grade, when his youth football team started mixing in halfback passes, Garoppolo finally realized he could throw.

Still, when he arrived at Rolling Meadows, Garoppolo played mostly running back and linebacker. As a sophomore, he began personal quarterback training sessions with Christensen at Throw It Deep in preparation for his junior campaign, when he was expected to take over under center.

The first time he worked with Christensen, Garoppolo's throwing motion was long and inefficient. "I threw it like a baseball player," Garoppolo said. "I had that long, extended release, bringing in the wheelhouse. The Tim Tebow -- that's never good."

Christensen adjusted the way Garoppolo planted his feet. Garoppolo's motion naturally tightened thereafter, but only once he was willing to listen to one key piece of advice. "Very few quarterbacks today allow their shoulder -- the rotator cuff -- to drive the throwing motion," said Christensen, who used tape of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to help Garoppolo visualize the correct motion. "Jimmy just did."

One of the reasons Garoppolo was able to pick up the proper technique so readily was his previous lack of quarterback experience. Having rarely played the position in middle school, he didn't have any bad habits to break.

Photo: Sandy King/EIU Sports Information

Jimmy Garoppolo has passed for more than 3,800 yards with 40 touchdowns this season.

After a year spent learning how to read defenses from Rolling Meadows coach Doug Millsaps -- "I was basically running around with my head cut off," Garoppolo said of his first season as a starter -- he started to gain a feel for the game. Rolling Meadows' playbook expanded: It went from featuring mostly quarterback runs designed to accentuate Garoppolo's athleticism to thriving behind a complex, fast-paced scheme that included five-receiver sets.

Big Ten schools such as Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern started contacting Garoppolo toward the end of his junior season, but they stopped pursuing him early in his senior year. Garoppolo's only offers came from FCS programs Illinois State, Montana State and Eastern Illinois.

*****

A couple of weeks ago, Garoppolo's younger brother, Billy, brought up a bet that was made during Jimmy's freshman year of high school. Jimmy says the siblings put down $50 on the claim that his eventual status as a professional athlete -- without specifying the sport -- would make his autograph worth money one day.

Who has the upper hand in this wager? Right now, it's hard to know.

Jimmy is listed as the 10th-best quarterback prospect on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's 2014 position rankings. Former Cowboys vice president of player personnel and current NFL.com draft analyst Gil Brandt ranked Garoppolo seventh among senior NFL quarterback prospects, ahead of Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, San Jose State's David Fales, North Carolina's Bryn Renner and TCU's Casey Pachall. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who watched Garoppolo on film while preparing for the Buckeyes' 42-7 win over San Diego State (which lost to Eastern Illinois 40-19 in Week 1) on Sept. 7, said: "Eastern has really one of the best quarterbacks I've ever seen. I didn't even know who he was until I watched him. He's a great player."

The hype surrounding Garoppolo ramped up in late September, after Eastern Illinois fell just short of upsetting potential BCS buster Northern Illinois on the road. Garoppolo passed for 450 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions in a 43-39 loss to the Huskies on Sept. 21.

Agents had already made calls about Garoppolo, but according to Denise, managing her son's rising NFL potential became "like a part-time job" after the NIU game. Jimmy's father, Tony, said he and his wife have spoken to at least 10 agents this fall, including a few who visited the Garoppolo home. Before the season, the possibility of Jimmy going to the NFL didn't really register. Now, the Arlington Heights, Ill., native is being mentioned in the same breath as Romo -- and Denise and Tony have heard draft projections as high as the second round.

"Everything has come so fast, so unexpected," Denise said. "We're just grabbing on and hanging on for the ride."

Jimmy hopes to be selected for January's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., a showcase that would allow him to further increase his pre-draft exposure. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL scout, coach and front office executive, said Garoppolo is one of 10 to 12 players in consideration for the six roster spots allotted to quarterbacks. Savage has watched Garoppolo play both live and on tape. Like many others, he's impressed with Garoppolo's quick and compact release.

Though Savage believes Garoppolo has the requisite arm strength to play in the NFL, he says it's hard to project how early the FCS standout could be drafted. For one, it's unclear whether some or all of the underclassmen in 2014's loaded quarterback class -- which includes Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel -- will declare. Another issue is Garoppolo's hand size, which Savage says has concerned a number of NFL evaluators.

Still, Savage thinks Garoppolo could be a mid-round pick. He considers the EIU star an attractive prospect for teams that run West Coast offenses, as well as other systems that incorporate spread elements.

At Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo orchestrates an offense similar to the spread attack run by Baylor coach Art Briles. Panthers headman Dino Babers, a former assistant for the Bears under Briles from 2008-11, has been impressed with the way Garoppolo operates his up-tempo scheme. Babers calls him the second-best quarterback he's ever coached, behind only Robert Griffin III.

"[Garoppolo] is one of the best I've ever had at being able to take that information, digest it and put it on the football field without ever having practiced it," Babers said.

*****

After Eastern Illinois' 56-21 win over Tennessee Tech, Panthers' players and coaches made their way to the cramped, dingy weight room that doubles as the team's press-conference location. Three reporters sat in chairs facing a table, where Babers hunkered over a box score. After signing several autographs for children around O'Brien Stadium, Garoppolo, who went 33-of-50 for 399 yards with four touchdowns and a pick, entered.

Garoppolo talked about the success Eastern Illinois has enjoyed so far this season. He spoke about the message from former EIU quarterback and current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton that was played on the scoreboard before the game. (A video shout-out from Romo was played during Eastern Illinois' 34-16 win over Tennessee State one week earlier.) When asked about his nearly 400-yard passing performance, Garoppolo responded, "It was an all right game."

Before leaving his media session, Babers had a message for those still unaware of the FCS quarterback who has NFL scouts buzzing. "Jimmy Garoppolo is special," Babers said. "You need to come see him. He's an exciting football player."

Eastern Illinois is currently chasing an FCS national title. After beating Murray State 37-17 on Nov. 9, it's 9-1 (6-0 Ohio Valley Conference) with remaining games against Jacksonville State (8-2) and Tennessee-Martin (6-4). A historic season remains in reach.

Yet in mere months, Garoppolo will begin preparing in earnest for the NFL draft -- and he hopes, a promising career in professional football.

"I'd put him up against anybody," Wittke said.

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