AMHERST, Mass. - When Todd Stafford verbally committed to play football at the University of Massachusetts, something seemed a little different.
UMass freshman quarterback Todd Stafford/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Fans of the Minutemen weren't used to early verbals. In fact, most of the time the fruits of a UMass recruiting class didn't materialize until right around Signing Day. So, it was a welcome-to-the-FBS moment when the 6-foot-6 gunslinger from Connecticut closed up his recruiting in March 2012 – nearly a full year before it was time to sign his Letter of Intent.
Stafford was also different in other ways. Despite film showing high-end throwing power and pinpoint accuracy, there wasn't much out there on how good the kid actually was. When recruiting experts spoke to the Maroon Musket during the 2013 recruiting cycle, there were three very different responses: 1) “He's an absolute steal,” 2) “He's going to need a lot of work,” and 3) “Who is Todd Stafford?”
The disparate opinions likely had to do with the fact that Stafford missed nearly two high school seasons with knee injuries. In reality, Stafford really only played his senior year at the Brunswick School.
Apparently that was enough, as schools like Western Michigan, Duke and Boston College showed up late with football offers. But Stafford, appreciative of the chance UMass extended early, stayed true to his verbal and stuck with head coach Charley Molnar and the Minutemen.
"I definitely doubted my future after the second knee injury," Stafford told Scott Ericson of the Greenwich Time after National Signing Day. "I have been waiting for this for 18 years and all of a sudden I thought `I might not be able to do this.' UMass stuck out a hand for me when nobody else did and I wanted them to know I appreciated that."
Now Stafford is on campus and in pads, and he is already the No. 3 quarterback on the team, according to Molnar. While everyone, including starting quarterback Mike Wegzyn, is impressed with the freshman's ability, UMass is making the big fella take baby steps.
“We're talking to him about his footwork, his drop, the depth of his drop, his first step and where his second step is located,” Molnar said. “We haven't even talked about throwing the ball, yet. So he's taking a step back before he can go forward.”
The biggest leap is learning UMass' complicated playbook. Molnar spent most of 2012 transitioning the Minutemen from a grinding pro style offense to a new, fast-paced spread. Wegzyn and backup A.J. Doyle had their share of baby-giraffe moments as they attempted to implement the no-huddle attack.
Todd Stafford tossed the ball during fall camp/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Wegzyn, who as a redshirt freshman was thrown to the wolves last year, is showing Stafford the ropes.
“He's getting it down for sure. Quarterback is a hard spot because you have to know what everyone is doing. There is a lot on his plate right now for sure, but I think we're seeing what he can do already,” Wegzyn said. “I try to tell him to keep a level head and not to listen to what other people say. I tell him to keep grinding away, keep practicing, and keep your head in the playbook and watching film.”
Stafford acknowledged that, in college football, the learning curve is very steep.
“The speed and playbook are much different than high school. There is a lot of speed, and the playbook is really extensive. It's coming along pretty well, but I'm learning day by day,” Stafford said. “(Doyle), (Matt) Quinn and Mike (Wegzyn) have been helping me out every day. They are just helping me with the plays, and they've done a really good job getting me up to speed.”
Stafford practiced with teammates during the summer in order to get a head start, but fall camp is much different than running around without coaches. Wegzyn compared the fall camp to “drinking water out of a hose” for a young quarterback.
“You're trying to drink it all at once, but it's impossible,” he said.
Part of the learning curve is also dealing with off-the-field distractions and the limelight of being a Division I quarterback. When the Maroon Musket asked to an interview the freshman after practice, Stafford looked at the UMass media relations employee, pointed at himself and said, “Wait, they want to talk to me?”
Molnar is cautious about throwing too much at the new guy, but he's not shy about what he sees for Stafford's future. While the kid that UMass took a chance on has a ways to go, Molnar notices little moments of greatness.
“Some days he looks like he'll be an NFL draft pick - when he gets everything right,” Molnar said, smiling.