For four seasons on the Baylor coaching staff, Dino Babers watched quarterback Robert Griffin III develop into a passer worthy of winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy.
For the last two years, the Eastern Illinois coach benefited from Jimmy Garoppolo blossoming into the state's best NFL-caliber quarterback not named Cutler.
"I've been around RGIII but Jimmy has the fastest release I've ever seen,'' Babers said.
The pride of Rolling Meadows will bring his rare talent home to the Chicago area Saturday when Garoppolo leads Eastern (3-0), ranked eighth in the latest Football Championship Subdivision poll, against Northern Illinois at Huskie Stadium. Fans will see a 6-foot-3, 222-pound quarterback with textbook mechanics and record-book statistics, a legitimate NFL prospect coming off two straight FCS national player of the week awards.
In three games, Garoppolo has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,281 yards and 14 touchdowns with only one interception. The four-year starter recently passed Sean Payton to become Eastern's all-time leader in completions and, after seven touchdown passes against Illinois State, stands within six of Tony Romo's career record of 85.
"It's an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as those guys,'' Garoppolo said.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer didn't mention names when he called Garoppolo "one of the best quarterbacks I've ever seen'' after noticing No. 10 on film preparing for San Diego State, Eastern's season-opening opponent. But consider the quarterbacks Meyer coached at Utah, Florida and Ohio State: Alex Smith, the NFL's No. 1 overall pick in 2005; 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow; and 2013 Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller.
"When my teammates first told me what he said I didn't believe them so they had to pull up the Twitter account and show me,'' Garoppolo said. "It meant a lot because he obviously knows what good quarterbacks are like and what it takes.''
The long process of becoming one began for Garoppolo one summer day during a 7-on-7 drill before his junior year at Rolling Meadows. A running back growing up who didn't play football until sixth grade because of his mother's concerns, Garoppolo changed positions after meeting former NFL quarterback Jeff Christensen, who runs Throw It Deep quarterback and wide receiver training academy in Lombard. The two meticulously rebuilt Garoppolo's delivery by focusing on his shoulder and fingers more than his arm.
"I used to throw it like a baseball player,'' Garoppolo said. "He also fixed my feet.''
Quietly, Garoppolo progressed step by step into an accurate passer — but too quietly. No FBS schools offered scholarships. When Christensen learned longtime Eastern assistant Roy Wittke was recruiting another quarterback in the area, he challenged him.
"I said, 'Do me one favor. Watch the first half of your game then drive to the Rolling Meadows game 30 minutes away and watch Jimmy Garoppolo. And if you think your kid can carry Jimmy's jock, let me know,' '' Christensen recalled. "He came. And there was no comparison.''
Four years after turning down Illinois State and Montana State for Eastern and now-retired coach Bob Spoo, Garoppolo entered his senior season as the seventh-highest-rated NFL quarterback prospect among seniors, according to NFL.com's Gil Brandt. All 32 NFL teams have found the way to Charleston, Ill. Babers says they marvel at Garoppolo's precision, which Christensen recalled reached epic proportions by the end of July.
"I'd say, 'OK, throw this 16-yard dig route and put it an inch above his eyebrows and he would do it seven times in a row,'' Christensen said. "I told him, 'Jimmy, you're an NFL starting quarterback, son. Get that in your mind right now. So when this national media thing happens, you're not shocked. Mentally prepare yourself. Stay the great kid you are. Expect nothing, appreciate everything.' ''
Growing up with three brothers kept Garoppolo grounded enough to handle the hype suddenly surrounding the quarterback who never envisioned any when taking over an 0-4 team as a true freshman. The Walter Payton Award given the top FCS player looks within Garoppolo's grasp. Christensen compares his footwork to Aaron Rodgers' and his poise to Tom Brady's. He is the Jimmy Football of the mid-majors, minus the bravado.
"I don't have problems like Johnny Manziel — there are a lot less students here than Texas A&M,'' Garoppolo said, chuckling. "There was no bragging in my house. Acting that way wasn't right. Nobody wants to be around anybody who's arrogant.''
In the coming months as his football celebrity expands, the number of people who want to be around Garoppolo will increase significantly. His life will change. Those closest to him insist he won't.
"You can tell he wasn't raised in a roller-coaster family,'' Babers said. "If you look up humility in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Jimmy Garoppolo.''
Hard to imagine an image representing a college football program any better.