Eastern Illinois University Panthers
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Rolling Meadows High School
The National Football League has benefitted from an influx of quarterback talent in recent years that have not hailed from Bowl Championship Series conferences. The Baltimore Ravens have reaped success with Joe Flacco (Delaware) at the helm and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) is on the cusp of moving to the top of the "quarterback food chain" in 2014 after guiding the 49ers deep into back-to-back playoff appearances.
When most fans talk about college football before the 2013 season, there was little talk about what was developing at Eastern Illinois University. Their quarterback-of-note was Tony Romo, who left the Panthers program after winning the coveted Walter Payton Award after the 2002 campaign to become the free agent "Cinderella Story" for the Dallas Cowboys for the next decade. Prior to Romo's emergence, EIU was led by another quarterback who would go on to some success in the NFL – Sean Payton.
By the time the 2013 season had included, not only were fans well aware that Eastern Illinois had produced another Walter Payton Award winner (given to the best performer in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision ranks) in one James "Jimmy" Garoppolo. Based on his turnaround season that saw him establish a slew of school and Ohio Valley Conference records, the Romo-like mobile passer emerged as the star at the 2014 East-West Shrine Game.
His performance throughout the week-long practices earned him a late invitation to the prestigious Senior Bowl. Much like he did at the East-West scrimmages, Garoppolo did not disappoint, as more than several quarterback-needy teams put him under the microscope.
What those teams found was that the quarterback's 2013 season, where he led the nation in passing yardage (5,050), yards passing per game (360.71 ypg) and touchdown passes (53), while also finishing third in passing efficiency (168.3 rating) and total offense (5,112 yards), that this was a player that was more than ready to challenge Teddy Bridgewater, John Manziel, Derek Carr and Blake Bortles for the right to garner first-round draft attention.
Gaining attention of football organization personnel had been difficult for the youngster while attending Rolling Meadows High School. Garoppolo was hoping to convince the Northwestern University coaching staff that they would be best served offering him a college scholarship. He even ventured to Evanston, trying to impress their head coach. While he left a positive impression with Pat Fitzgerald, he never received that scholarship offer.
"We really liked Jimmy a lot," Pat Fitzgerald said of the Panthers' quarterback. Garoppolo had picked up scholarship offers from Eastern Illinois, Illinois State, and Montana State, and had received interest from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Northern Illinois, Purdue, and a number of other schools, but, on that particular summer day, he was auditioning for an offer in front of Northwestern coaches, and put on an impressive showing. He was very close to receiving an offer.
"To be honest, I was shocked that (NU running backs coach Matt MacPherson) didn't offer him," Fitzgerald said. Garoppolo waited and hoped to receive addition scholarship offers, but nothing developed. On January 20th, 2010, just 10 days shy of National Signing Day, he committed to Eastern Illinois. Years after Garoppolo's appearance at NU's camp, Pat Fitzgerald is still impressed with him.
"Not only is he a really solid quarterback, but he's a good athlete and a great kid," Fitzgerald said of Garoppolo. "He did a great job with Rolling Meadows and he's as advertised on tape. I thought watching him our summer study, last year he really came on. For a young guy getting his first opportunity, he was impressive. I thought Jimmy really executed well and threw the ball very successfully. I'm not surprised; I think he's really talented."
During his time at Rolling Meadows High School, the dual-threat quarterback put together an impressive junior season, passing for 2,072 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 152-of-253 passes (60.085). He also added 552 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Garoppolo received Northwest Suburban All-Area honors during his senior prep season in 2009. He guided the team to the Mid-Suburban East League championships and a berth in the Illinois High School Athletic Association Class 7A playoffs. He finished his final season throwing for 1,888 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also escaped pressure regularly, totaling 563 yards with seven touchdowns rushing.
Eastern Illinois had long ranked as one of the better foundations in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. When he arrived on campus as a true freshman in 2010, the Panthers were coming off a 2009 campaign that saw them compile an 8-4 record that saw them capture the Ohio Valley Conference crown with a 6-2 mark to earn a playoff berth.
However, EIU was about to undergo a transition, one that would conclude with back-to-back 2-9 records during Garoppolo's first two seasons with the team. A coaching change prior to the 2012 season saw new mentor Dino Babers turn the offense over to his junior signal-caller. The Panthers improved to 7-5 in 2011 and then recorded a 12-2 season in 2013, as Garoppolo was named the best player in his division when awarded the coveted Walter Payton Award.
During his first season on campus, Garoppolo was named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference Newcomer Team. He spent the first three games on the bench, but was then thrust into the starting lineup. While the team managed just two victories, the "baptism under fire" that the quarterback received would benefit him in later seasons, especially his last one for Eastern Illinois. He finished with 1,639 yards and 14 touchdowns on 124-of-211 passes (58.77%), but faced under constant pressure, he was also intercepted 13 times, along with being held to minus 68 yards on 41 carries.
Garoppolo and the Panthers kicked off the 2011 campaign with an impressive come-from-behind victory over rival Illinois State. He led a fourth quarter comeback, which included two touchdown passes and a touchdown run. He finished the game with 301 passing yards and four total touchdowns, while guiding his team to a 33-26 victory over the Red-birds. That would be one of the few bright spots during his sophomore season, as EIU would again plunge to the bottom of the conference standings based on their 2-9 record.
Garoppolo did improve in all of the statistical categories, though. He hit on 217-of-349 passes (62.18%) for 2,644 yards and twenty touchdowns, but opponents again feasted on his errant throws, resulting in 14 interceptions. He ranked 36th in the nation with a 136.7 passing efficiency rating and was 33rd with an average of 234.82 yards per game in total offense. He also placed second in the league with an average of 240.36 aerial yards per game.
With Dino Babers opening up the offense, Garoppolo enjoyed a breakout season as a junior, setting a new conference season-record with 3,823 yards passing, guiding the team to a 7-5 record, as they became just the fourth team in the 65-year OVC history to finish last one season, only to win the league title the next year.
Garoppolo finished tenth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award and was named All-OVC second team after completing 331-of-540 tosses (61.3%) that included 31 touchdowns, then, the second-highest scoring mark in a season by a Panther. He was still a "favorite" for opposing teams, as he had 15 of his attempts intercepted, but he also finished second in the OVC and seventh in the nation in total offense (318.58 ypg).
That junior season set the team and their quarterback up for their finest campaign ever in 2013, as Eastern Illinois won the OVC title with a 12-2 record, the most victories in the conference since Eastern Kentucky went undefeated (13-0) in 1982. Garoppolo not only earned Walter Payton Award honors, but he was named the FCS Offensive Player of the Year, OVC Offensive Player of the Year, unanimous All-OVC and consensus first-team All-American.
Garoppolo set school and league season-records with 53 touchdown tosses. He was successful on 375-of-568 passes (66.02%) for 5,050 yards and reduced his interception figures to only nine. His average of 26.79 pass completions per game ranked fifth in the nation, ranking third with a passing efficiency rating of 168.3. His touchdowns, yards passing and average passing yards per game totals were all tops in the FCS ranks.
"Jimmy has had the best season from a college quarterback that I have ever seen, with the exception of maybe Robert Griffin when he won the Heisman at Baylor," said EIU coach Dino Babers, in his second season since arriving from Baylor. "He is the engine that makes us go. I'm happy for Jimmy, his family and his teammates for all the success he has had on the field this season and these types of awards are rightly deserved."
During the week-long scrimmages in Mobile, Alabama prior to the 2014 Senior Bowl, Garoppolo was the major "buzz word" among NFL personnel and the media in attendance. He struck up an instant friendship with new Minnesota Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer, as both compared their careers coming up through the ranks. The quarterback had plenty of bragging rights over the new Vikings coach when they talked, but the entire Minnesota organization walked away impressed on how well the quarterback has handled the immersion into different offensive schemes and techniques over the last month of his NFL crash course.
Many talent evaluators took notice to the number of characteristics that stand out, most notably, his lightning-quick release. Zimmer played quarterback and linebacker for Illinois State. When playing Zimmer's alma mater in 2013, Garoppolo set an Eastern Illinois record with seven touchdown tosses. Garoppolo played linebacker in high school, too, before his team needed a quarterback in his junior year and he was asked to fill the void. "I always thought I would be a defensive guy. We didn't have a quarterback going into my junior year and coach asked me if I wanted to try it out and I was like, ‘Sure, why not?' The rest is history," he said.
The history, however, was record-setting history. In his senior season, he threw for 5,050 yards, 53 touchdowns, nine interceptions and had 11 games with 300 yards passing or more, including five with 400 or more. For his career, he finished with 13,156 yards and 118 touchdowns. Despite those gaudy numbers, Garoppolo needed Alabama QB A.J. McCarron to turn down an invitation to the Senior Bowl in order for the small-school candidate to get his invite after playing well at the East-West Shrine Game.
Garoppolo started all 45 games that he appeared in for Eastern Illinois…After sitting out his first three games in a Panthers uniform, he went on to complete 1,047-of-1,668 passes (62.77%) for 13,151 yards, 118 touchdowns and 51 interceptions…Added eight touchdowns on 260 carries that resulted in losses totaling 67 yards…Caught his first career pass for a 10-yard touchdown in 2013 and recorded five solo tackles…Generated 13,089 yards in total offense on 1,928 plays and was responsible for 126 touchdowns…Also handled some "pooch" punting chores, kicking nine times for 287 yards (31.89 avg) that included seven of those attempts downed inside the 20-yard line…Among active NCAA Football Championship Division performers, Garoppolo led the nation in yards passing, touchdowns passing, completions (one of three to complete at least 1,000 passes) and touchdowns responsible for (one of four to record at least 100). He also ranks second in yards passing per game (292.24 ypc), total offense plays and interceptions thrown. He placed fourth with an average of 290.87 total yards per game and pass attempts per game (37.07), ranking third with an average of 23.27 pass completions and in total amount of pass attempts.