- David Ubben, College Football
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WACO, Texas -- Nick Florence didn't have to come to Baylor. He didn't have to stay.
If football has been his only reason for coming to Waco, it'd be easy to see why he might've gone elsewhere.
But Florence did.
He stepped in as a freshman when future Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III tore his ACL, then stepped off the stage for the next two seasons while Griffin wrote his legacy.
Plenty of quarterbacks would have waved goodbye.
Florence didn't lose a game as a freshman at South Garland (Texas) High School. A year later, he took over the varsity squad in midseason and carried the team to a third-round loss in the state playoffs to Lufkin, led by Dez Bryant, now a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.
"The QB that started the year as the starter, every opportunity Nick had, he would encourage him," said Mickey Moss, Florence's high school coach who now heads up a program in Rockwall, Texas. Throughout his career, Moss has put about 50 players into Division I programs like Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri.
"When Nick took over, he'd lead the senior linemen and just encourage them and give them confidence and praise. I was like, 'I’ve never seen a kid like this who had such confidence and maturity.'"
Florence earned a reputation on and off the field. Before school began, he and teammates would walk through the school's hallways while praying for classmates who would congregate there during the school year, which began in a few weeks. When school began, he'd join his twin brother, Luke, and others to often pray for classmates before class during the week.
"That’s just who he was and he believed in making a difference in the lives of other people," Moss said. "His leadership? He’s just got it."
His youth pastor at Lake Highlands Church in Dallas eventually took a job at Antioch Community Church in Waco, and Florence wanted to join him.
Florence pestered Moss to make a few calls down to Baylor. Moss did so and asked coaches if they'd seen Florence on film.
Minutes later, he got a call back.
Baylor offered Florence his first major scholarship offer, and Florence made it his only one.
"Nick just felt like this was where God wanted him to be, and that’s Nick," Moss said. "He does so much based on faith."
The problem? The coach who called back with that offer was Guy Morriss, who was fired after the 2007 season. Enter Art Briles and a kid from Copperas Cove whom nobody thought could play quarterback.
Briles, then at Houston, brought Cougars commit Robert Griffin III to Baylor with him, the two having faith of their own that they could win in Waco, which hadn't seen a winning football season since 1995.
Briles had his man, but honored Morriss' offer to Florence, whose playing time looked like it would be sparse.
"If God wanted you to be here and that’s what you believe, he doesn’t change his mind," Moss says he remembers telling Florence. "Knowing Robert Griffin was going to be the quarterback didn’t faze him."
Along the way, Florence kept working. He earned the respect of teammates. In the meantime, he got his business degree, worked closely with his church and married his wife, Rachel, last May. The two plan to enter the ministry whenever Florence's football career is over.
"His pastor told me, in all the locker rooms he’s been in, he’s never let his eyes view another naked woman in his life in print on TV or anywhere else until his wedding day. That says a lot about who he is, but also how others respect him," Moss said. "He doesn’t throw his faith in your face. Not at all. He has a genuine care, concern and love for people, and he’s always looking to make a difference. ... He’s going to compete, but the biggest thing I always believed he was going to do was make an impact in the locker room with his character and integrity."
Florence had been on campus a couple of years but RG3 was proving his mettle as the man at Baylor. Briles met with Moss and gushed about his backup.
"That kid is a winner," Moss recalls Briles saying.
He's done it since he was a freshman in high school, and now that the starting job at Baylor is nearly Florence's officially, he doesn't plan on that changing.
"You watch him play and it’s like, what’s special about him?" Moss said. "He wins. He leads. He makes plays. His throwing motion wasn’t the greatest. His speed wasn’t the greatest. His strength wasn’t the greatest. But the kid won, and then he influenced everyone around him."
When Griffin's knee injury meant Florence had to step in as a wide-eyed freshman, it also meant winning wasn't going to happen. It didn't. Baylor fell to 4-8 and won just one conference game, at Missouri when Florence set the school record for passing yards.
"He’s a different guy, just like I am since 2009 and like everybody. As you grow you mature, you learn to get better in everything you see act or do," Briles said. "He’s a guy that was thrown into a fire as a true freshman. Now, he’s had a chance to sit back and learn the system, understand what his strengths are, how to use them and what he needs to do to help this team grow."
Said Florence: "I'm not that 180-pound freshman anymore."
Baylor got a preview of its 205-pound senior in November when a concussion sidelined Griffin at Cowboys Stadium, near Florence's hometown.
Florence hopped off the bench just before halftime and completed 9 of 12 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns to help Baylor keep its winning streak alive with a 66-42 victory over Texas Tech. That streak reached six games by season's end, the longest current string among AQ schools in college football.
Florence logged a memorable moment, but he also logged enough playing time to burn his redshirt and leave him with just one year of eligibility remaining entering 2012.
"He’s a guy who’ll do whatever and whatever happens in life, he’ll deal with it. If that means he has one year left to play, that means that’s what God’s will is. He’s obedient," Moss said. "If the team needed him to come in there and help win that game and burn his redshirt and then not play again the rest of the year, that’s OK with him."
Baylor needed Florence to come in and win that game. He did it. Now it's time to take over the full-time job of being the man who follows the man who did the unthinkable: winning a Heisman Trophy at Baylor.
"We don’t talk in terms of replacing. It’s just, what do we need to do now to do what we need to do at the end of July?" Briles said. "That’s the most important thing. We may not be able to do some of the same things we were able to do prior, so we’ve got to figure out different ways to do things and still have success."
Florence is no hurdler. He can't run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and doesn't have an arm that will have NFL scouts drooling. For the time being, though, he does have the keys to Baylor's offense.
"It’s a great opportunity not everybody gets. I want to make the most of it and take advantage," Florence said.
That offense is going to look a little different now. Briles says time will show just how different it'll be.
"That’s the exciting part about it," Briles said. "We’ve got to expand and become better in all other areas scheme-wise, coaching-wise, player/individual technique-wise, and so that to me is the very exciting part, because we have to become a better football team."
Florence wants his chance to show he's the man to make Baylor a better team. Florence has proved his intangibles since high school, and as he's gotten older, they've only become more ingrained. Now is his chance to show them off to everyone outside of Baylor's practice field.
"When guys come in the huddle they have great confidence and respect in him. They know who he is. They know there’s not a selfish bone in his body, but at the same time, they know he’s a heck of a competitor," Moss said. "I’ve never been around a kid like Nick Florence, and I imagine I never will again."
WACO, Texas -- Nick Florence didn't have to come to Baylor. He didn't have to stay.If football has been his only reason for coming to Waco, it'd be easy to see why he might've gone elsewhere.