THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said John Wolford spent years laying the groundwork for this moment -- starting at quarterback in an NFL football game.
“I shot him a text,” said Clawson, when he found out that Wolford would make his NFL career start for the Los Angeles Rams against the Arizona Cardinals this week. “I would be shocked if he returns it, not because he’s rude but just because he’s got a job to do, and all of his energy and focus is going to be on that.”
Clawson was not surprised his former standout quarterback would be starting on Sunday.
“He’s very smart,” said Clawson. Lightly recruited and undersized out of Jacksonville, Fla., Walford was a four-year starter for Clawson at Wake Forest. “He knew at some point this opportunity would come. And whether it was eight weeks ago, two weeks ago or three years from now, John will be ready. … John has really spent the last three years of his life preparing for this moment.
“Here’s a guy that truly pursued his passion with everything he had. I’m thrilled for him. I’m going to be rooting hard for him and I would not bet against John Wolford at some point becoming a full-time starter in the NFL.”
Wolford, 25, agreed. While he may have not had the steadfast belief that he would reach the NFL, like every other kid who put on a wobbly helmet in youth football, he had visions of one day leading an NFL team.
“I always thought I could make it and maybe that was a little outlandish considering the percentages, but I did,” Wolford said. “And so, there’s a lot of things that went into that. A lot of people that have helped me along the way and I’m here now.
“I've dreamed of this since I was a five-year-old, when I first put on a helmet. So, it’s cool to see it kind of come to fruition. Then I have to perform on Sunday, that’s my next step.”
That dream morphs into reality this weekend, when Wolford subs in for an injured Jared Goff (broken thumb) for Rams, as they host the Cardinals at SoFi Stadium with a playoff berth on the line.
Like Clawson, Rick Neuheisel coached Wolford while serving as the head coach for the Arizona Hotshots in the Alliance of American Football in 2019. He immediately noticed the 6-1, 200-pound quarterback’s unique qualities as a leader.
Neuheisel took advantage of Wolford’s whippy arm and quick feet by installing a Run-Pass Option (RPO) offense that relied on the nimble mind and quick decision making of Wolford, who also ran a similar offense at Wake Forest.
“When we started putting it in at the Alliance, John was very instrumental, if not taking the lead,” Neuheisel said. “We would start putting in ideas and he’d say, here’s how we used to do it here, and tweak it. So, he not only can do it, but he can also teach it.”
Wolford completing 130 of 206 passes (63.1 percent) for 1,617 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 95.9 passer rating for the Hotshots, leading them to a 5-3 record.
Neuheisel said Wolford was a quick study on the football field and brilliant in his ability to adapt to what was happening in real time.
“I love his cerebral take of the game,” Neuheisel said. “I love how he likes it when people pick on his size, and how he dishes it back. The guy’s an extremely competitive son-of-a-gun, and very aware. I’m so looking forward to watching him play in this game. I think he’s going to be a star.
A star, coach?
“Stars close the show,” he said. “There’s warm-up bands and there’s the guy that comes on to bring the thing home. And I told him you’re now the star, close the show. At the end of the day, what I said to him was take what they give you. Always take what they give you and be as cerebral as always.”
Both Rams head coach Sean McVay and receiver Robert Woods have surfed YouTube to see past highlights of Wolford in action, since he hasn’t taken a regular-season snap in the NFL.
“Oh yeah, we’ve seen those,” McVay said. “He’s got highlights to watch depending upon which one pops up first on the YouTube.”
Added Woods: “He not a guy who’s lacking in confidence. And that’s one thing that’s good for us, we can feel confident in him, his ability as a quarterback and as a person.”
Neuheisel said his biggest fear is the Rams will shrink the playbook because it’s Wolford’s first start to help him along.
“That would be a terrible mistake with John,” Neuheisel said. “He is more than capable of handling it all. He’ll probably have five suggestions during the game, but he needs you to have every tool at your disposal to take advantage of what’s being given, because you can’t take it all away.”
What McVay’s approach will be remains to be seen, and he’s not telling anyone.
“We’ll see how everything comes together,” McVay said. “I do think John’s got a skill set that will be fun to watch him execute our offense and how things come to life differently. Each guy has a creativity to his game, but I think he’ll do a nice job kind of distributing and making good decisions. We’ll see exactly what that looks like on Sunday.”
Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has already seen what it looks like during the week, with Wolford impersonating quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Cam Newton and Tom Brady during the week while running the scout squad.
Staley said it’s one of the reasons he and the rest of Wolford’s teammates have confidence in Wolford heading into Sunday’s game.
“It’s very difficult in the NFL to earn respect of your teammates when you have never gone in a game,” Staley said. “But John Wolford has the full respect of our entire team -- coaches, and players because of how he performs on the practice field, in the meetings, in the weight room.
“That’s a rare thing when you can have full respect of your teammates without actually having performed in an NFL game. That should tell you about his character and about what he’s capable of. We’re all excited for him and his opportunity this weekend.”
Wolford’s opportunity almost did not come to fruition. Wolford said he’d worked through a program to earn a banking job on Wall Street at Wake Forest and had not wowed NFL scout enough to garner a chance to play at the next level.
However, that changed his senior season, when he threw for 3,192 yards, 29 touchdowns and just six interceptions, earning second-team, All-ACC honors.
Wolford said he had to decide between taking a good-paying job in the banking industry on Wall Street or the uphill climb of earning a job as practice squad quarterback in the NFL.
“The only thing I shared with John in 2018 is John had some really good job offers in business on Wall Street in New York City, and some of those offers were going to pay a lot more than his football options at the time,” Clawson said. “And the only advice I gave him is you get one opportunity to do this, you’ve got the rest of your life to work. Don’t go into busines and have regrets and wonder what you could have done in football. You’re still young, you still have time. You’re not going to become an old banker at 25.”
Fast forward to the end of 2020, and it appears Wolford’s decision has paid off. Although Wolford still has a LinkedIn account he created as a freshman at Wake Forest where his occupation reads “Quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams.”
If things go well on Sunday, Wolford said he might delete the account.
“Everybody here is excited to see what John can do,” Wake Forest defensive back Ja’Sir Taylor told reporters this week. “We all know what he’s capable of. A lot of the younger guys don’t even know who John is, so we tell them a bunch of stories about how he picks defense apart. His preparation. He’s literally in the locker room an hour a day scrubbing the footballs, so they have the perfect feel for him. He does a lot of things that I’m sure half the football players don’t do to prepare for a football game.”
Asked if he’s been getting any sleep due to the anxiety of making his first start on Sunday, Wolford said he’s sleeping fine, and noted the importance of getting a good night’s rest that he read about in a book entitled “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
Just another example of the intentional way Wolford has lived his life leading up to his big moment.
“There’s only so many hours in a day and you have to try and take advantage of the time you do spend on your job,” Wolford said. “I just want everything I do to be intentful to maximize that efficiency. Whether that’s watching film or whether it’s lifting, I always want it to be intentful towards being the best quarterback that I can be.
“So, that’s kind of been my approach and there’s a compounding effect to that if you’re doing a good job. I’m always open to the notion that there’s a better way to do something. I mean, there’s better quarterbacks in the league and so just trying to find out what they’re doing, how they’re taking care of their bodies mechanically, et cetera, et cetera. I’m always open to that. I’m always open to learning more scheme and I think that’s kind of been my approach since I was smart enough to understand how it kind of works.”