Worth the wait: Bryce Petty's unlikely journey to becoming Baylor's star
WACO, Texas -- Neither one has the number quite right, but the point is the same. “He waited so long to play,” Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango says of quarterback Bryce Petty. “Seventeen hundred and 56 days.” Says Petty of his return for a second season as the Bears' starter: “I didn’t wait 1,786 days to play one-and-done.”
Actually, Petty went 1,758 days between his final start at Midlothian (Texas) High (Nov. 7, 2008) and his first one at Baylor (Aug. 31, 2013). The players may not have the number exactly correct, but their emphasis is clear: Petty waited a long, long time for this. Entire, successful college careers were completed before Petty ever took his first snap for the Bears.
“Geno Smith was in my class? No way,” Petty says. So was former USC star Matt Barkley, who, like Smith at West Virginia, played four full seasons and went to the NFL before Petty started his first college game.
In the months after that debut start at Baylor, Petty became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, breaking nine single-season school records in 2013 and emerging as a potential first-round NFL draft pick. Then, five years after his high school class arrived on college campuses across the nation, 15 months after he earned his bachelor’s degree, Petty came back for one more season. He barely considered leaving for the NFL. Not after he waited so long to do this …
T-minus 1,758 days (Nov. 7, 2008)
Playing with a torn MCL, Petty throws for 311 yards and a touchdown in Midlothian High’s 42-13 loss at Waco High. If someone were to say he’d become the most recognizable person in Waco in six years, Petty would laugh. He is going to play his college ball in Knoxville, Tenn. At least that's what he thinks. He committed to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator Dave Clawson in June, but Fulmer announced he would step down earlier in the week. Petty and Virginia Beach, Va., star Tajh Boyd are part of the Volunteers’ recruiting class of 2009, but what if the program hires a coach who runs a completely different offense, or doesn’t like the players Fulmer and Clawson recruited? Petty has to wait.
T-minus 1,724 days (Dec. 11, 2008)
It has been 10 days since Tennessee announced Lane Kiffin would succeed Fulmer, and Petty is back on the market. When Kiffin was hired, Petty waited for a call. And he waited. And waited. Petty eventually learned his scholarship would be honored, but he knew he wasn’t wanted. So, he and Tennessee parted ways.
Now Petty is sitting at his high school talking to Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery. Coach Monty started working with Art Briles at Stephenville (Texas) High in the late 1990s, so he knows what the Bears head coach seeks out in a quarterback. Monty followed Petty even after the passer committed to Tennessee. There is a lot of ground between Midlothian and Knoxville, and a lot can change over the course of a football season.
At Tennessee, a lot had changed. The 2008 team that was supposed to compete for an SEC title had stumbled to a 5-7 record. Kiffin has made it clear he wants his own players, and that’s great for Baylor, because the 6-foot-3, 213-pound Petty is perfect. Unfortunately for Monty, the Bears don’t want to sign a quarterback in the class of ‘09. They had a true freshman quarterback from Copperas Cove, Texas, take over in the second quarter of the ‘08 season opener and wrestle the starting job away from Miami transfer Kirby Freeman. Robert Griffin III wasn’t losing his job to Petty or anyone. The Bears need a quarterback to succeed Griffin after a long, fruitful career. They need someone to come in with the class of ‘10, redshirt and then maybe take over for Griffin as a third-year sophomore in ‘12.
Briles asks Petty if he might be willing to grayshirt. That means he'd delay full-time college enrollment until January 2010 and come to Waco as a member of Baylor’s class of ‘10. Petty would learn behind Griffin and possibly succeed him. Other schools are interested. South Carolina, SMU and Oklahoma have sniffed around. But most recruiting classes are full. Have been for a while. Quarterbacks commit early, and when everything falls apart in December it’s a mad scramble.
T-minus 1,669 days (Feb. 4, 2009)
A late grayshirt offer from Virginia Tech doesn’t sway Petty. He has chosen Baylor. Campus is a 75-minute drive from home, and if Petty is as good as he thinks, he’ll pilot a fast-paced, scoreboard-rattling offense in three short years. That is, if he is still playing quarterback. Briles says this of Petty on National Signing Day: “He’s a guy that we believe has the ability to come in here and play a couple of positions for us -- certainly quarterback being one of them.”
T-minus 1,428 days (Oct. 3, 2009)
OK, so maybe those three years won’t be so short. Petty is taking classes -- but not a full load, lest he start his NCAA eligibility clock -- at a Midlothian satellite campus of Navarro College. He is trying to throw and stay in shape, but he’s miserable and bored out of his mind. He’s lonely, too. He visits Baylor once a week, but his time at home is torture. His friends have left for college. He remains in his hometown. He is ready for his next chapter, but he’s stuck on the same old page. Still, Briles told Petty that he wouldn’t need a quarterback until 2012, so Petty knows what he signed up for.
T-minus 1,305 days (Feb. 3, 2010)
Petty has now been on campus for more than a month, but he is part of a crowded quarterback room. Griffin is overcoming a knee injury that caused him to redshirt the 2009 season, but he’ll come back as the starter. Nick Florence, who signed with the Bears in ‘08 before grayshirting and enrolling in January ‘09, took over for Griffin as the starter and will fill the backup role. Brody Trahan, who signed in ‘09, was a star quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High and is hanging on at the position.
On National Signing Day, the Bears also sign Henderson (Texas) High quarterback Tyrell Jenkins. Jenkins throws a 96-mph fastball, so he might not wind up in Waco. However, he tells Briles that he wants to play football. “That’s before [George] Steinbrenner walks up and says, ‘Do you want to buy four houses, or do you want to play college football?’” Briles says. “I don’t know what he’s going to say. We’ll see how bad he wants to play, I guess.”
If Jenkins comes to Baylor, he’ll be the fifth scholarship quarterback on the roster. “Honestly, we’re a little quarterback heavy right now on scholarship, more so than we have ever been,” says Briles, who has recently brushed off an overture from Texas Tech to stay with the Bears. “I like to keep three, maybe four max. We’re going to be a little heavy for a year or two, and the thing about it is that all of them are still young. It’s not like we are going to lose two of them next year. The oldest guy that we have on campus right now is Robert Griffin. We’re all just going to all grow and mature together and see where it all ends up.”
T-minus 1,114 days (Aug. 13, 2010)
No one named Steinbrenner is involved, but Jenkins isn’t coming to Baylor. The 50th overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft signs with the St. Louis Cardinals.
T-minus 644 days (Nov. 26, 2011)
Petty has gotten mop-up duty in four games as a redshirt freshman, but his most meaningful snaps of the season are the ones that he doesn’t take. With Baylor leading Texas Tech 31-28 at halftime, Griffin shows concussion-like symptoms and has trouble remembering what he needs to do. Briles decides to insert Florence, who hasn’t taken a snap all season. Florence burns his planned redshirt to lead the Bears to a 66-42 win, Baylor’s first over Texas Tech since 1995. “I’m still kind of taking it all in right now," Florence tells reporters after the game. “If I’m going to remove [the redshirt] let’s remove it like that.”
Briles also addresses the burned redshirt, which could make the 2012 season Florence’s final one at Baylor. “He can always redshirt next year,” Briles says. “He’s got a redshirt sitting out there and he can be around in 2013.”
T-minus 599 days (Jan. 10, 2012)
Griffin’s redshirt year in 2009 changed his eligibility clock, but his Heisman Trophy-winning campaign in ‘11 made him one of the two top quarterback prospects in the upcoming NFL draft. He informs the Bears that he will skip his senior season. Just as Monty and Briles predicted, Petty’s first real chance will come in ‘12.
T-minus 504 days (April 14, 2012)
Baylor’s spring practice ends with a controlled scrimmage. Petty completes 18-of-27 attempts for 146 yards and a touchdown, while Florence completes 14-of-18 passes for 183 yards and three scores. “They both impressed me today,” Briles says. “We, as a coaching staff, are trying to figure out what each of them are best at and use that in our offensive scheme.”
Petty isn’t holding his breath over Briles’ decision. He can count the first-team reps at practice. He knows Florence will probably win the job, even though Petty considers himself the better quarterback. At this moment, Petty is a bad teammate. He knows he is acting like a punk, but he can’t stop sulking. Still, he stays. He feels like there is a plan for him, and he’s one bad play away from starting.
T-minus 247 days (Dec. 27, 2012)
Florence stayed healthy, so Petty was never pressed into the starting job. Yet once the 2012 season began Petty finished his punk phase and embraced his job in a way he never had when Griffin was still in Waco. Back then starting seemed impossible. Backing up Florence, Petty knew his team relied on him to be ready. Now, as the Bears wrap a 49-26 splattering of UCLA in the Holiday Bowl, Petty knows his time draws near.
Everything changes. Petty’s confidence surges. This is his team now. Even though Briles isn’t prepared to officially name him the starter for 2013, Petty will prepare based on that assumption.
T-minus 155 days (March 29, 2013)
Petty has yet to be publicly named the starter, but that’s what he is. He's dreaming big. Florence replaced Griffin and surpassed Griffin’s passing total (4,309 yards to 4,293) and nearly equaled Griffin’s rushing total from Griffin’s Heisman-winning season in 2011. There is no reason to believe Petty, now up to 230 pounds, can’t do the same. He has spent four years studying this offense. He thinks he can run it better than anyone. “You really don’t treasure sitting until you’ve sat and you know what they’re looking for when they call a play,” Petty says.
Meanwhile, everyone in the Bears’ complex believes this is the year Baylor will finally compete for a league title. Outside of Waco this still sounds crazy. The Bears haven’t been a threat to win the Big 12 since the conference began playing football in 1996. They had a Heisman winner at quarterback and couldn’t break through. However, the mood is different. “You can live on hope, vision and faith,” Briles says. “But until it’s real, it’s just hope, vision and faith.”
T-minus 0 days (Aug. 31, 2013)
It’s finally real. Petty starts against Wofford and completes 19-of-24 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns. “Honestly, it was very humbling -- a blessing. It was a bit surreal,” Petty says after the game. “There were a lot of times out there when I honestly couldn’t tell you what play it was. The thing was that it wasn’t necessarily a blur, but I was just in the moment. I was very excited to be out there and to be the guide.”
T-plus 53 days (Oct. 23, 2013)
The Bears are 6-0 and a few days away from strafing Kansas 59-14. Their first real test will come in 15 days against Oklahoma, but Petty’s confidence swells. He averages 337.2 passing yards a game, and the Bears average a staggering 9.1 yards a play. Still, Baylor hasn’t played the Big 12’s best competition yet. The Bears remain a question mark, and Petty loves it. “There was a storm when I said Baylor is a ‘but’ team,” Petty says. “Baylor wins ‘but’ this. Baylor scores points ‘but’ this. Every time we go out and play, it doesn’t matter how good we do. There’s always people who say ‘but’ this. Honestly, that’s how we like it.”
T-plus 98 days (Dec. 7, 2013)
On a 24-degree afternoon, Petty is masked under his helmet to defend against the cold. He passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Bears to a 30-10 win over Texas. That victory, combined with Oklahoma’s win over Oklahoma State in Bedlam earlier in the day, gives Baylor its first Big 12 title.
The wait was worth it.
“When I was sitting in coach's office and he was telling me what he wanted this program to be, that's when it hit me. This is what that vision was,” Petty tells reporters after the game. “To be honest, when you have someone with that much of a vision and determination for things, it’s almost like it’s too much. But to be in the spot we're at with this team, I couldn't be more proud.”
T-plus 193 days (March 12, 2014)
While some of his classmates spend spring break at beachside bars, Petty is busy jamming his hand into a Home Depot bucket filled with uncooked rice in the bleachers next to an intramural field at UC-San Diego. He is here alongside several other college quarterbacks who hope to tighten up their mechanics before spring practice begins. Coaches George Whitfield Jr. and Kevin O’Connell shuttle the players between the classroom and the field.
Petty, the oldest of the group, is by far the best among them. Visitors -- including former NFL player-turned ESPN analyst-turned quarterback guru Trent Dilfer -- marvel at Petty’s readiness for the pros. But Petty doesn’t feel he is prepared. On his first day in San Diego, he asks O’Connell to explain NFL pass-protection schemes so he can begin to study them. Baylor’s offense is unusual even by college standards, so Petty knows he’ll have a steeper learning curve. But he can flatten that curve if he begins learning early.
On the field, Petty works to keep his feet under control in the pocket. This will pay immediate dividends. In 2013, he created pressure by occasionally shuffling into the teeth of the pass rush. Baylor’s season-ending 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl still burns, but Petty believes the Bears can get better in ‘14, beginning with him. “I want to go down as the best quarterback who ever played at Baylor,” Petty says. “And not just Baylor, the Big 12.”
T-plus 350 days (Aug. 16, 2014)
Petty has just finished his first scrimmage in Baylor’s new stadium. It’s beautiful, a state-of-the-art facility that has a huge scoreboard and -- while Petty is playing -- will serve bacon-wrapped onion rings. He’s 23. He will have a master’s degree in December. Yet even after last year’s success he still thinks people consider Baylor a “but” team.
“Baylor won the Big 12, but they’re still [picked] second. It’s fine with me,” Petty says. “That’s motivation for us. I’m not saying to feel sorry for us, but there are a lot more people who root against us than for us. And that’s fine.”
Still, Petty knows the perception of Baylor is different, both inside and outside the Bears’ locker room. He has seen it change over a five-year span. Asked why he stuck with the school for so long with no guarantee that he would ever land the starting job, Petty can’t provide a simple answer. “I don’t know why I did,” he says. “There’s not one moment in time when I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stick it out.’ It was a process.”
If Petty could talk to himself at 18, when he was suffering through that grayshirt semester, he would say to keep his head up and embrace patience and trust. “Everything happens for a reason,” Petty says. “There was a reason I was at Navarro grayshirting and giving me another fall. There’s a reason I was behind Griff and didn’t really care about what was going on. I felt like I was ready and I was hungry, but hold on. Not yet. There’s a reason for all that.”
There was a reason he sat behind Florence in 2012. There was a reason Petty chose to come back for a second season as a starter. All those reasons brought him to this moment.
“I really am physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually a completely different person than I was at 18,” Petty says. “And I think that’s just because I know what I want now.”