Memphis QB Paxton Lynch was unheralded out of high school, but now he has the Tigers primed for greatness
Memphis coach Justin Fuente had just been hired nearly three years ago, when there was a knock on the door.
It was then Tigers associate athletic director Bill Lofton, who had been in Orlando and stumbled upon a newspaper article about an overlooked area quarterback named Paxton Lynch.
"Hey, you guys may want to check this kid out," Fuente recalls being told by Lofton.
The suggestion is a common one for college football coaches, though it rarely yields much benefit. But Fuente and his staff had less than three months to sign a quarterback for their first recruiting class.
So they went ahead and contacted Lynch's coach at Trinity Christian Academy, a small private school of approximately 150 students in Deltona, Fla., to get tape of him.
"I didn't really have any high hopes," Fuente tells The Inside Read.
But what Fuente saw was a huge kid stuck quarterbacking in a wing T offense. The kid not only had arm strength and hands the size of frying pans, but could also run, as evidenced by him playing some snaps at safety.
Yet Fuente and his coaches were most impressed by Lynch's play in the Central Florida All-Star Game. Lynch had earned most valuable player honors after throwing for 237 yards, including a pair of 43-yard scoring strikes.
"We were like, 'Damn, this kid's got some talent,' " Fuente says.
And now Lynch is showing the rest of the teams in college football what they missed out on. The 6' 7", 245-pound redshirt junior has emerged not only as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, but also as one of the most intriguing NFL prospects in the game. He has undefeated and 16th-ranked Memphis in the driver's seat for the Group of Five's lone automatic berth in one of the six New Year's Day bowls.
The Tigers' turnaround under Fuente has been remarkable. He's taken a downtrodden team—one that had won just four games in the three seasons prior to his arrival—and transformed it into one of the most exciting outfits in the FBS. In the process, he's also become one of the country's most sought-after coaches.
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Lynch has dazzled this season, completing 174 of 243 passes for 2,366 yards and 17 touchdowns, with just one interception. That's why one NFL scout projects that Lynch, should he leave Memphis after this season, would be a mid-first-round pick in April's NFL draft.
A college coach tells The Inside Read that five NFL scouts have told him that Lynch is likely to be the first quarterback selected in the 2016 draft.
"His tools are unbelievable," Fuente says. "He's been blessed, and to his credit, he's been through tough times and he has worked hard to play well. He was not ready-made when he came out of high school. He had a lot of work to do and he's done it."
Perhaps even more impressive, Lynch is just scratching the surface of his potential according to Fuente, who previously tutored Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and Pro Bowler Andy Dalton in his previous job as TCU's co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
"[Paxton hasn't] topped out," Fuente says. "When I had Andy Dalton as a junior, he was as big and strong and as good a player as he was going to be. Paxton's still a kid as a junior. He's got plenty left."
That's because Lynch has only been playing quarterback since his freshman year at Trinity Christian. He moved to the position after he became too tall to play running back.
Unlike many quarterback recruits, Lynch didn't work with a private coach in high school. He taught himself how to throw a football, basing it on the way he threw a baseball.
But what was harder for Lynch was to garner the attention of recruiters while playing at Trinity Christian. The Eagles' had fewer than 30 players on their football team, and many of them were two-way starters. Making things even more difficult was the fact that Lynch played in a run-first offense.
"I only threw the ball about 10 times a game," Lynch says. "We just didn't have a lot of weapons on the outside."
Despite that, Lynch wouldn't give up on his dream, one he reaffirmed to himself constantly.
"I'm good enough to be a Division I scholarship quarterback," Lynch recalls telling himself.
Lynch's senior season at Trinity Christian also got off to a rough start when he bruised his knee in the preseason. He returned after five games, but the Eagles failed to make the playoffs.
Back then, Florida Tech, which was just starting up an NCAA Division II football team, had the most interest in Lynch, but it couldn't offer him a full scholarship. He also had received some interest from Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M.
"I never let myself get too down on it," Lynch says. "I just always knew something was going to happen. I just kept believing that I'd give myself a chance to get good looks and show that I can play. I kept my hopes up that I was going to get that opportunity."
It came after Lynch was the MVP of the Central Florida All-Star Game, which he only got to play in after another quarterback couldn't participate. His performance led to calls from schools like Florida and Indiana.
The Gators were interested in Lynch, as well as quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, who was committed to Penn State at the time.
Florida ultimately signed Mornhinweg (he later transferred to Columbia) but did offer Lynch a chance to be a walk-on, which he declined.
"I didn't want to take that route, because I believed in myself," Lynch says. "I knew I was good enough to get a scholarship somewhere."
Meanwhile, Memphis had made a trip to see Lynch and had him up for an official visit. During the trip, Fuente offered Lynch a scholarship, but told him that the Tigers needed an answer by the end of the night.
So Lynch called his parents and after talking with them committed to Memphis before he his official visit was even over. Initially, Lynch hadn't known much about Fuente, who he learned later had been instrumental in Dalton's development.
"I wanted a chance to get developed and play at the next level too," Lynch says.
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On signing day in 2012, Lynch was set to ink his letter of intent with Memphis when he suddenly got a last-minute scholarship offer from Central Florida, who had just missed out on another quarterback target. But it was far too late for the Golden Knights.
Lynch wasn't wavering from the school that was the first to offer him a full scholarship.
"I'd given Memphis my word," Lynch says.
But when Lynch first arrived at Memphis, he was a 215-pound string bean. He hadn't lifted weights in high school and it showed.
"I wasn't where I needed to be," Lynch says.
After Lynch redshirted his first year, he struggled as a starter in 2013. He completed just 58.2% of his passes for 2,056 yards and nine touchdowns, with 10 interceptions, as the Tigers finished with a disappointing 3–9 record.
But Lynch showed flashes of his potential last season, when he helped lead Memphis to a 10–3 mark and Miami Beach Bowl victory. He also completed 62.7% of his passes for 3,031 yards and 22 touchdowns, with nine interceptions.
Lynch's improved play is a testament to his physical and mental growth according to Fuente.
"Every single day, you see him work on something and understand it and make a small improvement," Fuente says. "He's continued to develop. He didn't go to the large high school and throw scale every day since he was in seventh grade. That's not the training that he got. He continues to every single day get better and try not to repeat the same mistakes."
Physically, Lynch is still growing, according to Fuente. Since coming to Memphis, he's added 30 pounds to his frame, which has made him significantly stronger in his legs and shoulders.
Fuente doesn't anticipate Lynch becoming taller, but believes he can comfortably add another 15 pounds. Lynch's still increasing strength has improved his release point on his throws, helped his running ability because he can now better pick up his knees and provided him with a tough stature in the pocket.
"It's a pretty big testament to our strength and conditioning program because this is a kid that's the definition of bigger-faster-stronger since he's been here," Fuente says. "He's gotten a lot stronger, but still has room to grow."
Fuente praises Lynch for his intelligence, but insists that he's also easygoing.
"He's very laid back," Fuente says with a laugh. "I don't mean this bad about him, but he's just literally a kid. He's enjoying going to class and playing football. I imagine he wakes up and plays video games and eats frozen pizza and then goes to class and gets ready for football practice."
Fuente likes to playfully needle Lynch about the mustache that he's been trying to grow.
"He's been working on it for a long time and it's just awful," Fuente says with a laugh. "I really wish he'd let it go, but this is our quarterback and he can't grow a beard."
Lynch also has a goatee, which Fuente says his quarterback recently told him that he's been growing since high school.
"That's what I mean," Fuente says with a laugh, "he's a kid."
A kid that NFL teams have become increasingly fixated on in recent weeks.
"It's crazy," Lynch says of the NFL speculation. "In the end, I'm just worried about winning each game each week. If I'm fortunate enough to have that opportunity when the season's over to get drafted, I'll sit down and talk with Coach Fuente and my parents about that. But right now, I'm just doing what I got to do to help my team win ballgames."
But Fuente knows that the questions about Lynch and the NFL will only continue. He reiterates that Lynch remains focused on his teammates and the current season.
Should Lynch want to explore the NFL after the season, Fuente says he'll help him get the proper information in a manner that keeps all of his options open. But for now, Fuente and his star quarterback have had just one conversation about his professional future.
"Coach, don't worry about that stuff," Fuente recalls being told by Lynch. "I'll worry about that when the season's over. Let's go play."
Like his coach, Lynch also believes that his best days are still to come.
"I'm just thankful for how it worked out," he says. "The process that I went through to get to where I am, I think it's made me the player I am. Being away from home has helped me grow up and mature as a man as well."
Off the field, Lynch tries to relax and stay off his feet, but does enjoy playing golf (he usually shoots in the mid-80s to 90s). Lynch is also still adjusting to his budding stardom. It was already evident last spring when a couple approached Lynch with a baby bib and asked him to autograph it.
"We named our son Paxton after you," the couple told Lynch.
Lynch laughs recalling the experience, just another reminder of how far he's come.
"I would have never dreamed it would be like this coming out of high school," Lynch says. "I always believed that it could be if I had the opportunity and got put around the right coaching staff and players."
But Lynch hasn't forgotten all those who weren't interested in him as recently as four years ago.
"When I play against a team that maybe was looking at me in high school, but they just never offered me [a scholarship] because they didn't think I had the talent," Lynch says, "that just drives me to prove to them what they missed out on and how good I was."
And just in case they forget, Lynch is now making headlines nationwide.