New Baylor quarterback took a long road from high school stardom to starting at BU.
When Nick Florence committed to play football at Baylor as a high school junior in the spring of 2007, he probably expected to be the starting quarterback in 2012 -- just as he is this fall.
What he never could have predicted, however, is the path that brought him to this point. In between starting as a high school senior and as a college senior, Florence spent a month at the Olympics, sat out from football for a semester, started as a true freshman, and backed up a Heisman winner. But let's start at the beginning.
Florence, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as a senior at South Garland High School outside Dallas, was one of the first commitments in Baylor's 2008 recruiting class and the only quarterback head coach Guy Morriss signed that year.
But that class turned out to be the last for Morriss at Baylor, as he was replaced by Houston's Art Briles at the end of the 2007 season. With Briles came another quarterback commitment -- a 17-year-old from Copperas Cove, Texas, named Robert Griffin III.
"It kind of stunk, but I figured, 'Okay, I have to compete with this guy,'" says Florence. "I also thought he might play receiver, and I was thinking, 'Hey, I could throw the ball to him.'"
It quickly became apparent, however, that Briles planned to keep Griffin at quarterback, and so the coaches asked Florence to "grayshirt" -- to sit out the fall and join the team in spring so he could keep an extra year of eligibility.
"As a high schooler, that's probably the last thing you want to hear, because all you want to do is get on campus and start playing," Florence says. "You want to come in and play straightaway."
Instead of training all summer to get ready for fall practices, Florence suddenly had some free time -- and he took advantage of it to travel to the Beijing Olympics for nearly a month with Lay Witnesses for Christ. There, the group shared the Gospel with Olympic athletes and fans, culminating in a large outreach event one evening.
"What was cool is the Chinese government let us in knowing we were going to do this," he says. "It was a sweet experience; God's hand was in it all. Even now, watching the London Olympics brought back so many memories. I couldn't have done that if I was playing football."
Florence finally joined the Baylor team in January 2009 and went through spring workouts with plans to redshirt as a freshman that fall to gain yet another year of eligibility.
"You had Griff at quarterback, and then you had Blake Szymanski who was a senior [backing up Griffin]," Florence explains. "At that point, I just wanted to make the travel squad so I could travel to the games. The last thing I was thinking about was playing that year."
That all changed on Sept. 26, 2009, when Griffin tore his ACL in the second quarter against Northwestern State.
"Brody Trahan, who was the other [freshman] quarterback with me at the time, and I looked at each other and said, 'Well, if something happens to Blake, one of us is in ... Let's not think about that.'" Florence says neither he nor Trahan even knew which of them was next on the depth chart.
The unthinkable happened when Szymanski took a hit to his throwing shoulder on the Bears' second possession of the second half; the blow would eventually sideline him for much of the rest of the season. Suddenly, Florence was in the game.
"Coach Briles looked at me and asked, 'Do you know the plays?' I said, 'Yeah, I think I know the plays.' And that was the least of my worries."
Florence finished out the game, then went on to start seven of the Bears' last nine contests, finishing seventh in the Big 12 in passing yards per game and even setting a Baylor single-game passing record when he threw for 427 yards against Missouri in November.
"When you're thrown into the fire, you have to play fast," he says. "I learned so much that fall; I think I grew more as a quarterback that fall than probably any time in my life. It was an invaluable experience."
But by spring, Griffin was back at practice, and Florence was back to a back-up role.
"That was tough, because that whole offseason, I wanted to get a chance to compete for the job, and it didn't happen. By fall, I was frustrated as a player. I was critical; Griff would make a mistake, and I'd think, 'You gotta be kidding me.' I was selfish; all I was thinking about was me. I wasn't thinking about the team or trying to be a good backup. I tried to put on a good smile and act like everything was alright, but the reality was I wanted a chance to play.
"It was a rough season. We went to a bowl game, but I didn't have a ton of fun, and I think a lot of it was because I was focused on myself. I wanted to be the guy; I wanted the attention."
During the summer of 2011, as Florence's junior year approached and it was clear he would again be second on the depth chart to Griffin, he realized something needed to change.
"I figured, 'I can approach this with the same attitude, or I can change my attitude, learn from last fall and embrace my role.' Luckily, that's what I did. I had a lot of fun last year, and I only played one half of football."
Bear fans remember those two quarters. On Thanksgiving weekend at Cowboys Stadium, Griffin took a shot to the head late in the second quarter that left him woozy with an apparent concussion. Enter Florence, who to that point had not seen the field all season and was planning to redshirt to regain that year of eligibility he lost when pressed into action as a freshman.
"I told Coach, 'I'll do whatever you need me to do.' At that point, after the journey I'd been on, I realized that I could make my own plans, but ultimately the Lord is going to do what He wants to do."
Florence entered the game with the Bears clinging to a 31-28 lead. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 151 yards, accounting for three touchdowns, and Baylor fended off the Red Raiders 66-42 to pave the way for the second 10-win season in Bears history.
"I looked at the guys in the huddle before we walked out there, and I said, 'If you believe in me, we can get this done.' I'd played with a lot of those guys two years earlier. I don't think anyone had a doubt that we would still win that game. That's a tribute to them and to our team being a team."
Griffin was cleared for action before the Bears' next game, and Florence didn't see action again the rest of the season. Griffin won the final two games and the Heisman as Florence just did what he could to help.
"We would talk about things [when Griffin came off the field at the end of each series]," Florence says. "He'd ask what the safeties were doing, that kind of thing. I was just trying to be there for him as much as I could, because, hey, we've both got Baylor on our jerseys."
At long last, Florence is the starter -- the role he's waited for since those seven games as a freshman. He's older, having just turned 23, and wiser, having married his college sweetheart, Rachel, BA '10, in May 2011. He's already completed his degree in economics and is now working towards his MBA, with an expected graduation date of December 2013.
But even his new role as starter comes with a caveat -- he's also "the guy who replaced RG3." Still, he says his thoughts are simple.
"For me, I get to play college football. That's what I'm excited about. It just happens that I follow the Heisman Trophy winner. I've just got to go out, stay true to who I am and play like I know how to play.
"All you can ask for is a chance to play, and I get a chance to play. I'll probably be critiqued more than anyone in the nation, but I get a chance to play college football, which is fun, and not many people get to do that. I just want to go out and have fun. Let's have fun together this fall; if fans fill those stands, we're gonna have a blast."