Razzle dazzle: The secret behind the country’s top high school QB mill

AUSTIN, Texas – The game is called “Razzle” at Lake Travis High School. In the micro, it’s a hybrid of Ultimate Frisbee and pick-up football. In the macro, it’s the connective tissue that links the generations who’ve come through the most impressive continuous public-school quarterback pipeline in the country.

Each January, when bowl games have passed and NFL seasons have ended, the Lake Travis quarterbacks from the past decade or so return home. They shoot out a group text and congregate in the school’s massive football practice facility.

It’s not uncommon to find Cleveland Browns quarterback Garrett Gilbert whizzing passes to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, both of whom starred for the high school. The Brewer brothers – Michael of Virginia Tech/Texas Tech and Charlie of current Baylor fame – usually roll in, along with a wave of former receivers and teammates. “You can guess,” laughs Charlie Brewer, “who talks the most trash.” He unnecessarily adds, “Baker.”

Around here, Lake Travis quarterbacks making noise in college and beyond has become as common as “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers.

The last nine starting quarterbacks at Lake Travis High School have earned Division I scholarships, which includes current Texas-bound starter Hudson Card. (Don’t worry, No. 10 is waiting.)

How did Lake Travis end up producing one of the country’s most prolific runs of quarterbacks? “The tradition has spawned this younger generation of grade school and middle school kids to do anything and everything to be the starting quarterback there,” Texas coach Tom Herman said, speaking generally about the school.

The roots of the trend, in a way, are grounded in a coaching philosophy that resembles the uninhibited and free-wheeling games of Razzle. Former Lake Travis coach Chad Morris, now the head coach at Arkansas, showed up in 2008 with a distinct offensive coaching philosophy. “Attack like he’s swinging an ax,” jokes Hank Carter, the current Lake Travis coach.

Baker Mayfield is the most well-known quarterback to come out of Lake Travis, but there are plenty other Division-I QBs from the Austin high school. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Baker Mayfield is the most well-known quarterback to come out of Lake Travis, but there are plenty other Division-I QBs from the Austin high school. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Morris and Carter showed up together in 2008, crashing for three nights at a Super 8 nearly 40 minutes away because of lack of local options. Back then, Lake Travis had 1,700 students enrolled, and the sleepy area had only a McDonald’s and a catfish joint that stayed open past 9 p.m.

More than a decade later, the rise of Lake Travis football, combined with a humming economy, has helped turn the school and area about 20 miles west of downtown Austin into a destination for more than quarterbacks. There are 3,300 students in the school and Carter estimates more than 50 places to eat after dark.

There’s been no magic scheme or X’s and O’s guru through the years, as five different offensive coordinators have been play-callers for the six state titles since 2007. As Carter enters his 12th season at the school and 10th as head coach, the tactics and verbiage have changed multiple times. But the ax swinging hasn’t.

“I’ve got to find reasons to attract our kids in the community to want to play football,” Carter said. “It’s fun to throw and catch the football. It’s not always fun to run the counter trey 43 times. There's more to do in this community than just play football, and we need to be cognizant of that.”

Carter is one of the most successful Texas high school coaches and makes more than $150,000 per year. He’s resisted college opportunities for much the same reason his former quarterbacks come back every January to play Razzle. “Be careful trying to be happier than happy,” he said, repeating some advice from his father. “And we’re pretty happy around here.”

Passing the torch

There are plenty of weighty accomplishments that the Lake Travis Nine have compiled since this run began in 2006. Garrett Gilbert won Gatorade Player of the Year in high school after three state titles. Baker Mayfield emerged as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft after walking on at two colleges. Charlie Brewer broke the national high school record by completing a stupefying 77.4 percent of his passes.

But the most impressive ax tossed by any of the Cavaliers may go to Todd Reesing, the first quarterback in Lake Travis’ run. Millennials may only have blurry memories of Reesing, but he led Kansas to an Orange Bowl victory during the 2007 season. Consider this: Kansas went 12-1 that season and has won 12 games the past six seasons.

If Kansas in the Top 10 sounds like a tall tale, it happened in part because Reesing – 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds – emerged as Lake Travis’ first undersized and under-recruited quarterback.

“Around here they say he was Baker before Baker,” Carter said. “He had a lot of the same moxie, the same type of leadership style.”

One of the fascinating things about the run of quarterbacks at Lake Travis is the different sizes, systems and trajectories they’ve gone on. Some didn’t pan out. Collin LaGasse from the class of 2012 ended up as a receiver at SMU. Dominic DeLira from 2015 ended up transferring out of Iowa State. Gilbert fizzled at Texas before reviving his career at SMU and carving out a six-year career as an NFL backup.

The most parallels come from Reesing and Mayfield, who both ended up dominating college football for long stretches. Reesing finished his Kansas career with 90 touchdown passes and completing nearly 64 percent of his passes. He carried around a copy of “The Economist” in his backpack during college, a sign he knew that the NFL wouldn’t come calling. (After getting cut from the CFL, he’s worked in finance.)

Fellow Lake Travis High School alums and Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (6) and Garrett Gilbert (3) talk during training camp. (USA Today)
Fellow Lake Travis High School alums and Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Baker Mayfield (6) and Garrett Gilbert (3) talk during training camp. (USA Today)

Mayfield’s overlooked recruiting story is well told, but it’s predicated on his unflappable belief in himself that was fostered by seeing what his predecessors accomplished. With schools like Army and Air Force and Rice and FAU begging to take him, Mayfield maintained to Carter that he wanted to “play big-time ball.” He wasn’t being dismissive of other schools, just ambitious and confident.

Carter recalls Oregon State coming in right before signing day to watch him throw. They loved him, but didn’t offer. Mayfield had thrown for 45 touchdowns and just five interceptions as a senior at Lake Travis. Mike Leach offered him at Washington State, but he’d offered another quarterback simultaneously and rescinded after that quarterback committed.

A visit to Texas Tech and a strong connection with former Tech OC Eric Morris helped Mayfield end up walking on in Lubbock, before he transferred to Oklahoma. Mayfield bloomed so late that Carter doesn’t fault schools like Texas, who typically get a quarterback commitment early in the process, for missing on him. “When all of a sudden the guy 20 minutes down the road becomes a freak,” he said, “well the timing didn't work out for you.”

Mayfield, of course, went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in 2017 and become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. While his ascent from walk-on to NFL starter has helped usher him into the mainstream, his loyalty to Lake Travis may best shine through in his insistence on perpetuating the rivalry with Austin Westlake. That school, of course, has an impressive quarterback lineage in its own right, producing Drew Brees, Nick Foles and current UT star Sam Ehlinger. Mayfield lobbed a Sooner-to-Longhorn bomb earlier this year that doubled as a high-school rivalry shot: “He couldn’t even beat Lake Travis,” Mayfield said of Ehlinger, still throwing axes for the Cavaliers.

How they built a tradition

The ethos of all this quarterback success in Austin can be traced, in many ways, back to Eustace High School in the summer of 1994. Before Hank Carter’s senior year of high school in a wisp of a town between Dallas and Tyler, he met the new assistant coach fresh from graduation at Texas A&M. Chad Morris showed up rocking the high-cut Nike-branded coaching shorts that were popular in that day. They were gold.

Morris coached the quarterbacks and the running backs, demanding immediately that both positions be on the field 15 minutes before practice started. Morris also moonlighted as basketball coach, with his breakneck 94-32 philosophy demanding Eustace players guard 94 feet for 32 minutes.

It was all quaint back then, as Morris’ now wife, Paula, substitute taught in Carter’s typing class. Carter played quarterback and shooting guard, and he recalls his hoops team went from three wins the previous year to 17 under Morris.

“He has an unquenchable thirst for getting better and learning and making sure that what he's doing is at the cutting edge,” Carter said. “That rubs off on the kids, where they feel like they’re doing things that no one else has done. He’s got a way of making you feel special.”

By the time Morris arrived at Lake Travis in 2008, with Carter riding shotgun as his defensive coordinator, the quarterback run had already begun. Reesing was starring for Mark Mangino at Kansas and Gilbert had led Lake Travis, coached by Jeff Dicus, to the state title in 2007.

Over the next two seasons, Lake Travis went 32-0 and Morris joined Todd Graham on the Tulsa staff. That began his remarkable ascent from high school coach to SEC head coach in less than a decade, even recruiting Deshaun Watson to Clemson along the way. “I don't think Coach Morris will stop until he is maybe the head coach of the Patriots,” Carter jokes.

Carter brings a mix of Morris’ ambition with the sensibilities his father had by coaching and working in the same town for 42 years. (His mother taught nearby.) That’s why after winning state titles his first two seasons as head coach, Carter was just getting going.

The quarterback streak kept on humming after Gilbert (2009), with Michael Brewer (2011), LaGasse (2012), Mayfield (2013) and DeLira (2015) all starring and moving to bigger stages. Somewhere amid Mayfield’s fly route to the top echelon of football, the stigma of Lake Travis quarterbacks being “system guys” got left in the dust.

“These aren’t system guys at all because there's been four different offensive coordinators too, you know?” Carter said. “They're just really good quarterbacks and good football players.”

Along with the two Lake Travis quarterbacks in the Browns quarterback room, there’s plenty of other crossover symmetry. After Charlie Brewer finished his record-setting high school career in 2017, Matthew Baldwin started for one season in 2018 before landing a scholarship to Ohio State. He spent a year there before transferring back to TCU where he’ll sit out this season. With Baldwin at TCU, Brewer at Baylor and Card headed to Texas, nearly one-third of the 10-team Big 12 will have a Lake Travis quarterback on their roster next year.

“There’s such an expectation level,” said Baylor coach Matt Rhule, who signed Brewer without ever meeting him or seeing him play. “This is what it means to be the starting quarterback at Lake Travis.”

Baylor Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) rushes against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first quarter in the 2018 Texas Bowl at NRG Stadium. (USA Today)
Baylor Bears quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) rushes against the Vanderbilt Commodores in the first quarter in the 2018 Texas Bowl at NRG Stadium. (USA Today)

Who’s got next?

Lake Travis boasts a spacious field house, a weight room that would fit in at a MAC school and an Under Armour sponsorship. On a steamy June afternoon, Card and his backup, Nate Yarnell, are whizzing passes to their buddies after an offseason workout.

The banners on the wall track state champions, and there hasn’t been one in these parts since 2016. For a place that won an unprecedented five consecutive titles from 2007-11, that dip hasn’t gone unnoticed.

With his folksy charm that contrasts the program’s rigid discipline, Carter could come straight from a “Friday Night Lights” casting call. He’s 116-15 as head coach and holds the school record for both wins and state titles (3).

It’s no surprise that he’s helped cultivate a culture where winning state, as they say in these parts, is an expectation.

“That’s the standard,” Card said. “I’d say state every year is our goal. It’s tough to meet, but I mean it makes us work harder and unite with one another.”

Card will be starting for his second year under offensive coordinator Will Stein, a sharp 29-year-old who played quarterback at Louisville. Stein’s hiring over from his job as an analyst at the University of Texas two years ago may be the most telling example of the school’s commitment to football. Stein worked under both Charlie Strong and Herman, making about $48,500 in his final year there. As a teacher and offensive coordinator at Lake Travis, he said he’s making “roughly around $70,000” when considering his teaching salary and money from camps.

Stein’s Gumpian trip through football helped shape his offense, as he played at Louisville under these quarterback coaches – Purdue coach Jeff Brohm (2008), Texas Tech coach Matt Wells (2009), Eagles OC Mike Groh (2010) and Pittsburgh OC Shawn Watson (2011-12). He’s also worked under Herman, Strong and Bobby Petrino, among others, which meant a hybrid of philosophies.

Stein is in charge of QBs Nos. 9 and 10 in the lineage, with Card already considered one of the best players in all of high school football. Carter jokingly calls Stein’s offense FTS – short for Feed The Studs – which means that Card will be exploiting mismatches all season. Things will look familiar when Card arrives in Austin, as Stein employs Herman’s three-level passing game and many of the offensive formations that Card will be running there.

It may be the highest compliment to Carter’s program that backup Nate Yarnell has scholarship offers from both Tulsa and Houston before he’s ever started a game. Patience at Lake Travis has shown to pay dividends. “I love this place,” Yarnell said. “I wouldn't trade this place for anywhere, so I'm in here for the long haul.”

Carter is confident that Yarnell will get plenty of interest, as most springs there are 150 different college coaches and assistants at Lake Travis watching practice and scrimmages.

“I don’t think kids slip through the cracks in Texas much anymore,” Carter said. “Certainly not at Lake Travis High School. Whether you start 60 games or six, if you can play there's been enough of a track record here.”

If they need a reminder, pop by the field house sometime in early January. (Or, later, if the Browns make the playoffs.) There will be a bustling game of Razzle, and the talent on the field will be the best reminder of Lake Travis’ remarkable quarterback lineage. Don’t be surprised by who’s talking the most trash.

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