The making of Bryce Petty's moment
WACO, Texas -- He waited 1,786 days to become the starting quarterback at Baylor.
Four years, 10 months and three weeks had passed since Bryce Petty made his final start at Midlothian (Texas) High School.
Enough time for a kid to grow into a man, from the three-star recruit Lane Kiffin coldly dumped to the quarterback leading undefeated, No. 6 Baylor into its biggest game in school history amid growing Heisman Trophy hype.
Enough time to become the No. 1 quarterback in the country in QBR, passer efficiency and yards per attempt. He's the triggerman of a Baylor offense that's poised to shatter single-season scoring and offense records and, potentially, fight its way into the thick of the national title discussion.
DEVIN SMITH ON THROWS OF 20+ YDS
Devin Smith has been a big-play specialist for OSU no matter the QB. In fact, Cardale Jones is 5-of-6 with 4 TD targeting him on 20+ yard throws. Here are Smith's 2014 totals on such passes:
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In between, there was more than enough time to question when it would finally be his turn. Petty wondered if his patience would ever pay off. His dedication is being rewarded now in ways he never could've imagined.
"When I came here, I wanted to see it through to the end," Petty said. "Whatever happens happens. I'm a firm believer in the fact that everything happens for a reason. After all that waiting, to see how everything has unfolded now has made it that much more worthwhile.
"That's what makes winning so much sweeter, when you know where you came from."
If it seems like Petty has come out of nowhere to become a star in 2013, that's because he's been lurking on the practice field and the sideline for years. He's spent a long, long time thinking about games like the one Thursday night, when Baylor puts everything on the line against No. 10 Oklahoma.
"You've got a guy that, right now, is playing as well as anybody in America at the QB position," Baylor coach Art Briles said.
And Petty knows he wouldn't be one of the nation's top passers today, wouldn't be the operator of the best offense in college football, if he hadn't had to earn this chance.
Baylor was never where Petty intended to end up. He is an SEC boy, born and bred.
Born in Georgia. Grew up in Alabama and Arkansas. Two cousins currently play for LSU. Another cousin, Gant Petty, was the long-snapper for the Tigers' 2003 title team. When he was younger, Bryce could recite every name on that LSU roster.
Playing in the SEC was the dream, and for nearly six months it was Petty's plan.
He moved to Midlothian before his sophomore year and beat out a senior for the starting job. He didn't win much, he put up average stats and he didn't wow scouts. ESPN ranked him as the No. 54 quarterback in the 2009 class. He was a good prospect, but not a great one.
But he found a coaching staff that believed in him at Tennessee. After camping in Knoxville the summer after his junior year, Petty received an offer and committed to the Vols on June 18, 2008. Longtime coach Philip Fulmer, who a year earlier had signed an extension through 2012, won Petty over.
"I thought I was sitting pretty," Petty said of his recruitment.
He stopped taking phone calls from other schools. He was going to be a Vol -- no doubt about it -- even after Tennessee landed another QB pledge from a kid named Tajh Boyd that November.
Three days after Boyd committed, Fulmer announced his resignation. Petty's parents both remember Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton calling to assure them Petty's scholarship offer would be honored. But the truth was, everything had changed.
Lane Kiffin was hired on Dec. 1. Two days later, Boyd decommitted after being told he didn't fit Kiffin's plans. He signed with Clemson. Petty, his parents and Midlothian coach Robby Clark were nervous about what might come next.
Ten days passed. Kiffin never called, never introduced himself. He never reached out. The silence was deafening.
"Shoot, I would've loved a call from him," Petty said. "Normally, a guy you want to call first as a new head coach is your quarterback."
Petty's recruiter, then-tight ends coach Jason Michael, was retained by Kiffin and did make multiple trips to Midlothian. He didn't exactly know what to tell the family or the coach.
"I talked to the guy," Bryce's father, Todd Petty, recalled, "and he said, 'Man, Kiffin watched the tape and he just kind of shrugged his shoulders and didn't really know what to think.'"
Petty's parents say Petty dreamed of being the Vols' next Peyton Manning. That dream now dashed, he reopened his recruitment on Dec. 10, just eight weeks before signing day.
"It was just kind of ... flaky," Petty said. "For everything I committed to Fulmer for, everything [Kiffin] did was the exact opposite. He wanted his little California quarterback, his Matt Barkley."
Philip Montgomery just wanted a quarterback. Baylor's offensive coordinator re-entered the picture and eventually convinced Petty to visit Waco. Petty fell for Briles, a players' coach who reminded him of Fulmer. He gave his pledge one day before signing day.
There was just one problem: Baylor didn't have a scholarship to give. Petty would need to agree to grayshirt in the fall of 2009 if he wanted to join the class.
"I had no idea what that was," Petty said.
He was about to find out. The long wait to become Baylor's quarterback was only just beginning.
By taking the grayshirt, Petty agreed to defer his enrollment until January in order to count toward Baylor's 2010 class. That agreement sent Petty to a place he had no interest in attending: the Midlothian Campus of Navarro College.
While his friends went off to college, Petty had to settle for staying in town and taking English, math and biology classes as a part-time student at a two-year college with an enrollment of 950.
"That was absolutely miserable," he said. "I was counting down the days."
He visited Waco once a week to watch Tuesday practices. He sat with the visiting recruits at home games. Briles doesn't use a playbook, so Petty couldn't study during his six months in purgatory.
"It's a pause button on your football career," said Clark, now the co-offensive coordinator at Austin (Texas) Westlake. "It's not what you think about in terms of the college experience."
Clark asked him to attend his practices and help the Midlothian quarterbacks. Petty would work out at the high school and throw at the practice field. He'd bide his time working with his mother, Dena, who runs a mentoring program for Midlothian Independent School District. He mowed lawns and got more active in church.
All of that helped. Petty needed obligations. They distracted him from missing football, from not being at Baylor, where he belonged.
"Honestly, he handled it so well," Dena said. "He's just a good kid. He could've pouted and acted out badly, but not at all."
By the time he got to Waco for the spring semester of 2010, he realized how far he'd fallen behind. The speed of the college game -- and especially of Briles' game -- was a blur.
"I was just so glad to be here," Petty said. "I was like, I don't care. You can throw two shirts on me. It was great to be involved, finally. I'd really felt almost like an alien."
Baylor had its franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin III, and Petty knew his place. He was the scout-team guy. He redshirted in 2010 and tried to be a sponge, soaking up the collective knowledge of Briles, Montgomery, Griffin and backup Nick Florence.
For much of that first year, he didn't really know what he was doing. He endured a fast-and-furious education in high-tempo spread offense. His head was spinning. He had too much catching up to do, but at least there wasn't much pressure.
"The thing I love about Coach Briles is that he's honest," Petty said. "He said, 'I'm not really looking for a quarterback until 2012.'"
Briles needed a quarterback for the second half against Texas Tech in 2011.
Griffin had suffered a concussion in the game. He was done for the night. Baylor led 31-28 at halftime.
Time for Petty's big break, right?
Briles went with Florence, burning the redshirt he'd taken to buy another year in Waco. It was the right move. Baylor won 66-42. Petty knew that's all that mattered, but the competitor in him was hurt.
"At the end of the game, I wouldn't have told you it was a blessing in disguise," Petty said. "I was pissed after that game. Because I'm the backup. Don't pull his redshirt for that. But then again, I wouldn't be sitting here talking you. You'd be talking to Nick right now."
When Griffin went pro, the competition began. Before spring ball began, Petty spent time working with quarterback guru George Whitfield in California. He'd invested two years into learning the Baylor offense. Everything was coming together.
"I think it was almost like I woke up one morning and was like, 'You can do this,'" Petty said. "That's kind of when my confidence started to creep in a little bit."
When he got back to Waco and spring practices began, he was ready to challenge Florence. He practiced as if the decision to make Florence the successor hadn't already been made. But he knew, when it comes to Briles, experience is everything.
Petty got his first game reps in the opener against SMU. Doesn't remember a thing about his fourth-quarter drive -- the calls, the throws, nothing. Just that he threw a dime on a post route for his first touchdown.
But 2012 wasn't going to be Petty's year. Florence was a senior. Like Petty, he had stuck around and waited his turn.
Naturally, doubt started creeping in. Year 3 on the bench was the toughest, because this time Petty knew he could run the offense. He knew he was ready.
"I think his thing was that he just wanted to know that his coaches believed in him," Dena said. "That was a big, big deal for him. He wasn't sure that they were sure about him."
Petty didn't let his teammates see his frustration, but he admitted there were lots of venting sessions last fall with his mother and with Baylor strength coach Kaz Kazadi.
"He's been hungry a long time," Dena said. "It has definitely been a hard wait and a lot of conversations late at night."
His mother's message never changed: "There's a lot of wisdom in waiting." She urged him to be patient. Keep learning, keep helping, keep growing. Everything would work out on God's time.
Most quarterbacks in his position would've left, and perhaps a lot sooner. Nine of the top 25 passers in his 2009 class transferred. That's become commonplace in college football today: If your coach doesn't name you the starter, find one who will.
"I can honestly tell you that thought never crossed my mind," Petty said.
Added his father: "He never, never, ever at any point in time said it may not be in the cards for me here. He never said that, never thought that. It was never an option. It was going to be his time, and that's just the way it was."
When Petty walked out of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego last December after Baylor's 49-26 Holiday Bowl victory over UCLA, it finally hit him. It's time.
"I came out of there going, 'This is mine.' And, man, this could not come fast enough," Petty said. "I knew at that point it was mine and it was time to go."
This is Bryce Petty's moment, the one he dreamed of for four long, trying years.
Everything he's achieved in the past 10 months has been the product of patient learning. In his years as the grayshirt, the redshirt, the third-stringer and the backup, he sat back and watched 51 Baylor games.
"I wasn't surprised at all by his success," Florence said. "Sitting on the bench and being a backup really drives an individual if you handle the situation right. He's doing an outstanding job."
He finally gets to sit to the left of Briles in the meeting room, finally gets to run the huddle and make the decisions. What has surprised him most about the gig, after coveting it for so long, is how much fun he's having.
The guys he threw with in practice all these years have never seen him happier, and they're convinced this is Baylor's best offense yet under Briles.
"You just look at Bryce's numbers. Go watch the film and see how he plays," receiver Tevin Reese said. "There's no doubt he compares to the same people that are in the Heisman race right now. There might not be anybody better."
If he shines against Oklahoma in front of a national audience and gets Baylor to 8-0, there's no telling what could come next.
"I think it's going to be a great platform for him," Todd Petty said. "This could be the game that separates him from where he's been to where he's going. I think this will catapult him and show off what he can do to lead his team and be the best he can be."
"It's four years of getting ready for a test," Todd said. "And now the test is here."
As for the Heisman and the NFL draft chatter, Petty doesn't want to hear it.
That was never his goal entering 2013. All he ever wanted to be was the starter.
"I'm just trying to keep my head above water," he said. "That's not me trying to be political, that's just the truth. New York and all that is just so far away. I didn't write out my goals this spring and say I want a Heisman.
"I wrote Big 12 championship. And that is circled, dotted, exclamation point. That is the ultimate goal."
In the 1,786 days since Petty's high school career ended, Tennessee has had four head coaches. Kiffin got his chance to coach Barkley and that didn't pay off. Baylor has been on the rise ever since.
The one constant has been Petty, preparing and hoping for a night like Thursday night. He knows this is his big chance, but he's trying to see it as just the next step toward where he wants to be. How does going from Navarro to New York sound?
"That sounds glorious," Petty said. "That would be like dessert compared to salad, man. That would be a story, for sure."
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