Mike Reilly, The Undersold Overachiever
Just as having your ticket stamped by a big school isn't a lead-pipe lock when it comes to NFL success, a small-college designation needn't doom a player to backup or washout status. This is true even when it comes to quarterback -- the most important position in the game. In the last decade, quarterbacks like Delaware's Joe Flacco, Miami of Ohio's Ben Roethlisberger, Marshall's Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich (along with Big Ben, the Holy Trinity of MAC quarterbacks), East Carolina's David Garrard, Alabama State's Tarvaris Jackson, Sam Houston State's Josh McCown, and Eastern Illinois' Tony Romo have all found varying degrees of success in the NFL. In Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger faced off against Kurt Warner, an undrafted one-time NFL flop from Northern Iowa, proving that two small-school quarterbacks can compete at the highest levels, and at a Hall of Fame clip.
One quarterback in the 2009 draft class who is trying to keep his name above the fold, even if his school doesn't ring a bell, is Central Washington's Mike Reilly. The 6-3, 214-pound Reilly started his college career in the Pac-10, but found over time that his ability to shine would have to come in a different arena.
"When I went to Washington State, it was tough because I had moved halfway through my junior year in high school to Montana from Washington," Reilly told me in a recent interview. "I only had one year in Montana to try and take over a starting job, so I only had about six or seven games of tape to send out for recruiting. There really wasn't a lot of interest from the Division I schools, and after I went through the process, I found out from a lot of coaches that it was the reason why -- I didn't have a lot of tape. The one school that did have a lot of interest was Washington State -- quarterbacks coach (Timm) Rosenbach was interested in me, and it was my goal to play in Division I. To see what it was all about and if I belonged.
"I was there for a year and a half, and things were really going well (at first). I was a walk-on, so I got to participate in all the summer drills, but I didn't have a scholarship. While I was redshirting in my freshman year, I had some opportunities to make it on the travel squad -- I got to suit up for the Apple Cup and the Holiday Bowl. I was predominantly the scout team quarterback for my first year, and I learned a lot, playing against a lot of good defensive guys like Jason David and Erik Coleman who are now in the NFL.
"Going into that offseason, it was me, Alex Brink, and Josh Swogger as the three quarterbacks. I was told that I was one of the guys who would be looked at, and I had a really good spring -- I wound up with the top spring stats in the scrimmages. That was pretty good, because I was on the second-team offense, facing the first-team defense. I got a summer scholarship, but in the fall, they told me, 'We don't have time to fairly evaluate three guys.' They told me I'd get a fair shot the next year, but I realized at that point that it was going to be a tough climb. I really wanted to get out there on the field and play for three or four years. The quarterback position is kind of tough -- if you're not the number-one guy, they don't really sub that position out.
"At that point, I wanted to find a place where I could earn a scholarship, get my school paid for, and get on the field. I was talking to a lot of I-AA Big Sky schools -- Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana. But I found out that I would have three years of eligibility at I-AA, and four years at Division II. Within that, Central Washington just fit what I was looking for offensively, I got along with the coaching staff, and that's really why I made that choice."
The choice was wise from a statistical standpoint -- in four years with the Wildcats, Reilly set school records -- most of which were previously held by 12-year NFL quarterback Jon Kitna -- for completions (995), pass attempts (1,553), passing yards (12,448), passing touchdowns (118), completion percentage (64.1), quarterback rating (151.32), rushing yards by a quarterback (1,263), and total offensive yards (13,711). He also set the NCAA all-divisions record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, having thrown one in all 46 games played. I asked Reilly about the offense he ran at Central, not realizing that the answer was plural.
"It really was different all four years I was there," he said. "I played for three head coaches, three offensive coordinators, and three quarterback coaches while I was there. We kept winning, and our coaches kept getting offers to coach bigger schools. My first three years were pretty similar in that I was under center about 80 percent of the time. I didn't really ever get into shotgun until my junior year, but I was pretty much under center the whole time. It was more traditional -- one tight end, two running backs or vice versa -- but we never got too much into the spread offense. Even in those heavier sets, we still threw the ball quite a bit. We would throw the ball 30 to 35 times a game -- a little pass-happy, but nothing like you see from Texas Tech or Hawaii, where they're throwing the ball 60 times a game.
"In my senior year, we switched to about 80 percent shotgun under a new coach. So, I have exposure to both styles, which I think is a big asset. There are a lot of guys who really don't know how to take a snap under center. Especially in my junior year, my coach harped on that -- 'Hey, if you want to play in the NFL, you need to know about taking snaps under center.' Getting into different drops -- we worked a ton on that. It's been a big benefit to me."
This marked a change in thinking from some teams that will deal with the small-school issue by turning to the spread offense shortcut, and Reilly was able to develop crucial pro-style mechanics. Still, he's projected as a mid-second-day pick by most analysts, and the strength of his competition is a key factor -- no matter what numbers Reilly ran up, the perception tends to be that he padded those numbers against inferior teams. But Reilly has heard it all, and he has an answer for that particular argument.
"I've heard that a lot, and I understand -- that's a legitimate argument. But there are a few different things. First of all, the level of play in Division II in the last five to ten years has gone up tremendously. There is a difference between Division I and Division II, I'm not going to pretend that it's not, but I think that gap is getting smaller. You see plenty of guys coming from smaller schools and making it in the NFL. Guys like Jon Kitna, who went to my school and played in the NFL for 12 years and are continuing to play.
"Also, I have confidence in my teammates and the level I came from, but I also think that it's relative. Maybe I'm playing against a defensive back who's a little bit slower than the Division I defensive back might be, but my wide receiver might be slower than he would be at Division I as well. So the window is still the same size -- I still have to be just as precise with my throws. You can complain about the level of competition you're playing against, but if you're going to do that, you also have to look at the level of play on your own team. If you have skill sets that transfer well to the NFL, I don't think level of competition should be that big a deal."
Greg Cosell of NFL Films and State Farm NFL Matchup, who watches as much game film as any non-coach in the country, agrees with Reilly's self-assessment. When asked about the top quarterbacks in this draft class during a recent SIRIUS NFL Radio spot with hosts Adam Caplan and Howard Balzer, Cosell surprised many with his take on the unheralded quarterback. Georgia's Matt Stafford, USC's Mark Sanchez, and Kansas State's Josh Freeman are generally ranked as the top three signal-callers in this draft class, but Cosell thinks that Reilly isn't far behind.
"I think that as a pro prospect, he's the fourth-best quarterback in this draft, after Freeman, who has a ton of skills but is very raw and unrefined. But after that, Mike Reilly -- and I've watched him on film, and I've seen his only game against a Division I opponent in Montana, in addition to some other games -- I think he shows NFL attributes. I love when I read stuff that says, 'Well, the guy has an average arm.' When you watch him on film, he doesn't have an average arm. He actually has a pretty good arm. And he does the things ... I understand that it's not against top competition, but that's not the point, He's also not playing with great competition. He's playing with the same (level of) guys he's playing against. So, you look for NFL attributes, and he's got them.
"We all know he's not going to be drafted in the first two rounds, but there's a quarterback from two years ago that I really liked, named Matt Moore, who came out of Oregon State, who's now with Carolina, and I can tell you that (Panthers head coach) John Fox thinks he's going to be a starting quarterback in this league."
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune, who wrote the pool report on Reilly's Combine performance in February, had this to say about what he saw. "I was pleasantly surprised with Reilly's performance in Indianapolis. Even though he comes from a small school, he showed poise and performed like he belonged on the same stage with the likes of Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez. He doesn't have a big arm, but he showed good accuracy during the throwing drills and also seemed to move well outside the pocket. He could be a nice pick-up for a team looking for an arm for training camp in the second day of the draft."
Reilly has the confidence to make it in the league, and he seems to have the the tools to match. "It comes from a few different things," he said, when asked about the drive that pushes him forward. "I've always had the mindset that if you work hard enough, you'll make it happen. Physically, I think I've shown that I can play, but it comes down to your toughness and your mentality -- how hard are you going to work? The other thing I've always believed is that everything happens for a reason.
"Football-wise, I feel like I haven't had the easiest road, and trying to make to the NFL from a small school -- it's tough to get people to look past that -- but I feel that it's all happened for a reason. And if I'm meant to play football at the next level, it's going to happen. It's not going to happen because I stay up late worrying about whether I'm good enough to make it. It's going to happen by me putting in God's hands and playing to the best of my ability."
The most important stop will be his ability to meet the schematic needs of a team over the long term. The right fit is key for any quarterback in the NFL, and Reilly's style -- he compares himself to Kurt Warner in his ability to get the ball out quickly and Ben Roethlisberger in his resourcefulness when making something out of broken plays -- might just allow him to write the next small-school success story.
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Posted by: lbarbato | May 6, 2009 8:45 PM
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