JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — "When we interviewed him (at the NFL Scouting Combine) in Indianapolis he came in and said, ‘Yeah, I know. I’m too short, I’m too slow and my arm is not good enough. But I just went to Washington State and won 11 games.’ " — Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin on Gardner Minshew after drafting him in April
On Sunday afternoon, Michael Walker was sitting in the press box at TIAA Bank Field with his fellow Jaguars practice squad players. The rookie receiver had just watched Jacksonville’s star quarterback Nick Foles, the team’s marquee offseason addition, throw a brilliant touchdown pass to receiver D.J. Chark with 5:23 left in the first quarter, injure his left shoulder on the play (later diagnosed as a broken left clavicle that will keep him out for at least eight weeks), and quickly disappear into the tunnel with the team’s medical staff.
Minshew, a rookie sixth-round pick and Foles’ backup, quickly began warming up on the sideline.
Walker looked at cornerback Tae Hayes, who was sitting next to him.
"Watch," Walker said. "He’s going to do his thing."
Minshew entered his first NFL game, without even a preseason touchdown pass to hang his hat on, and did exactly what Walker predicted. The 2018 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year completed 22-of-25 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a little over three quarters of work against the Chiefs.
Receivers say Minshew throws an extremely catchable ball that is very similar to Foles, and there’s strong evidence to back that up, as he finished with an 88.0 completion percentage on Sunday, the best mark ever by a QB in his NFL debut (minimum 15 attempts). Not too bad for a player who was picked 178th overall in April’s draft and last year contemplated heading to Alabama to get a jump start on his coaching career before being lured to transfer from East Carolina to Washington State by coach Mike Leach. The decision proved to be the right play, as the Mississippi native led the FBS in passing yards per game and finished fourth in touchdown passes last season.
Minshew lasted until the draft’s sixth round in large part because he lacked the height teams desire at the position (6-foot-1, 225 pounds). Leach had laughed at scouts who called with questions about his quarterback’s accuracy or arm strength. He’d also point out Minshew, who in less than a year became an absolute cult hero in Pullman, is as tall as the NFL’s all-time passing leader, Drew Brees.
The Jaguars brass didn’t know what it was going to see when the rookie quarterback trotted onto the field vs. Kansas City. Minshew took most of his snaps during training camp and the preseason with players near the bottom of the roster, many of whom didn’t make it past cut day.
What the Jaguars did know plenty about was his ability to process information. Minshew showcased that during a college career that spanned one semester at Troy, a year at Northwest Mississippi Junior College (where he led the team to a national championship), two seasons at East Carolina and a season at Washington State. His time at each spot was brief, but his understanding of each offense was meticulous. The first time the Jaguars were exposed to Minshew’s vast understanding of offenses was at the combine, the same week Minshew underperformed, in his own eyes, by scoring a 42 out of a possible 50 on the Wonderlic test.
"Dude, I was hoping for a 50 on that one," Minshew said this week. "I was pretty disappointed on that. I thought I got a 50. I got it back and I was wrong. One guy beat me. (Bengals fourth-round pick) Ryan Finley beat me, so that was pretty disappointing."
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Walker, who with Minshew signed a lease to live in a new apartment together on Monday, said his roommate knows the playbook so well that he’s teaching him the receiver position as far as concepts and methods to get open within the offense.
"He’s very smart, he’s very sharp," Coughlin said after the draft in April. "He loves the game; he loves the study part of the game. He’ll be a great guy in the classroom with the coaches. He will suck up all that information up and then based on what we have seen he will go onto the practice field and carry it with him. Some guys can’t do that, or don’t do it as fast. They don’t process. They’re not as quick. I think this guy will be quick."
Minshew’s ability to take what he’s learned in the classroom and apply it on the field was evident when he entered the game last Sunday. As the backup, he hadn’t taken first-team reps in the practices leading up to the season opener, but as soon as Foles was ruled out, Minshew told the coaching staff specific aspects of the game plan that he thought worked best for him. Remember, this was a game plan that wasn’t designed for him, but he had it down cold.
This Sunday, in his first ever NFL start, Minshew will take a week’s worth of work designed specifically for him onto the field in Houston against the Texans. Or will he?
"The question with Flip (offensive coordinator John DeFilippo) and (quarterbacks coach) Scott (Milanovich) in the meeting room was, ‘Do we practice him this week against our next opponent or do we just kind of let him run the scout team and just throw him out there again?,’ " Marrone joked to me this week. "Are we going to screw him up? Are we going to screw this kid up?"
All kidding aside, the Jaguars will now have at least eight weeks of a mustachioed, headband-wearing quarterback running their offense. They still don’t know exactly what to expect from Minshew, but Sunday gave them a sense of what they might be working with.
"We’re excited," Marrone told me this week. "I think there’s a difference if someone goes out there, for lack of a better term, you know I don’t want to curse, but (do) whatever in the bed. Then all of a sudden now we’re going ‘OK, what do we have?’ Let’s go. Let’s see what this guy is."
Follow James Palmer on Twitter @JamesPalmerTV.
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