By Adam Hoge-
MOBILE, Ala. (CBS) — Garoppolo. It’s Italian. Duh.
“It ends in a vowel,” the quarterback said.
It’s not just the catchy name and witty one-liners that has made Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the star of Senior Bowl week. Sure, his made-for-TV smile attracts the cameras too, but the kid also happens to be a pretty good football player.
Eastern Illinois doesn’t have the benefit of a network television contract, so if you want to see the Panthers play during the season, your best bet is to make the trek to Charleston, Ill., a town of 21,000-plus located about an hour south of Champaign.
You probably didn’t make the trip, but NFL scouts, including some from the Chicago Bears, did. They had heard the rumors. Eastern Illinois, home of Tony Romo, had another up-and-coming quarterback that somehow slipped through the recruiting cracks and landed in little known Charleston.
“I didn’t start quarterbacking until junior year (of high school),” Garoppolo said. “I’m sure that had something to do with it.”
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He never thought he was going to be a quarterback. He spent the first two years of his high school career playing linebacker.
“I always thought I’d be a defensive guy,” Garoppolo said.
But Rolling Meadows High School didn’t have a quarterback going into his junior year and his coach’s best solution was to move Garoppolo to quarterback.
“I said, ’Sure, why not?’ And the rest is history.”
But the position switch didn’t result in FBS scholarships. Garoppolo’s only college offers came from Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Illinois State and Montana State — all FCS schools.
Garoppolo chose Eastern because he “fell in love with it” during his visit. It wasn’t because of the prospect of immediate playing time, or anything like that. In fact, Garoppolo thought he was going to red shirt his freshman year.
“They told me not to come to summer camp or anything,” he said. “So I came into fall camp thinking I was going to red shirt and four games in, they pulled the red shirt I was out there. It was a bit of a shock, but I made the best of what I could. We struggled, but we were a young team at the time, so it really helped us in the future.”
That would be the last time he struggled for more than a game or two. Garoppolo improved dramatically as a sophomore, which is when he first heard rumblings that he might have a future in the NFL.
“Coaches started to say things here and there and you get hints from people,” the quarterback said. “It kind of became a reality for me and I’m just chasing the dream right now.”
This portion of the dream has brought him to Mobile, Ala. where front office executives, scouts and coaches from every NFL team have gathered to watch the top seniors in practices leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl.
Garoppolo was a late addition to the festivities at Ladd-Pebbles Stadium, which right now is serving as the biggest stage he’s ever stood on. The quarterback first impressed scouts in practices leading up to the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla last week. and he earned a rare promotion to the Senior Bowl when Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron declined his invitation.
“My agent told me about it late in the week and there really wasn’t a question,” Garoppolo said. “You can’t pass up an opportunity like this to play in the Senior Bowl with the best athletes in the nation so it was a pretty choice.”
By Monday, just two days after earning MVP honors at the East-West Shrine Game, Garoppolo was on the practice field in Mobile impressing a much larger group of potential employers with the lightning quick release he’s quickly becoming known for.
And by Tuesday, it was pretty obvious that Garoppolo was at least the second-best quarterback in Mobile for the game, with only Fresno State’s Derek Carr garnering more early praise around town.
So how did an Arlington Heights kid with no FBS scholarship offers suddenly become a better quarterback than college football stars like Tahj Boyd, Logan Thomas and Stephen Morris (all of whom are also at the Senior Bowl this week)?
Well, in all likelihood, it probably didn’t suddenly happen. Garoppolo has shown this kind of talent at the FCS level for the last three years and it just took awhile for the hype to build.
And now, it’s spreading like wildfire.
More importantly, the hype is real.
While Garoppolo arrived on the NFL radar before this season, scouts wanted to see him compete against better talent and he hasn’t disappointed the last two weeks. While working with unfamiliar coaches and wide receivers, Garoppolo has been accurate and effective despite facing tougher competition and adjusting to new offensive schemes.
The quarterback openly admits the biggest thing he needs to work on is his footwork, mainly because he operated primarily out of the shotgun in college and isn’t used to 3-, 5- and 7-step drops.
But apparently Garoppolo is a quick learner.
“I think his footwork is pretty good,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who is working closest to Garoppolo in Mobile this week, said. “I think he’s done a nice job and throws with a nice base and good feet, so it’s pretty neat to see.”
The Jaguars happen to be in need of a quarterback like Garoppolo, too. Of course, they’re one of many teams who need a quarterback, which is why Garoppolo may move up draft boards quickly, especially with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota electing to stay in school and Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger suffering torn ACLs.
Murray and Mettenberger were supposed to be the stars of the Senior Bowl — not Garoppolo.
So while some may have been wondering Monday what that guy from Eastern Illinois was doing in Mobile, they likely figured it out quickly.
“I don’t really want to fit in here,” Garoppolo said. “I want to stand out, just by going above and beyond everyone and hopefully making a mark.”
That’s something he’s used to doing, having played in Tony Romo’s shadow at Eastern Illinois and eventually breaking the Dallas Cowboys quarterback’s school record for career passing touchdowns.
Around Eastern, Romo is still the face of the football program and in all honesty, the entire school.
“You could imagine, yeah,” Garoppolo said when asked if Romo’s face is plastered around the halls at Eastern. “Why wouldn’t it be, though? He did something great for Eastern.”
After Garoppolo’s season and college career ended with a playoff loss to Towson in December, Romo gave Garoppolo a phone call to congratulate him on his accomplishments. The two have not spoken in person, but Garoppolo looks forward to that happening soon.
And maybe in the future, if Garoppolo’s current success carries over to the next level, Romo’s face will have company on the walls around Eastern Illinois.
“Hopefully one day,” Garoppolo said.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.