EVANSTON, Ill. — Have gun, will travel.
The NFL quarterback hopeful didn’t quite hit the big stage during a record-breaking college career at EIU, but he has been one of the stars — and most well-traveled players — of the postseason football circuit.
“I have flown more in the last couple months than I have my whole life,” Garoppolo told Shutdown Corner on Tuesday. “If I had been collecting frequent flier miles, it would be great. That might have been the smart thing to do.
“I guess it’s a good thing. Busy is the word. Traveling place to place, getting knowledge here and there.”
[Be sure to check out Shutdown Corner's NFL free-agent rankings. Click here for the list of offensive players, and click here for the list of defensive and special teams players]
First, after Eastern’s season came to an end in the FCS semifinals, the 6-2, 219-pound Garoppolo hit the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. in mid-January for a week of practice with other NFL hopefuls one week, and then on to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. the following week. That’s two offenses he learned in two weeks.
“It’s a lot of terminology,” he said, “but they try to keep it as simple as they can.”
Then it was the scouting combine in Indianapolis for four days to work out, throw and meet with scouts, coaches and team doctors — and before and after that event, he has been working out at the API facilities in California. There he has fine-tuned his game with former NFL quarterback Ty Detmer.
On Tuesday, Garoppolo made the trip to Northwestern University for that school’s pro day, as Eastern lacks an indoor facility and NU offers sanctuary to local athletes who hope to catch the eyes of scouts.
Garoppolo already has done that. He was the main attraction for the pro day, with about 18-20 prospects in attendance, and a couple of heavy hitters also made the trip to watch him perform.
Among the select guests — 31 of the 32 NFL teams registered for his pro day — were Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
As Garoppolo was warming up before the start of the event, he saw Harbaugh striding toward him. Garoppolo wasn’t sure what to expect.
"He saw me, introduced himself and said, 'Wanna throw a little?'" Garoppolo said.
So throw they did, away from the main field where the other prospects were warming up. And for 45 minutes, Garoppolo and Harbaugh were together, going through a series of throwing and footwork drills, even one where the two executed the circle drill, one of Harbaugh's favorites, to see how a quarterback throws on the run. They then spent a few minutes talking out of the public eye.
Mind you, this was before Garoppolo’s actual pro day. Any worry he’d get tired?
“Nah, my arm can go forever,” Garoppolo said. “Running the Baylor offense [at Eastern], you get good stamina with your arm.”
Harbaugh knows plenty about Garoppolo and has had his eye on him for a while, he said, and has been impressed with his journey to this point.
“Well, he’s a four-year starter, for starters,” Harbaugh told Shutdown Corner. “You’ve got the two losing seasons [as a freshman and sophomore], and then they get to seven wins and then to 12. He helped them get there.
“I really enjoyed watching him on tape. He’s got some fire. [He] goes out and beats San Diego State, really had Northern Illinois on the ropes. I enjoyed following him through the year. Wanted to see him in person. It all checked out really well.”
Did Garoppolo impress Harbaugh during the session with what is now widely regarded as his best skill — a lightning-quick release?
"Quick release, yes, but sometimes it’s too quick,” Harbaugh said. “You want to see him go through [the] whole throwing motion.
“But he can do it. He picks it up quickly. He’s got natural skill, and it’s obvious when you watch him."
Eastern was a program in flux in 2010 when Garoppolo — who received no major college scholarship offers out of high school — arrived on campus. Although he had played only two years of high school, Garoppolo played eight games as a freshman for the Panthers and opened eyes, even in the team’s two-win season.
Four years later, Garoppolo was the Walter Payton Award winner for the best FCS Player in the country, throwing for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns (against only nine INTs) as a senior, and became the school’s all-time-leading passer just ahead of — get this — Sean Payton and Tony Romo.
Yes, Eastern Illinois isn’t completely off the NFL grid. In addition to Romo and Payton, NFL coaches Mike Shanahan and Brad Childress also went to school there. It has produced a recent draft pick in 2010 fifth-rounder Otis Hudson by the Cincinnati Bengals, although he has never played an NFL snap and the team hadn’t had a player taken before Hudson since 1999.
Its last drafted quarterback (Romo was an undrafted free agent) was Jeff Christensen, who played all of four NFL games, three of them in the strike-shortened 1987 season, after being drafted in 1983.
Garoppolo will be drafted, likely even in the top 50 picks, and now the big mystery is where he could land. After the big three of Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, there appears to be a dropoff. But there has been a lot of buzz over Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Garoppollo, whom ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Bill Polian predicted would be a first-round pick when it’s all said and done.
That’s high praise from the man who drafted Jim Kelly, Kerry Collins and Peyton Manning, three of the NFL’s top 18 passing yards leaders of all time. But Garoppolo doesn’t see much value in listening to the hype.
“It’s cool to hear that,” Garoppolo said. “My brother is getting more of a kick out of it than I am. I try not to listen too much to that stuff. They fill me in. But it’s kind of a distraction. He’s not going to be the one picking me. I try not to think about it too much.”
In his 36 throws on Tuesday — 14 of which were scripted, the other 22 coming at the request of scouts — Garoppolo was mostly good. His short and intermediate accuracy was terrific, with every throw on target. His accuracy waned on a few deeper passes, including a 17-yard comeback route that wasn’t in the Panthers’ playbook.
“That one got away from me,” Garoppolo said. “That’s an NFL throw I wasn’t asked to make in college, but I have got to get it down. Otherwise, I thought I had a great day throwing it.”
Throwing predominantly to his go-to guy in college, Erik Lora — who could be a late-round draft pick — was a wise decision. Lora caught 123 of Garoppolo’s 375 completions this season and 19 of his 53 TD passes. The two even switched it up in the opener against Southern Illinois, with Lora hitting Garoppolo for a TD pass. They spent the past four years working on that chemistry through endless repetition.
“We’d run through like 200 or something plays in practice every day in college, I am not kidding,” Lora told Shutdown Corner. “It became so that we could block everything else out, just go out there and run routes. He knows what I am going to do before I even do it, step for step.”
Garoppolo says he has enjoyed the endless travel and workouts, and for a guy who threw the ball 200 times in practice and an average of more than 40 times per game, playing up-tempo, he seemingly never runs out of energy. At this point, his only worry seems to be being too visible to the scouts all of a sudden during his coast-to-coast tour that will continue with a few individual team workouts.
But really, he loves this. Even the mindless training and drilling in California with Detmer, especially when it comes to learning how to operate from under center and execute five- and seven-step drops.
Garoppolo says he is loving everything he’s soaking up, from the Senior Bowl week with the Jacksonville Jaguars, to chats and throwing sessions with coaches such as Harbaugh and O’Brien.
“Going into the all-star games, I knew the college game in and out. But I am trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can,” Garoppolo said. “I am learning so much. Little things. How blitzes are connected with the fronts, the ins and outs of the NFL game. There’s such a difference between the pro game and the college game, and I am trying to learn it. I love it. I am trying to become a master of it.”
Tuesday also was a sweet little reminder of how far he has come. In the summer of 2009, Garoppolo attended a summer camp at the same facility on Northwestern’s campus. After one day, the Wildcats’ coaches had seen enough.
“They kind of cut me. They didn’t like what they saw,” Garoppolo said with a smile. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise. I ended up at Eastern for a reason.”
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald didn’t try to run from the misevaluation.
“We knew a lot about Jimmy from right down the road at Rolling Meadows [High School]. Like most of us in the Big Ten and the MAC, we were smart in not taking him,” Fitzgerald said, tongue firmly in cheek. “That’s recruiting, right?”
Five years later, Garoppolo is playing catch with Jim Harbaugh. It doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean he wants it to end.
“This whole ride has been nuts,” Garoppolo said. “I just can’t wait to find out where I end up.”
- - - - - - -