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Griffin's fast start has excitement booming with Baylor

9/19/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin isn't surprised he's earned a starting job quickly during his freshman season. But his early results might be another story.

His rapid start has quickly become one of the most remarkable September stories in college football heading into the Bears' game tonight against Connecticut (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Griffin, a world-class quarter-miler, is leading the nation's quarterbacks in rushing despite not playing every quarter this season.

Most importantly, he's providing some hope for the downtrodden Baylor program that has not made a bowl trip since the Big 12 was formed.

Griffin's effort against Washington State last week could be an indication of what is in front of him for the next few seasons. He rushed for a school-record 217 yards and averaged a Big 12 record 19.7 yards per carry in a 45-17 victory that was the Bears' first victory over a FBS non-conference opponent since 1998. Included in his virtuoso performance were carries of 58, 58 and 57 yards.

"You have to have confidence in your team's ability and your own," Griffin said. "But I didn't come into my freshman season thinking I was going to run for 217 yards. I don't think I've ever run that much in one game before. It's a good sign of what our offense can produce when everything is clicking for us."

After making his debut in the second quarter of the Bears' season-opening loss to Wake Forest, Griffin has barely caught his breath. He ranks 29th in the nation in rushing and is 13th in passing efficiency.

Most amazingly, Griffin is only 18 years old.

"He's an exceptional athlete and is exceptionally mature for his age," Baylor coach Art Briles said. "The things he's done haven't surprised us. He's very poised, confident and athletic."

That might be one of Briles' biggest understatements ever. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Griffin graduated from high school early to start with the Baylor program. And while his old high-school friends were getting ready for their prom, Griffin won the Big 12 400-meter hurdles championship, and finished third in the NCAA outdoor meet at the distance. He also competed in the U.S. Olympic trials.

Earlier this summer, Griffin said that he believed he could have made the Olympic team if he had concentrated on training for track.

Who's to doubt him after watching his football career begin?

"I think things have escalated for me fast and for the better," Griffin said. "Most freshmen who are brand-new like me don't get the chance to earn the respect of their program. It's been a blessing for me to start like I have. And these guys trust in what we are able to accomplish together."

Earlier in training camp, he was involved in a tight battle with former Miami transfer Kirby Freeman and incumbent Blake Szymanski for the starting job.

Briles opted to start Freeman in the opener against Wake Forest, but inserted Griffin into the lineup early in the second quarter after the Bears fell into an early hole.

After Griffin passed for 125 yards against the Demon Deacons, Briles wasted little time in making his determination. He announced Griffin would be his starter on the day after the game, despite two fumbles on botched handoffs.

"He provided a spark, which is what he has to do for us," Briles said. "I don't care what it says on his birth certificate."

Griffin didn't learn of his promotion until a couple of days later. But when it came, he was ready.

"Coach Briles told the newspaper, but he didn't tell me," Griffin said. "I'm not a big newspaper reader so I didn't know about it, but eventually I found out. It didn't shock me when it came."

His Baylor teammates have quickly gravitated to him as a leader despite his youth. He quickly earned their admiration because of his tenacity in the weight room, earning the nickname of "Rambo" because of his work.

Before the season started, it figured that Griffin might have to duplicate some of that character's famous one-man assaults to have success with this team.

But after the two recent victories, that might not be the case. The Bears have developed some nice complimentary parts that will help Griffin's growth.

A veteran offensive line has a combined 94 starts heading into the Connecticut game. Wide receiver David Gettis is one of the Big 12's fastest players. And tailback Jay Finley has emerged as a steady rushing threat, producing games of 91 and 119 yards in Baylor's two recent victories.

Those developments have provided hope for the future. The Bears have lost 12 straight conference games, but should be more competitive as Griffin grows with the offense.

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall compared Griffin to West Virginia's Pat White because of his athleticism. And Wake Forest's Jim Grobe is already worrying about facing the Bears in the return game next season.

"He just gave us fits," Grobe said. "I'm definitely not looking forward to playing them again."

Despite the fast early start, Griffin remains grounded knowing what is still ahead of him.

"It's a quarterback's job not to have any personal goals," Griffin said. "Our main focus is to just win football games and that's how it is for me, too. If you come out and win, you've done your job. And that's what I want to keep doing."