Kid in control: Can true freshman Jarrett Stidham keep Baylor's offense humming and its playoff hopes alive?
WACO, Texas—Kendal Briles had to see the kid he kept getting calls and text messages about. Briles, a former quarterback at Stephenville (Texas) High, had been alerted during the summer of 2012 that the then-current Stephenville quarterback was headed to Baylor's camp. The guy had just finished his freshman year of high school, and everyone in Briles's hometown swore this one was special. So Briles, a Bears assistant and the son of Bears head coach Art Briles, paid special attention to Jarrett Stidham once camp began.
The first route Stidham threw with the younger Briles watching was a dig. His receiver hauled in the pass, but back in the quarterback line Stidham smashed his hands together and muttered to himself in disgust. "He hits a receiver running full speed, but he hits him here," Kendal says, placing his hands a few inches outside his torso. "And he's like 'Dammit!' He was mad the ball didn't hit [the receiver] perfect. It was perfect level, but it was just a little behind." The attention to detail intrigued the younger Briles. So he kept watching. "Everything else was perfect," says Kendal, who now serves as the Bears offensive coordinator.
Stidham left Waco with a scholarship offer that he didn't accept until he flipped from his commitment to Texas Tech only weeks before enrolling at Baylor in January. Stidham came to Waco planning to compete with veteran Seth Russell for the starting job, but Bears coaches had no intention of starting Stidham. Art Briles doesn't like playing true freshmen. They haven't taken enough reps in the offense. They would only slow down the Bears' warp-speed attack. Besides, Russell was their guy. He was a fourth-year junior with a deep understanding of the playbook. On a team full of athletic freaks, Russell may have been the freakiest of them all. He had the potential to be Baylor's best quarterback since Robert Griffin III.
For the first half of this season, Russell fulfilled that promise. He led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.5 through seven games) and proved in a 62–38 win over West Virginia (14 carries, 160 yards) that teams defending only Baylor's receivers and backs would get dissected another way. Then came the Iowa State game and an injury that didn't seem so serious at first. Russell was hurt on a third-down run in the fourth quarter of a 45–27 win over the Cyclones on Oct. 24. X-rays and a CT scan later revealed Russell had broken a bone in his neck. He needed surgery, and he wouldn't return this season. Suddenly, the Bears had a true freshman starting at quarterback.
Stidham will make his first start Thursday at Kansas State. Though the Wildcats have lost their past two games (to Oklahoma and Texas) by a combined score of 78–9, they pushed TCU to the brink earlier this season and have coach Bill Snyder—who might actually be a wizard. Snyder will throw everything he can at Stidham with hopes of rattling the youngster. For years, the knock on Baylor come NFL draft time is that the system makes the players, not the other way around. The Bears bristle at that stereotype, but they certainly wouldn't mind if it got proven true over the next five weeks.
Art Briles wants Stidham to look around him Thursday and take comfort. The 6' 3", 210-pounder can throw to junior receiver Corey Coleman, who averages 20.5 yards a catch. He can hand the ball to junior tailback Shock Linwood, who averages 8.1 yards a carry. He'll be protected by a veteran line led by his roommate, 6' 5", 315-pound senior left tackle Spencer Drango. "That's the whole key," Briles says. "He doesn't have to drive the car. He can sit in the back and read the paper. It's rolling. Just make sure the gas tank is full."
Apprised of Briles's analogy, Drango laughed. Then he agreed. "We have so many weapons on the field and an experienced offensive line," Drango says. "So don't drive us into a ditch. If you just do your job, we'll be all right. And if we do our jobs well, he'll do his job well."
It's also possible that Stidham is ready. Briles isn't completely averse to playing true freshmen. KD Cannon racked up 1,030 receiving yards as a freshman last year. And a few weeks before Russell's injury, Briles praised Stidham's preternatural poise and grasp of the offense. Meanwhile, junior receiver Lynx Hawthorne quite eloquently described the spiral Stidham can generate. "Jarrett's passes are so beautiful," Hawthorne told reporters last week. "When they're coming at you, you think this thing is kind of like a gift from God."
Stidham also brings the toughness to which his offensive teammates have become accustomed playing alongside Russell and predecessor Bryce Petty. Last October, Stidham had surgery to repair fractures in his throwing hand. He was supposed to be out more than a month, but returned three weeks later to throw for 318 yards with six touchdowns and run for 193 yards with three scores in a 69–60 Class 4A playoff win over Estacado High.
Crazy how exactly a year ago today I had surgery on my hand now I'm in a completely different position..— Jarrett Stidham (@Jarrett_Stidham) October 27, 2015
Kendal Briles has a theory about why Stidham picked up the offense as quickly as he did. He had nothing better to do. When Stidham arrived in January, the coaches who recruited him were on the road pursuing other prospects. He didn't know many people on campus. He'd been thrown into intense workouts with veterans who were already used to them. Some homesickness was to be expected. So, when Baylor staffers noticed Stidham heading home to Stephenville nearly every weekend, they encouraged him to spend more time in the football office. They figured that would help him adjust, and it had the added benefit of allowing him to absorb some of the offense. "He didn't have anything else to do. He didn't really know or hang out with the other guys," Kendal says. "So he just studied and watched tape and asked questions. He wanted to be able to compete in spring ball against Seth."
The fact that the decision about the starter had essentially been made didn't bother Stidham. Nor did it bother him when the Bears reconvened for preseason camp. He still attacked practice as if he might be the opening day starter. The younger and elder Briles loved this, and that attitude has helped put them at ease as they prepare to hand the keys to a Lamborghini offense to a guy who just got his driver's license.
"He's thrown in a little early," Art Briles says. "But if there's ever a guy ready, he's the guy. He's ready to go."